I wrote this in 2008 as my English 102 paper at Centralia College. I forgot to type up the Works Cited page before I hit publish. I’m thinking I might just take a picture of it and upload the pictures, haha.
On August 1st, 2008, Larry Gordon Hogan II, of Port Republic, Maryland, was killed by Sarah Elizabeth Brown. Although Brown was found to be at fault in the death of Hogan, no charges were filed, and Brown was allowed to go on her way.
The facts were these: Mr. Hogan, 43, a devoted family man, enthusiastic bowler, and self-employed electrician, was riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle when a Chevrolet Camaro driven by Sarah Elizabeth Brown, 58, turned in front of him. Police reports assert that Hogan was riding safely, as he had his lights on for visibility and he was not exceeding the speed limit. Furthermore, the road was straight and clear, with nothing to obscure either driver’s vision.
As stated in the Washington Post, police acknowledge that the fault lay with the driver of the Camaro. They are quoted as saying, “It’s tragically simple. She just didn’t see the motorcycle. A mistake was made, and it cost a life.” Despite this, no charges or citations were issued (Zapotosky).
It is becoming all too clear in the motorcycling community, as incidents such as these become more common in correlation with the recent increase in motorcycle ridership, that implementing specfic programs to increase motorcycle safety awareness is a nationwide need for many reasons, chief among them to combat negative public opinion against motorcyclists that prevents effective compensation and legal prosecution after an accident wherein a car is at fault.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 2,641 — or 50 percent — of all motorcycle-involved fatalities in 2007 involved another motor vehicle. Of those accidents involving two vehicles, 78 percent of motorcycles were struck in the front, while five percent were struck in the rear (“Motorcycle Traffic…” p3).
In cases where the driver of the car is sober and not in the public eye — not a politician or celebrity, for instance — it is shocking and alarming how few car drivers are charged with the maximum penalty. Although FindLaw.com, a legal information website, claims a car is increasingly being recognized as a deadly weapon (“Felony …”), it is often only those who have been charged with driving while intoxicated (DUI) that earn a vehicular manslaughter charge in conjunction with their DUI charge.
For instance, Florida Today ran a story on Nov. 8, 2008, about John Comelchook, whose motorcycle was hit by a Mazda Miata driven by Amy Belmore, 35. Comelchook sustained serious injuries and died at the hospital. Belmore was arrested at the scene of accident and faces charges of DUI manslaughter (Basu).
Similarly, the Morgan Hill Times reports on Sept. 21, 2007, that Juan Mendez Martinez, 20, was booked into the Santa Clara Jail on suspicion of vehicle manslaughter, driving without a license, and felony drunk driving. Martinez killed Douglas Wollaston, 64, when he drove his Pontiac Grand Am through an intersection and into a motorcyclist. The force of the impact, according to the news accounts, threw Wollaston off of his motorcycle and into Martinez’s windshield, which Wollaston then bounced off of and fell backward into a Mercedes before he landed in the eastbound traffic lane. Martinez continued driving forward until he struck the third vehicle involved in the accident, a Chevy HHR, suggesting that Martinez was unaware he had hit a motorcyclist at all (Dubil). The only other information on Martinez is that a search of the California Court of Appeals brings up no information, suggesting he did not appeal the charges.
The New York Times ran a story on May 30, 2005, detailing how a van driven by Stanislaw Szmigiel, 48, hit and dragged a motorcycle and its rider, Raymond Rosado, 47, for about 45 feet. Szmigiel was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated, and a search of the New York offender website lists Szmigiel as in custody as of Decemeber 2008.
However, in the cases of sober drivers who hit motorcyclists, things turn out very differently. On Oct. 28, 2008, in Panama City, FL, the Channel 13 News for the area, WMBB.com, reported that Jagger Haskins was killed by Daphine Rooks when Rooks violated his right-of-way. A search on the Florida prison offender website, which would turn up offenders who have served or are serving either prison or jail time, showed that as of December 2008, Rooks had served neither. A further search of the Florida appeals court shows that Rooks never appealed a case of vehicular homicide, from which one can only extrapolate she was not charged.
Similar results show for the 2007 death of Travis Lee Smith in Anderson, SC, as reported by the local newspaper the Independent Mail. Smith, 24, was riding on a Monday afternoon in Mat when a car driven by Marilyn Thompson, 84, turned in front of him (Carey). Searches on both the South Carolina prison offender site and the relevant South Carolina court websites bring the same conclusion as in Rooks’ case. One might argue that Thompson’s advanced age precludes her from serving time, but as she never even appealed a sentence of vehicular homicide, one can only conclude she was never charge with it in the first place. Thompson killed a man through negligent driving, and there is no official record of a punishment of any sort.
