Motorcyclists face increasing risks from distracted drivers

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Dave and Kari Kempka of Grafton have logged many miles on their Harley-Davidson. Rick Wood / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

As thousands of motorcyclists converge on Milwaukee for Labor Day weekend, even with the numbers and the noise, it’s likely that somebody won’t “see” a bike — and the result is all but inevitable.

Nearly 40% of motorcycle accidents involve a distracted or inattentive driver, according to a Wisconsin Department of Transportation estimate.

Sometimes it’s the biker who’s not paying attention, but more often it’s another driver failing to notice a motorcycle in their path as they change lanes or go through an intersection.

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“It’s been getting worse. I see it in the accident reports that I review pretty much on a daily basis,” said Tony Sanfelipo, a senior motorcycle crash investigator for the Milwaukee law firm Hupy and Abraham.

Sanfelipo has an air horn and siren on his Harley-Davidson Road King to warn motorists not to drift into his place in traffic.

“I have had a couple of close calls with people merging on the freeway while they’re talking on a cellphone. They’re holding the phone in their left hand, blocking most of their vision to the left,” he said.

Not seeing a motorcycle in traffic, or misjudging its speed, has been a problem for decades. But it has gotten worse with more vehicles on the road and a lot of gadgets catching drivers’ attention. 

“Distracted drivers are a huge hazard … and not just to motorcyclists but to everyone,” said Andria Yu, who’s with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation in Irvine, Calif.

“Motorcyclists are already tougher to spot for many drivers because motorcycles are smaller and can be more easily hidden in a vehicle’s blind spots. So add on distracted driving, and we have a very dangerous situation,” Yu said.

One of the scariest things for bikers is having another vehicle cross the center line into their path. It’s almost as if the other driver has nodded off for a second, said Kari Kempka, a motorcyclist from Grafton.

She and her husband, Dave, have toured extensively on their Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic. From the saddle of the bike, they have a pretty good view of what’s happening inside the car next to them.

Kempka said she’s seen someone reading a tablet while driving. She’s also seen people, behind the wheel, fiddling with GPS devices and other electronics.

“It’s just crazy out there,” she said. “Fortunately we have not gone down, thank God, but we have had several close calls where we had to pull the bike off the road just to kind of catch our breath.”

Milwaukee motorcycle safety instructor Tom Stresing said from the end of May through June he had five close calls with head-on collisions on his bike, plus two in his car.

One of those incidents ran him completely off the road — and that’s not all he’s experienced on his motorcycle.

Too many people tailgate and don’t handle left turns well, Stresing said.

The problem of “lane wandering” has gotten worse, said Allan Zahrt, a Wausau biker who has logged more than 1 million miles on his 1975 Honda Gold Wing.

“You can see when people are getting close to the center line, and then all of a sudden they’re over it,” Zahrt said.

To help make sure others can see him on the road, he now wears a neon-green jacket like the ones worn by highway workers.

“Have people been more aware of me? I believe so,” Zahrt said. “But there’s just no way you can avoid everything.”

So far this year, 52 motorcycle drivers and five passengers have been killed in Wisconsin motorcycle crashes, according to the Department of Transportation.

Investigators can obtain cellphone records to determine whether someone was on their phone, possibly distracted, at the time of a crash.

Still, it’s not always clear whether inattentive or distracted driving caused an accident. 

But there’s been a huge number of “right of way” related crashes this year, said Tim Tomann, a district director for ABATE of Wisconsin, an organization focused on bikers’ rights and safety.

In some of the crashes, a car turned left into the path of a motorcycle headed down the road at highway speed. And that’s just one example of deadly behavior.

Some motorcyclists say louder-than-normal engine exhaust pipes can get the attention of an inattentive motorist. 

“Absolutely” there’s value in loud pipes, Tomann said.

He added, though, that solid riding skills are the best way to stay out of harm’s way. That includes not getting caught in the blind spot of another vehicle.

“I will never deliberately follow anyone I can’t see over or around,” Tomann said.

He encourages people to take rider safety classes, including refresher courses, to keep their skills sharp.

A high percentage of biker fatalities have involved riders who didn’t have a cycle endorsement on their license. They may have experience on a bike, but not adequate safety training.

“If you don’t have a license, you have no business throwing a leg over that bike saddle,” Tomann said.

If you are cut off in traffic on your bike, or even if you’re run off the road, mind your temper and reaction, said Michael Casey, co-founder of Motovid, a Delavan firm that teaches motorcycle road riding and racing skills. 

You have almost no protection on the bike, while the driver of a car or truck is wrapped in a steel cage and thousands of pounds of vehicle weight. 

“My suggestion is to back off and don’t take aggressive action. Road rage against motorcyclists is horrible. … Usually the rider doesn’t make out very well,” Casey said. 

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Craig Ballantyne

I love anything to do with Harley Davidson and have two beautiful children and a beautiful partner. In my spare time i like building websites and love anything to do with the internet.

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