John Kelly's Washington

Motorcycle officers' sidecars increase stability, cool quotient

"Motormen" with sidecars -- riding in alignment, to boot -- are an elite bunch, tasked with escorting and parading, among other jobs.
"Motormen" with sidecars -- riding in alignment, to boot -- are an elite bunch, tasked with escorting and parading, among other jobs. (Sarah L. Voisin/Post)
By John Kelly
Sunday, January 17, 2010

Ihave recently seen a few motorcades in the District that have police motorcycles at the front, each with a cute sidecar. I've also seen groups of these motorcycles tooling around the District, also with sidecars. Who rides in the sidecars? Has anyone ever ridden in the sidecars?

-- Cecile Glendening, McLean

Answer Man has never thought of a motorcycle sidecar as "cute" before. A puppy wearing sunglasses? Cute. A baby in a floppy hat? Cute. But a law enforcement Harley-Davidson with regulation sidecar? Hmmm.

And yet he does see the appeal. Perhaps the better word is "cool." Just as a shoulder holster is inherently cool even without a gun in it, a sidecar is cool even without a person in it. In fact, Answer Man thinks it's cooler empty. The only people you ever see in sidecars are German soldiers in World War II movies.

The District's police department, however, uses sidecars not because they are cool but because they provide much-needed stability. Every year, shortly after Columbus Day, sidecars are hooked up to the department's big bikes. The sidecars stay on until spring. With a third wheel, the motorcycle can stay upright in icy or snowy conditions or when roads are covered with wet leaves.

Or when a motorist veers into your lane and hits you head-on. That's what happened to Officer Richard Carter in March, when he was part of a motorcade accompanying the British prime minister on Rock Creek Parkway.

"If you take the sidecar off, you're on two wheels," Officer Carter said. "With the sidecar, the motorcycle's not going to flip, roll over, tumble."

He said his injuries -- multiple broken bones -- would have been worse had he not had the sidecar.

Other officers very occasionally ride in police sidecars. So, too, do kids at parades. Dogs never do, which is too bad, since there's nothing cooler (and cuter) than a dog in a sidecar, especially if that dog is wearing a pair of goggles and a white silk scarf.

Police in the District started using motorcycles in 1912, an obvious next step from the bicycles on which officers once patrolled. Sidecars were added in 1932. With the helmet, boots, gloves and jodhpur-type trousers, motorcycle cops cut a dashing figure. They're called "motor officers" or "motormen" (the vast majority have been male). They refer to their mounts as "motors."

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