These are not isolated incidents, either. The Homer Horizon, a local Will County, Illinois, newspaper, ran an article on June 25, 2008, wherein Gary L. Wolf, 56, made a left turn in his car in front of motorcyclists Christopher J. Matijevich, 23. Matijevich was transported to the Silver Cross Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. Wolf, however, was cited only with failure to yield and driving while his license was revoked (Terrell).
The sad reality is that 40 percent of accidents involving a car and motorcycle are violations of the motorcyclist’s right-of-way, due to car drivers not looking for or visually registering motorcycles and their riders, as reported by the NHSTA. The 40 percent actually only covers those car drivers who turned left while the motorcycle was going straight, passing, or overtaking the vehicle.
Another 27 percent of two-vehicle accidents in 2007 involving cars and motorcycles occurred when both vehicles were going straight. On first reading, it is easy to assume that “going straight,” means that one or the other of the vehicles rear-ended each other, but that doesn’t hold with the data listed earlier in the same report — that 78 percent of motorcycles were struck in the front, while five percent were struck in the rear.
Given that motorcycling culture is generally strongly aware of the fact they are lacking the protection of an exterior cage surrounding their driving apparatus, and that the abrupt and often dangerous behavior of inattentive car drivers can kill them, tailgating is a strongly discouraged riding behavior that is explicitly taught in licensing and safety courses as something to avoid.
If you are tailgating in a car, and the car in front of you brake-checks you or stops abruptly due to traffic, then you’re usually comparatively fine. You have four wheels stabilizing when you slam your brakes on, and a much lower chance of fishtailing and wrecking. Even if you rear-end the other car, there is the crumple-zone of your hood protecting you.
If you are tailgating in a motorcycle, and the car in front of you brake-checks or stops abruptly due to traffic, then it is an entirely different situation from being in a car. You are balanced on two wheels, and slamming on your brakes hard will likely cause a fishtailing effect or an endo (opposite of a wheelie). If you do not stop in time, you may hit the back of the car headfirst. There is also the possibility of laying down your motorcycle and skidding across multiple lanes of traffic in the attempt at an abrupt stop. Lane splitting is a behavior shown in motorcycle safety studies such as The Hurt Report to be useful for avoiding such abrupt traffic stoppage accidents, but it is also illegal in many states and frowned on by car drivers. For all these reasons, motorcyclists with 100+ miles of riding experience know that tailgating is a dangerous riding behavior to be avoided if at all possible.
Therefore, although some of the “going straight” accidents noted above were doubtless rear-enders, the other were likely caused from a variety of factors. Some possible factors are suggested in a British survey done on car driver’s attitudes toward motorcyclists by the School of Psychology in the University of Nottingham, which notes that:
“Other noted accidents included drivers overtaking or making U-turns in slow-moving traffic, without checking for filtering motorcycles (that is, motorcycles travelling between two lanes of stationary or slow moving traffic, or overtaking on line of stationary traffic on a single carriageway road) (Crundall p1).”
Although filtering, or lane-splitting, as it’s called in the United States, is not legal in every state, it is also not illegal in certain states. In 2008, fifteen states see lane-splitting as a legal grey area — while there are no laws against it, there are no laws which specifically allow it, either. The American Motorcycling Association website has a page detailing motorcycling laws by state, and in 2008 listed the following states as having no current laws regarding lane-splitting: California, New Mexico, Idaho, Montana, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, New Jersey, Delaware, and North Carolina.
However, in only one of these states is it commonly practiced an accepted as a matter of course: California. While the practice of lane-splitting has been indicative of having value in avoiding accidents, as of 2008, not much research had gone into it (Hough p213). [Note: Since the writing of this paper, more studies have been done on lane-splitting which point to it’s value as a defensive driving maneuver.] However, because of the relative rareness of lane-splitting, many drivers are not aware of the practice. Furthermore, many drivers are unaware that not only is it technically not illegal in certain states, in California, it’s a common practice that is tacitly endorsed by the California Highway Patrol (“Frequently …”).
