Rules of the Road

Five years, 34 crashes and only five riders walked away uninjured

Motorcycle safety tips from Whatcom County deputies

Whatcom County Sheriff's Office motorcycle deputies offer safety advice to motorcycle riders after 15 motorcycle collisions were reported across Whatcom County, Wash., in May 2019.
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Whatcom County Sheriff's Office motorcycle deputies offer safety advice to motorcycle riders after 15 motorcycle collisions were reported across Whatcom County, Wash., in May 2019.

In case you’ve just emerged from a month-long meditation retreat in a mine shaft or returned from research at the south pole, let me be the first to tell you, the weather everyone moves here for has arrived. And what goes hand-in-hand with good weather in Whatcom County? Motorcycles.

My personal motorcycle riding experience is (extremely) limited, but in a few short rides it was abundantly clear that riding a motorcycle transcends the usual transportation goal of getting to your destination and is an experience unto itself. But riding a motorcycle also carries a comparatively high risk and, unfortunately, this has been a difficult beginning to summer for the motorcycling community in our county.

In the month of May we had 15 motorcycle collisions reported across Whatcom County. Nine of them resulted in injuries and three of them were fatal crashes. To be clear, these numbers are far outside of normal for our area. In the four previous years combined we had one fatal crash in the month of May, and total crashes for the month ranged from three (in 2015) to six (in 2017 and 2018).

When these crashes happen, collision investigators from our local law enforcement agencies respond to the scene. I can assure you that to them, the numbers I referenced above are not just numbers. They’re real people with friends and family who all suffer loss.

Before this May’s crashes became a data set, the collision investigators at Whatcom County already knew we had a problem.

That’s why this week, instead of responding to a traffic safety question posed by someone in our community, I met with some Whatcom County deputies and got to ask the questions. I should mention that in addition to talking with me, these deputies were willing to step in front of a camera and share some tips for safe motorcycle riding. You can find their advice at TheWiseDrive.com.

Let’s start with some obvious stuff. It’s the law in Washington, but even if you ride in a state where it’s not, always wear your helmet. The engineers who design cars have incorporated safety structures to protect you in a crash; on a motorcycle your crash protection is up to you, so use a good helmet and protective gear.

Riding Pair in Curve
Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office motorcycle deputies offer safety advice to motorcycle riders: wear a helmet, get a motorcycle endorsement and the training required for it, watch the signs and don’t ride beyond your ability. Doug Dahl Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Get a motorcycle endorsement. Again, it’s the law, but it also makes sense. To get an endorsement you have to demonstrate at least some level of proficiency by either completing a motorcycle safety class or passing a written and skills test at the Department of Licensing. Across the country, 31% of fatally injured motorcyclists were operating without a valid license.

When you’re out riding, pay attention to the indicators that tell you about upcoming changes on the road. Curve ahead signs, cautionary speed limits, merge signs; these sorts of warnings give you time to respond. Don’t let the beauty of the ride distract you from the information about your route.

If you’re not a motorcycle rider, you might assume that it’s the crazy guys on crotch rockets who are crashing their bikes. (And yes, it’s pretty much all guys – 91% of motorcyclists killed in 2017 were males.) Rather, it’s often a rider who wasn’t being reckless but instead got himself in a situation that was beyond his ability.

Motorcycle riding is a skill that takes time and practice to master. I recall talking with a motorcycle officer who had ridden for years prior to it becoming part of his job. He told me he thought he was a proficient rider until he went to the motorcycle training required to become a motor officer, where he discovered that he still had a lot to learn.

Whatever your skill level, don’t ride beyond your ability. And make it your goal to continually become a better rider.

I’ve said before that unless your job is something like deep-sea fishing or logging remote areas of wilderness, the most dangerous thing you’re likely to do on a regular basis is drive, but compared to riding motorcycles, driving seems relatively safe.

Based on miles traveled, motorcycle rider fatalities are 28 times higher than fatalities for vehicle occupants.

Getting back to the earlier data about crashes in the month of May, of the 34 reported crashes over the past five years, only five riders walked away uninjured. If you’re going to enjoy some time on a motorcycle this summer, make sure you know the risks and have the right skills.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.

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Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office motorcycle deputies offer safety advice to motorcycle riders after 15 motorcycle collisions were reported across Whatcom County in May 2019. Doug Dahl Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com.
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