It didn’t take long for Kari Brown to have her first motorcycle mishap.
The Hennepin woman was participating in a riding safety course in La Salle, shortly after taking up the hobby, when it happened.
“I remember feeling excited and thinking, ‘Here we go,’” Brown said. “And I forgot to hit the clutch, and my palm went back, and I gassed it, and I went down. It was the first day, the first hour of the class. They said, ‘Are you done?’ I said, ‘No, I’d like to keep going.’”
Motorcycle crash numbers are down, fatalities aren’t
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Lindsay Faulker, cycle rider safety coordinator for Illinois Department of Transportation, said nearly every motorcycle rider she knows has been involved in some sort of crash, just like most motorists have been in at least a minor accident.
Brown, who is a safety and education officer for the Starved Rock Chapter of the motorcycle advocacy group A Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education, is glad she got her scare out of the way early.
“Had I not done that there, I might have done it on the open road,” she said.
Not all new riders bother to take a safety class, said Brown, and her husband, Tom, who is also a safety and education officer for ABATE.
That’s one of the possible reasons why even as total motorcycle crashes are down statewide over the last 15 years, fatalities have not decreased, the Browns said.
In fact, fatalities are on an upswing since a relative lull in the late ‘00s culminating in a record number of motorcyclists killed in crashes in 2017.
“Last year’s provisional number, 162 is the highest it’s ever been,” Faulkner said.
But a lack of safety education isn’t the only reason fatality numbers remain high even while motorcycle awareness signs and bumper stickers are omnipresent in the Illinois Valley.
Faulkner, the Browns and Brian Dukes, public relations coordinator for ABATE, shared information drivers and riders alike should be aware of this Motorcycle Safety awareness month.
Causes of crashes
One big reason fatalities might be up: Distracted driving.
“Distraction is probably the main threat,” Faulkner said. “Motorists are more distracted. They’re not even looking at the road. They’re hitting them full speed.”
Dukes said nearly half of all motorcycle crashes occur while a motorcycle is traveling in a straight line and is either struck or cutoff by a car or truck.
“Motorcycles are just a little more difficult to see,” Dukes said.
Changing weather patters may also be affecting the number of fatal accidents.
Unseasonable warm weather in winter can put motorcycles on the road when drivers aren’t expecting them.
“I’m an all-year-round commuter,” Dukes said. “In the winter, it does seem like you’ve got a target on your back. People aren’t expecting to see you.”
The length of winter also plays into how many crashes and fatalities occur, said Dukes and Faulkner.
For example, so far in 2018, there have been just six fatal accidents accounting for seven fatalities. Faulkner attributed that low tally almost entirely to an uncommonly cool early spring.
Drunken accidents do seem to be becoming less common, Dukes said, but alcohol has been a constant cause of accidents over the years and remains a contributing problem.
“Impaired driving is still kind of an issue,” Dukes said.
The Browns said a safety course, such as the one Kari Brown took, would be advisable for all riders — especially those new to motorcycles.
IDOT offers free courses through its Cycle Rider Safety Training Program. There are multiple levels of courses for different levels of experience, Faulkner said.
Information about the specific courses and where they are offered can be found at startseeingmotorcycles.org by clicking on the Free Motorcycle Courses option.
They and Dukes also recommended wearing appropriate gear when riding.
Kari Brown said she is amazed by the difference a layer of leather can make in absorbing punishment from the road.
While ABATE favors letting riders decide whether they want to wear helmets, Dukes said 35 percent of Illinois motorcycle riders do choose to wear them.
Dukes shared some advice to both riders and drivers to help prevent crashes.
He said ABATE recommends three seconds of separation between cars or trucks and motorcycles. That’s because brake lights might not immediately indicate a motorcycle is slowing, and the distance it takes a motorcycle to brake can vary substantially due to road conditions.
“In dry weather, a motorcycle’s stopping distance isn’t that much different than a car,” Dukes said, but that changes when it rains. “You don’t have four wheels braking, you just have two.”
He also recommended always checking all mirrors twice before merging or changing lanes and said ABATE recommends riders try to stay out of drivers’ blind spots.
Lastly, Dukes advocated for everyone to focus on the task at hand when driving.
“Put the devices down and pay attention,” Dukes said.
Ben Hohenstatt can be reached at (815) 220-6932 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_Peru.