In any case, the fact is that lane-splitting is a practice that is not illegal in several portions of the United States, and is commonly practiced in at least one US state. Since most car drivers are unaware of the safety aspects of it, they tend to feel resentful or angry at the practice, as seen in online forums discussing the practice and in the comment sections of newspaper articles covering motorcycle accidents. California driver German Landeros, who appears to lack situational awareness, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “It’s kind of annoying because you’re sitting there in traffic and sometimes they come out of nowhere within inches of your car (Hou).”
Another cause of straight-ahead two-vehicle accidents is cars changing lanes into a motorcyclist’s lane of travel. An advice sheet on safe driving and riding put out by the NHTSA notes that drivers may fail to adequately check blind spots before changing lanes or making turns, which can cause a situation in which a crash is more likely to occur (“Planner …”).
The troubling thing about these realities is not only that they exist, but that they are largely ignored. Motorcycle ridership has been on the increase through the 2000’s, spurred on by rising gas prices and an economy that, until recently, was expansive and credit-friendly. In 2004, BNET, a business website affiliated with CBS and GALE-Centage Learning, posted a business industry article noting that since 1998, there had been a 34 percent increase in motorcycle ridership. The article also notes that between 2000 and 2004, 24 percent more motorcycles had been sold than in the entire preceding decade (“Motorcycle Industry …”).
The 2007 NHSTA report recorded that in 2006, there were 6,686,147 registered motorcycles in the United States. In 2000, there were 4,346,068, and in 1997, there were 3,826,373 registered motorcycles — nearly half the amount on the road in 2008 (“Motorcycle Traffic …” p1).
Yet somehow, despite the growing population of motorcyclists and the clear danger presented by an uneducated car-driving public, the vast majority of motorcycle safety awareness campaigns remain targeted at motorcyclists themselves, and sober car drivers who kill riders due to inattention or aggressiveness continue to elude legal responsibility or punishment for their actions. The South Carolina Highway Patrol designed a “Ride Smart” campaign that began the week of June 10, 2008. The campaign worked with motorcycle dealerships in distributing literature and media encouraging bikers to seek more training before riding.
In fact, the NHSTA awarded the South Carolina Highway Patrol a $75,000 grant just to educate motorcycle riders about motorcycle safety, specifically geared toward first time riders (Hughes). An article in the New York Times entitled, “Death Rate on Highways Rises, and Motorcycles are Blamed,” says, “Federal officials have long urged motorcyclists to take safety courses, like those offered by the nonprofit Motorcycle Safety Foundation and other local organizations (Maynard).” Interestingly, the data provided in the article on motorcycle accidents is vague enough to indicate that the majority of accidents are the motorcyclist’s fault, without clarifying the role car drivers play; a common trend in news stories regarding motorcycles.
While it cannot be argued that motorcyclists need to take the motorcycle education courses available, be aware and educated of the hazards of the road and benefits of safety gear, and obtain their endorsements as soon as humanly possible — one does have to ask why all the pressure is on the riders to ensure their own safety, when despite their increasing numbers, they are still the minority of road traffic?
The fact is, motorcycles are a legal form of transportation, and motorcyclists are consenting, tax-paying adults who have taken steps to educate themselves on alternative motor vehicle skills. A licensed motorcyclist has every right to share the public roads and expect the same consideration and safety from other motor vehicle drivers that they would receive if driving a car. As riders and drivers who pay taxes and licensing fees to maintain and use public roads together, it seems only logical that all motorists should be educated equitably about those they share the road with.
Some proposals floated in the 2008 California Motorcycle Safety Summit were ideas such as incorporating motorcycle education into high school driver’s education classes, launching a motorcycle safety awareness campaign with safety messages on all available media outlets, and creating motorcycle safety schools for the mandatory attendance of motorists who endanger the lives of motorcyclists, as well as the mandatory attendance of motorcyclists who break traffic laws (“California …” p 3-5).
The American Motorcycle Association (AMA), an organization that has protected and fought for the rights of motorcyclists since 1924, also introduced an initiative in 2001 called, “Motorcyclists Matter”. The Motorcyclists Matter initiative calls for stricter penalties and increased enforcement of those penalties for drivers who, through negligent or inattentive action, cause the death of a motorcyclist (American).
The stricter penalties have already been written into certain state laws — for instance, Washington state defines vehicular homicide as a death caused within three years as a result of someone driving a motor vehicle either recklessly, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or with disregard to the safety of others. Washington law also dictates that vehicular homicide is a Class A felony, and excepting certain legal subsections of the law, an additional two years can be added to the sentence for every prior offence (RCW Pub. L. 46.61.520).
