Inexperience Considered One Factor in Spate of Motorcyclist Deaths

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 24, 2009

It was halfway between midnight and dawn on an August Saturday when Chris Ford's sleek Suzuki motorcycle roared along the Capital Beltway in Virginia toward a slow-moving dump truck.

The next afternoon, Marc Grant was motorcycling with friends in Calvert County when something went wrong and two bikes crashed by the side of the road.

Less than three hours later, Tony Trilli was on his motorcycle in Charles County when a speeding stolen car veered toward him from the oncoming lane.

Three men, three motorcycles, three deaths within 36 hours.

Nationally, motorcycle sales have suffered along with the economy, but hard times and high gasoline prices have put more riders on the road. Last year, highway deaths fell in almost every category except accidents involving motorcycles. Although Maryland, Virginia and the District bucked that trend, the anecdotal evidence of this summer's carnage suggests a different story when numbers are tallied for 2009.

"We're extremely concerned about the increasing number of crashes and fatalities," said Pete terHorst of the American Motorcyclist Association.

Sixty motorcyclists died on the region's roads last year, 38 of them in the District and adjacent jurisdictions, according to data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency does not keep a running total of motorcycle deaths for the current year. It will use reports received from the region's scores of local, county and state law enforcement agencies to produce its 2009 report.

"With the traffic being what it is in this area, inexperienced motorcyclists are particularly likely to get into trouble," said Capt. Susan H. Culin, who commands the traffic division of the Fairfax County Police Department.

For the most part, motorcycle riders die for the same reasons that people who are driving vehicles with four wheels die: inexperience, alcohol, miscalculation and inattention to the road. But a motorcycle tends to be less forgiving than a car on all four of those counts.

Motorcyclists also are more vulnerable to mistakes by other drivers. And, like pedestrians and bicyclists, they are less visible than cars and sport-utility vehicles.

"You have to constantly have your head on a swivel," said John Krawczyk of Crownsville, who rides a 996cc Ducati. "You have to look out for yourself. You can't trust the other drivers to look."

Motorcycle fatalities fell during the 1970s, when federal pressure persuaded all but three states to require helmets. Many states have since rescinded that mandate, and now just 20 states -- including Virginia and Maryland -- and the District require them for all riders.

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