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Motorcycle deaths on rise, Increase in riders, traffic cited

By Drew Volturo, Delaware State News

DOVER — Images of a leather-clad rebel sitting atop a sleek motorcycle and revving its powerful engine have been burned into the American consciousness for decades, and the vehicles’ popularity has been rising in recent years.

In Delaware, the number of registered motorcycles has nearly tripled in the past 15 years to more than 22,000, with 5,000 more bikes registered in 2005 alone.

But that rising popularity also has come at a price.

Motorcycle fatalities hit an all-time high last year, with 21 dying on Delaware roads, eclipsing a 20-year-old record of 19 and more than doubling 2004’s 10 deaths.

“We’re all kind of horrified by the deaths,” said Peter Mazzella, legislative coordinator for ABATE of Delaware, a motorcyclists’ rights organization.

“When you’ve seen a 100-percent increase in the number of fatalities in an area, you have to do something,” said state Office of Highway Safety spokeswoman Andrea Summers.

Causes of crashes?

But the sudden rise in motorcycle fatalities has left officials who monitor the crashes perplexed, wondering what caused the increase in fatal accidents.

“We’re trying to figure out what’s going on,” said Kenneth Shock, training administrator for the state Division of Motor Vehicles.

“Delaware is one year behind the national average. The nation saw a surge (in fatal crashes in 2004).”

Mr. Shock and DMV motorcycle safety program coordinator Glenn Kemp have been examining the record number of crashes to determine what — if anything — can be done to keep the fatalities to a minimum.

Of the 21 fatalities, 14 were Delaware residents, Mr. Kemp said, and five of the 14 did not have motorcycle endorsements, required to ride a bike beyond a 60-day permit.

Although there has been a proliferation of speed bikes racing down the highway with younger drivers steering them, Mr. Shock said the average age of the victims is more than 40.

“There are probably a lot of baby boomers out there who used to ride and want to get back into it,” he said.

Several believe that the rising cost of gas has driven some to ride motorcycles, which might account for some of the 5,000 bikes registered in Delaware last year.

Mr. Mazzella noted that the “landscape has changed a lot since 1975,” pointing to more distractions for the ever-growing number of drivers, such as cell phones and CD players.

“The roads are more crowded,” he said. “In 1975, who talked on cell phones? Only Capt. Kirk (from television program Star Trek) talked on a cell phone.”

Training is key

The DMV requires a motorcyclist to pass written and road tests to earn a motorcycle endorsement, which goes on their license.

Riders 18 and older can earn their endorsement by taking the regular DMV tests or a 20-hour safety course that incorporates the two tests.

Mr. Kemp said the DMV urges all riders to take the safety class, which teaches them everything they need to know to drive a bike, from starting the motorcycle, to what to wear and how to handle tight turns.

Riders under 18 must take the safety class.

Mr. Shock said the DMV plans to expand its safety course program when it begins holding classes at its Georgetown location this spring and adds classes in New Castle County.

More than 1,000 took the class last year and the number could grow to 1,500 this year.

“We know that knowing how to operate a bike safely is the key to your safety,” Mr. Shock said.

“Our staff goes out of its way to get people to take the (safety) course.”

Mr. Shock said the DMV does not have a position on whether the safety course should be mandatory for all riders, but noted, “it would be beneficial if every rider took the class.”

Rep. Bruce C. Ennis, D-Smyrna, who chairs the Motorcycle Riders Education Advisory Council, said he has heard of interest at the federal level to require safety training before issuing a motorcycle endorsement.

Solving the problem of motorcycle fatalities goes beyond training riders, Mr. Shock said. The general public must be educated about sharing the roads with motorcycles.

Mr. Shock said the DMV and Office of Highway Safety have begun talks to craft a public awareness campaign before the 2006 motorcycle season starts in the spring.

Helmet debate

While police departments require motorcycle officers to wear helmets and the DMV strongly encourages riders to don the headgear, state law is silent on the issue.

The General Assembly repealed its mandatory helmet law in 1978, requiring only that motorcyclists carry a helmet on their bikes.

Rep. Ennis said officials prefer to focus on more education instead of changing state law governing helmets or other motorcycle issues.

“Usually when you have an increase in motorcycle fatalities, the debate on helmets picks up,” he said.

However, Rep. Ennis said he has not heard any rumblings among legislators about revisiting the helmet law.

Mr. Mazzella said ABATE of Delaware lobbied to rescind the law and continues to oppose a mandatory helmet law.

“When I ride, I choose to wear my helmet,” he said. “It’s not wearing the helmet, it’s the choice to wear it that’s the issue.”

But some have seen the benefits of helmets firsthand.

Dover Police Sgt. Timothy Mutter heads the city’s six-officer motorcycle unit. In recent years, two officers have fallen off their bikes and gotten bruised, but were not seriously injured.

“If they didn’t have their helmets on, they would’ve suffered severe injuries the way they were tumbling around,” he said.

Sgt. Mutter said he took “a good tumble” off his bike when he was 17 and landed on his head, but he walked away from the accident because he was wearing a helmet.

“I’m not big on government mandating rules, but government also has the duty to try to protect us,” he said. “If (wearing a helmet) was mandated, it would cut down on lives lost.

“But a helmet is not a cure-all. It’s not like putting on ironclad gear. You’re not going to win if you strike something solid like a pole, tree or a car.”

The Delaware Police Chiefs Council has supported the reinstitution of a mandatory helmet law, said Newport Police Chief Michael Capriglione, president of the organization.

“It’s something legislators need to take a look at,” Chief Capriglione said. “I believe it would save some lives.

“We have laws that say that kids under 16 have to wear helmets when riding on bicycles … but we allow adults to go 60, 70, 80 mph (on a motorcycle) and they don’t have to wear helmets.”

