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The number of Bartholomew County accidents involving motorcycles and the resulting injuries from these accidents are both down about 25 percent through the first nine months of this year.
But before people jump to the conclusion that these statistics represent a breakthrough in safety, a leading motorcycle safety group spokesman and local police are certain there’s another reason for the drop.
“The truth is, the real factor has been the weather,” said Jay Jackson, executive director of American Bikers Aimed Toward Education, known as ABATE.
“I believe biker education is better,” Jackson said. “I would like to believe motorists are being more courteous and observant.”
While those factors would help, the difference is that 2012 began with an exceptionally mild winter followed by a drought that brought plenty of hot and dry days. That meant more days for motorcycle riding, adding “an increased exposure to danger,” Jackson said.
This year, south-central Indiana has experienced more normal weather patterns, which has meant fewer ideal days for riding motorcycles, Jackson said.
Columbus Police Lt. Joe Richardson agreed with Jackson’s conclusion.
“The more hours available to the typical rider, the more likely he or she will have a collision,” Richardson said.
Jeffery Britton of Hope, a motorcycle safety instructor, understands the risks. The 47-year-old ended up as one of two bikers struck by a vehicle Sept. 25 south of Hope.
Britton, recuperating at home after suffering head trauma and shattered bones in his left wrist and arm, says motorcycle riding is only one of several risks that people choose to engage in every day.
“People who skydive or climb mountains are also taking risks,” Britton said. “Ten years ago I was taking a risk when I went deer hunting and was accidentally shot by another hunter with a 12-gauge shotgun.”
But Britton feels motorcyclists are now at greater risk on the road due to an increasing number of gadgets that distract car and truck drivers from being fully aware of their surroundings.
“Technology changes every six months, and everybody is playing with their new toys,” Britton said. “How many motorcyclists do you see while you are driving down the road talking on the phone or texting?”
Despite Britton’s concerns, the number of motorcycle-related injuries and fatalities in Indiana has remained fairly consistent over the past 20 years, Jackson said.
From March through August of this year, Indiana was on pace to claim a 50 percent reduction in motorcycle-related fatalities compared with 2012, Jackson said.
“But starting in mid-August, we had a lot of situations pop up that resulted in several more deaths,” Jackson said.
The sudden rise in serious motorcycle accidents in Indiana coincided with a hot, dry spell that began the third week of August.
Most were avoidable, he said, such as “drivers being oblivious to their surroundings.”
Britton believes it would make a difference if all Indiana drivers were required to take a motorcycle driving course.
“When I first took that course, it made me a much better driver in an automobile,” Britton said. “It made me more aware of what was going on around me.”
Beside the weather, Richardson and Jackson agree that traffic congestion contributes to an increase in motorcycle accidents.
Richardson said the most motorcycle-related accidents in the region occur along State Road 46 between Columbus and Brown County, a scenic route heavily used by motorcycle riders. Most accidents in Columbus, however, take place along busy thoroughfares such as National Road and along certain stretches of 25th Street, Richardson said.
Local police say there are differences between in-town crashes and accidents that take place out in the country.
Most rural accidents are determined to be the fault of the motorcyclist, said Chief Deputy Maj. Todd Noblitt of the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department. Common causes for single-vehicle accidents include bikers traveling too fast on a curve, too fast to avoid striking an animal or too fast to avoid rear-ending a vehicle they are following too closely, Noblitt said. Another significant cause of single-vehicle motorcycle accidents involve bikers losing traction in spilled sand or dirt.
In contrast, vehicle motorists are usually at fault when motorcyclists are involved an accident that occurs in the city, Richardson said.
The only areas of Indiana where there are consistently high numbers of motorcycle accidents are in large cities such as Indianapolis, Evansville, South Bend and Fort Wayne, Jackson said.
But Richardson, Noblitt and Jackson all agree that no matter who’s at fault, the motorcyclist or motorcycle passenger will suffer the worst consequences.
“They can only be so proactive. Because at the end of the day, the motorcyclist will always be at the mercy of another driver,” Richardson said.
“The one constant I’ve seen throughout my career is that if a motorcycle is involved in an accident, there’s going to be an injury,” Noblitt said.
While automakers can say today’s vehicles are safer than earlier models, Jackson said no motorcycle manufacturer can make that same claim.
Motorcycles are harder to see in traffic than cars or trucks, Jackson said. And even when they are seen, other motorists often believe the motorcycles in front of or behind them are farther away than they actually are.
Then there’s the issue of motorcycle helmets, which are not required for drivers or passengers over the age of 18 in Indiana.
“If you don’t wear a helmet, you’re just increasing the risk that something tragic will happen to you,” Richardson said.
While Britton said he may wear his helmet “a little more often” after his crash, he still loves to feel the rushing wind on his face and doesn’t want Indiana to bring back mandatory helmet laws.
“I like the choice,” Britton said. “A helmet doesn’t make you any more visible to other motorists, and there have been cases where the weight of the helmet has broken someone’s neck in an accident.”
Britton suggests that motorcyclists wear leather to better protect their skin in the event of an accident, as well as wear reflective vests, especially at night.
The two most important things motorcyclists can do to protect themselves is to make sure they are properly trained and separate drinking from riding, Jackson said. In any given year, alcohol consumption is a factor in roughly half of all motorcycle-related fatalities, he said.
“It’s critical to remember that operating a motorcycle demands the use of all your faculties,” Jackson said. “When you come up to a stoplight, you have to provide balance and control. You can’t have them compromised by alcohol.”
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