Motorcycle officers' sidecars increase stability, cool quotient

By John Kelly
Sunday, January 17, 2010; C03

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."

There are 40 Harley-Davidsons in the police department's special operations division and a dozen more in patrol services. These mighty 1690cc motors are not to be confused with the 250cc Hondas some officers ride. Those are referred to as "scooters."

They are an elite bunch. Members of the special operations division do routine traffic work but are best known for escorting motorcades, the advance guard of the approaching limo.

Motorcycles are useful for nipping through traffic. "A motor can get through a lot quicker if something's really happening," Officer Carter said. "Example: 9/11. The motorcycles were just about the only vehicles that could get through D.C. because traffic was so gridlocked."

Many motor officers are like Officer Carter: happy to be aboard a bike even when they're off-duty.

Joyce Canfield of St. Joseph, Mo., president of the United Sidecar Association, a group founded in 1978 to celebrate the sidecar, said she thinks that the District's police department uses sidecars more than any other city's.

"It makes your city kind of unique," said Joyce, who owns three sidecars (and three motorcycles). "I just love to watch the inaugurals and see them all lined up."

Joyce said there's an old saying among sidecar buffs: One is neat, but two make a parade. A pretty cool parade.

Something puzzling you about the Washington area? Let Answer Man provide relief: answerman@washpost.com.

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