The state of Georgia also has a two-tiered vehicular homicide law, where there is first degree homicide by vehicle and second degree homicide by vehicle. First degree homicide by vehicle is a felony, and results in 3-15 years of punishment. A driver can be charged with first degree vehicular homicide if they unlawfully failed to stop after a collision; if the driver was found to be driving recklessly or under the influence of drugs or alcohol; if the driver had been fleeing from a law enforcement officer; or if the driver was a habitual offender. The state of Georgia defines second degree homicide by vehicle as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 1 year in prison or a $1,000 fine, or both. Second degree homicide encompasses all other murders by vehicle that are not defined under first degree homicide (O.C.G.A. Pub. L. 40.6.393).
Although this is progress, the laws already on the books still need to be consistently enforced, and those states laws that are not strict enough need to b tightened in recognition of the severity of the consequences that irresponsible driving can cause.
The most reasonable course of action would be for states to begin requiring all motorists to take a driver’s safety education course every 10 years. Motorcyclists are encouraged to take MSF and advanced rider training courses as often as possible, and in order to acquire their endorsement have to have an extant car license, pass an MSF course, and pass a licensing exam. In contrast, car drivers generally only take one course and one licensing exam, usually in their late teens or early twenties. Requiring annual driver’s education courses which incorporate motorcycle safety and visibility as part of the lesson plan would both be a step toward improving driver awareness of motorcyclists and a means of improving overall driver safety. Furthermore, if renewing a driver’s license required ongoing testing of driver capabilities, rather than simply paying a fee, we might be able to cull dangerous drivers from the driving population.
In addition, by stiffening and enforcing the penalties of injuring or killing a motorcyclists, the driving public would be made aware of the consequences of their dangerous driving, rather than blaming it on the rider. If a car driver is at fault in an accident and causes the death of a motorcyclists, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. One manner in which law enforcement agencies could reduce bias when investigating motorcycle-related accidents is to pair a certified and endorsed motorcycle officer with a regular patrol officer.
Finally, those at-fault car drivers who do not kill, but do cause injury to a motorcyclists and/or damage to their motorcycle, should be required to take a full-price MSF course in addition to whatever fines or penalties the investigating officers see fit to levy. A study by the Department of Applied Health Sciences published in The Accident Analysis and Prevention Journal concluded that when a motorist gains experience in riding any motorcycle, it resulted in that driver being less prone to causing accidents with motorcycles as opposed to drivers who have no motorcycling experience (Magazzu p369).
It is a disturbing trend in society that many either deny there is a bias against motorcyclists, or claim that motorcyclists have “earned” that bias by choosing to ride. The social stigma against motorcyclists is so strong and so pervasive, in fact, that motorcyclists regularly take the role of “rebel” or even the “villain” in popular media. It slips through our culture in various forms, from the innocuous-seeming Mucinex commercials of 2008 where big, bad bikers led by Mr. Mucus roll into town on cruisers and play the role of annoying phlegm, to films that are present even in 2008, vilifying the motorcycling community (Ripley).
Even seemingly benign films, like 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Crystal Skull — a popular family film which netted $101 million during the first weekend in theaters — shows motorcyclists in a rebellious light. The character of Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) rides a modified Harley Davidson Softail Springer. Mutt Williams is portrayed as a surly, rebellious kid who’s angry at the world, and in one memorable scene Mutt and Indiana ride the motorcycle through a college campus and into a library — playing once more on the “bad boy” stereotype of motorcyclists that Hollywood has built up over the years. Films such as Mad Max (1979), The Wild One (1953), and Hell Ride (2009) have all contributed to the image of motorcyclists as vicious, cruel, selfish bikers. The legend of the “bad boy biker” was formed by the press after the Hollister riots of 1947, where some motorcyclists who were unaffiliated with the AMA descended on an AMA-arranged tour. The riot lasted 36 hours, was featured in Life magazine, and birthed an anti-motorcyclist social stigma which still exists today (Wolf p5-7).
The bias is not only evident in the film industry, but online. Blogs like, Dating is Warfare, list owning a motorcycle as a red-flag deal breaker in a relationship. The author of that blog states, “If you ride a motorcycle on a semi-regular basis, you WILL get in an accident and likely be injured or killed. Period.” (“Motorcycle Men”). she goes on to say that no matter how cautious a guy might be, there’s nothing he can do about the other drivers on the road, ending with the telling justification, “And the fact is, most of us don’t see you motorcyclists until it’s way too late.”