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Staff writer Drew Volturo can be reached at 741-8296 or





Diversity vs. Commonality, Part II

By Fred Rau

Backroads, September 2005

A few questions to consider:

1. In 1988, what motorcycling organization established the first-ever, permanent, registered lobbying office in Washington, D.C., to promote motorcyclists' rights?

2. In 1991, what motorcycling organization lobbied against and killed the "Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Bill" that would have allowed the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to single out motorcyclists as likely suspects in drug trafficking and other gang activities?

3. In 1993, what motorcycling organization successfully lobbied against and stopped the "Traumatic Brain Injury Act," which would have singled out motorcyclists to be required to carry special, and expensive, insurance policies against brain injuries?

4. In 1996, what motorcycling organization was most responsible for changing the Health Care Coverage Availability and Affordability Act to prevent employers from refusing health care coverage for employees who rode motorcycles?

5. In 2003, what motorcycling organization commissioned an Economic Impact Study to refute the EPA's proposed "Rule on Emissions for Street Motorcycles"?

6. In 2004, what motorcycling organization gained a seat at the table in Geneva to represent American motorcyclists in the United Nations' discussion on "Global Harmonization of Motorcycle Standards?"

If you answered "the AMA" to any or all of these questions, you would be wrong. Or, at the most, only partially right. While it is true that the AMA participated to some extent in four of these six items, there is no denying that the primary, driving force behind all of these items was the Motorcycle Riders Foundation (MRF).

Established in 1987 as an umbrella organization under which all of the individual, local and state motorcycle rights organizations could coordinate their efforts, the MRF has rapidly grown into a powerful, savvy lobbying organization that has gained the respect and admiration of many a Washington insider. Congressional newsletters have commented on the MRF's amazing ability to mobilize large voting blocs, their PAC (Political Action Committee) has received several awards for its phenomenal successes in promoting motorcycling agendas, and Congressmen have learned to ignore them only at their own peril.

On May 9 of this year, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) attempted to reinstate the "Federal Blackmail Law" that would withhold highway funds from states that refused to enact a universal helmet law. The provision was snuck in at the last minute, only 48 hours before a vote was to be taken in the Senate, but within 24 hours, the MRF had a lobbyist in every single one of the 100 Senate offices, to make sure the voices of the motorcyclists were heard. In addition, the Foundation issued an immediate "Call to Action" that resulted in thousands and thousands of phone calls, faxes and e-mails pouring into the Congressional offices, opposing the bill. Within less than 36 hours, the MRF office was receiving dozens of calls from Senatorial Aides, pleading with them to "call off the dogs, we're on your side already!" When the vote came on May 11, the Lautenberg Amendment went down in flaming defeat, by a vote of 68 to 29. Washington insiders called it one of the most incredible examples of grassroots political mobilization in history.

This and many, many more accomplishments attributed to the MRF, at not only the national, but also the state and local levels of government, have earned the Foundation a reputation as one of the most effective lobbying organizations in the country, often compared in newspaper and magazine articles to the almost-omnipotent NRA gun lobby. And yet, the entire organization is comprised of only 2800 dues-paying members, or about 1% the size of the AMA.

How can this be? Why haven't you heard of them? Well, it pretty much goes back to what I wrote in this column last month, about how "insular" our motorcycling organizations are. The MRF was born primarily out of the ABATE organizations of the Sixties and Seventies who, along with support from publications like Easyriders, fought so hard against helmet laws. It was from these battles that they learned the ins and outs of politics, of how to work inside the system, and how to become a political force to be reckoned with. These days, helmet laws are a minor part of the MRF agenda, though still considered important because of the doors they open for other, even more insidious impairments on personal freedoms. Things like the health care discrimination issue, or the proposed new EPA regulations. But you aren't going to see members of GWRRA, HRCA, BMWMOA or any of the other, giant motorcycling organizations, showing up at ABATE meetings, are you? We don't ride together. We don't attend each other's functions, or even read the same magazines. Most "mainstream" motorcyclists still think of ABATE as those wild-eyed crazies who only care about helmet laws. Little do they know that is a fading, and almost-extinct part of the movement that has evolved into the MRF.

We need to start communicating with each other, folks. Be as diverse as you want on any number of agendas, but when it comes to motorcyclists' rights, we need to show a united front. And, I'm sorry to say, as a card-carrying AMA member, the AMA just ain't cutting the mustard. Sure, they've done some good—a lot of good—but not nearly enough, especially considering their size and resources. And let's face it, their motives have to be at least partially suspect in some arenas, due to the fact that their Board of Directors is essentially controlled by the major bike manufacturers. Take, for example, the proposed new EPA regulations, that would effectively shut down all custom bike shops, and allow individuals to "modify" one bike, and one bike only, per person, per lifetime.

Think about that, next time you want to change your carbs or exhaust. And where is the AMA on this issue? Nowhere. They have carefully avoided taking a position. Rights activists will tell you this makes perfect sense, as the AMA represents the manufacturers more than the members, and obviously, the manufacturers wouldn't mind one bit if all those custom bike shops were put out of business, now would they? Then you'd have to come to their dealerships for any and all work on your bike.

Am I saying drop your AMA membership? Hell, no. Despite my disagreement with their stand on this and several other issues, they still do a lot of good, and we need them. But I am pleading with you-please check out the MRF, and see if you don't think you owe them your support. See the website at, or give them a call at their DC office, (202) 546-0983 and ask for a complimentary copy of the bi-monthly "MRF Report" (also on the website). Look at what they are doing, at all levels of government, and make up your own mind.

Celebrate our diversity, but remember we have a commonality of purpose that we all owe a certain dedication to.


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