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Look out for motorcyclists while on road
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You may have noticed that CalTrans electronic billboards along our state highways are carrying an advisory message to motorists warning them to "look twice, be aware of motorcyclists." This is because May is "Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month," and the California Highway Patrol is reminding motorists to "share the road with the bikers." Statistics are showing an increase in both injury and fatal motorcycle collisions. And as can be expected, fuel prices are driving an increase in motorcycle sales and people who already own motorcycles are riding them more often to save money. In 2009, 396 people were killed and 11,488 were injured in motorcycle-related collisions. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, approximately 80 percent of reported motorcycle crashes result in injury or death; a comparable figure for automobiles is about 20 percent.

In my view, the Central Valley as a whole and our city streets are dangerous places for motorcycles. Among the many threats to motorcyclists are traffic congestion, roads in disrepair, natural hazards such as dust in the air, foggy conditions, and the animals are commonly found on and along our roadways. Inattentive motorists that are not used to seeing motorcycles on the roads (and are therefore not looking for them) also pose a threat.

Highway 99, in particular, has high truck volume. Debris like agricultural products, ladders, lumber, shredded tires and other objects lying on the roadways are common, making for a hostile motorcycle riding environment. Another factor is that some motorcycle riders are simply under-experienced. Some buy large, heavy, high-horsepower machines to ride as their first bike, only to ride them on some of the most challenging roads in this state. It makes for a bad combination of factors that lead to collisions, injuries or deaths that could otherwise have been avoided.

Motorcyclists have a duty to ride safely and to protect themselves from their larger counterparts on the road, but there is little they can do when a motorist suddenly changes lanes and the motorcyclist has no place to go. This is especially common on busy freeways in heavy traffic where there are few escape routes. Motorists have to keep in mind that there are people riding motorcycles, and since they are easily overlooked, drivers should be extra vigilant for motorcyclists. Also, give motorcyclists extra space when following behind them, and use extra caution in intersections, as a large percentage of collisions with motorcycles occur when motorists turn left in front of a motorcyclist that they did not see. On our highways, everyone should drive as though they are expecting the unexpected, especially for such things as a motorcyclist in the "blind spot" and other dangers.

Motorcyclists can do much to avoid collisions. Some tips include avoiding motorists' blind spots and avoiding riding in the center of traffic lanes where oil and grease has accumulated. It is wise to constantly scan for inattentive or distracted motorists who might not see you until it is too late, wear bright clothing and ride with the headlight on. Always use turn signals when changing lanes or making any other turning movements. The mechanical condition of a motorcycle is critical. Tires, brakes, steering, lighting and the chain (or belt) must be kept in top condition. A helmet is very important and legally required in California. The full-face style with a shield is best because of the increased protection from crashes, bugs, and debris that may be airborne.

Finally, it is strongly advised to take a motorcycle training course before riding on public streets. The California Motorcycle Safety Program (CMSP) provides courses for beginners and there are more than 120 training sites throughout California. A more comprehensive course is also available for existing riders who want to improve their skills. You can check for locations and more program details.

Motorcycle riding is an exhilarating, fun, and fuel-saving way to travel, but it is far more hazardous than driving automobiles. There is an old saying about motorcycle riders: "there are only those who have crashed and those who will crash," but there is much that can be done to help make that saying less applicable to riding motorcycles.