This seems to be a running theme in any discussion of motorcycle riding — they’re dangerous, they’re unprotected, a motorcyclist is too at risk, and car drivers can’t or won’t see them in time. The final argument, that car drivers won’t see them, is an argument cited by motorcyclists and car drivers alike: Auto driver’s don’t see motorcyclists until it’s too late.
A study published in the British Medical Journal examined the role motorcycle visibility plays in accidents and their study concluded, “The study suggests that low physical conspicuity is a contributing factor in a significant proportion of road traffic crashes causing injury (Wells.)” However, fault cannot solely be placed on the rider for being “invisible.” The London Department of Transport quotes a Road Research Safety Report which notes there is, “…A series of schemata that must tell the individual where to look in a given situation, what to expect there, and what to do dependent on that information (Crundall et al. p11).”
Schemata is derived from schema, a mental structure that aides one in organizing the surrounding environment and determines common behaviors in various situations. The report notes that schema-driven behaviors are seldom learned, but rather build up over time due to exposure to certain situations and ideas. The authors of the report also assert,
“This may pose a problem for some drivers as the relatively low frequency of car-motorcycle interactions may mean they have not had the opportunity to fully develop their motorcycle schemata (Crundall et al. p11).”
Yet, rather than coming to a reasonable solution of educating car drivers to be more aware of those they share the road with, non-motorcyclists urge solutions such as outlawing motorcycles. One such movement, “Vision Zero,” was piloted in Sweden as a road-safety program with a goal of reducing motor-vehicle related deaths on roadway to none. Countries such as Norway and Australia have adopted that program, with other countries starting to model their traffic safety programs on the “Vision Zero” ideal. The Swedish transport advisor who devised the policy, Claes Tingvall, is quoted in a Motor Cycle News article on the topic as stating, “There is no room for motorcycles in Vision Zero (Farrell).”
The reality is that while riding motorcycle is dangerous, there is no true way to eliminate danger from our lives. Banning motorcycles today would do nothing about the myriad causes of accidental or unexpected death that exist in the world, nor would it address the problematically dangerous driving behaviors exhibited by far too many car drivers which continue to endanger other motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians. Motorcyclists, like rock climbers or surfers, engage in the activity for the enjoyment and pleasure of it, as well as the thrill and gratification found in being adept at a somewhat unique skill. A 2008 thread on Gixxer-forum.net posed the question, “What if motorcycles were illegal?” and saw a range of responses. Some users indicated they would continue to ride, even illegally, while others indicated they would shift their attention to other, equally skill-driven activities such as shifter karts, ATV’s, boats, or muscle cars.
To look at the situation with honesty and lacking the knee-jerk fear and prejudice that often accompanies discussions on riding, one must admit that logically, taking away access another individuals’ hobbies out of a desire to protect said individual from harm is misguided and unlikely to succeed in protecting them. Whatever personality quirks motivated them to adopt a risky lifestyle or activity will not disappear should it become illegal — they will seek out new forms of risk taking behavior as substitution.
On top of that, even if the voting public of any state did pass a law banning motorcycle sales, it would only have a negative effect on the economy. All motorcycle companies would have to stop making machines for U.S. production in said states (or, if a Federal ban passed, nationwide). The natural consequence would be depriving thousands of people of gainful employment not only at factories, but at dealerships, motorcycle repair and parts shops, and motorcycle safety gear outfitters as the economy around motorcycling would be forced to shut down. Police and military departments would undergo a double blow as they lose their motorcycle units while simultaneously having to deal with an influx in motorcycle-related illegalities, such as illegal ownership, riding, or modifying. The entire idea is a ridiculous waste of time and resources, especially as motorcycles are no more inherently unsafe than any other vehicle.
Long-time riders are fond of saying, “It’s not the bike that’s the problem, it’s the nut connecting the handlebars and the seat.” The same can be said of car drivers — while automobiles themselves are not inherently dangerous, the “nut” connecting the wheel and the seat often causes problems. Increasing motorcycle awareness among the car driving community as well as the motorcycling community could significantly lower the accident and death rates. Raising auto driver awareness by implementing such programs as discussed herein would both properly recompense injured riders that have been too long ignored and treated as second class users of the road, while simultaneously creating concrete opportunities for auto drivers to truly modify their behavior and raise their personal awareness of the motorcyclists they share the road with.