Motorcycle Vets — Speeding Into The Danger Zone

Circa 2008/09

Each day a report comes to Stan Dutko Jr.’s office, and each day he gets more frustrated.

The report is the Daily Mishap Summary, and it is updated each time a Marine or sailor dies due to an off-base, off-duty, recreational mishap. The most frequent cause of such deaths? Motorcycles.

“I’ll be completely honest with you, we’re not doing that well, Marine Corps and Navy-wide,” said Dutko, the Installation and Regional Safety Manager at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

Between October 2007 and October 2008, 24 activeduty Marines died from motorcycle accidents. Those numbers make the Marine Corps cringe, especially since a high-speed bike can be just the tonic for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, who thirst for recreational entertainment. Though this may seem like a smaller Marine Corps problem,it is actually a microcosm of a larger national issue.

“The numbers are saying that [many soldiers] go into a dealer and most of them—if they’re younger—will get on a crotch-rocket designed to go 200 mph on a racetrack,” said Arney Hinden, a 70-year-old Coast Guard veteran and motorcycle enthusiast. “The soldier may have a license from 10 years ago when they were 16. They get on that thing and they don’t even get home. The numbers are saying they’re crashing.”

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There were 4,810 deaths on motorcycles in the U.S. in 2006, an increase of 5 percent over the previous year, and more than double (2,161) over the decade before, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In the Marine Corps, highspeed bikes account for the majority of fatalities. In 2007, 78 percent of motorcycle mishaps in the Marines occurred on a sport bike, compared to 38 percent nationally, according to the 2008 Naval Safety Center.

Overall, the national fatality rate increased by 6.6 percent from 2006 to 2007, supporting a recent trend, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. While automobile fatalities have fallen to the lowest point since 2003, motorcycle fatality rates have doubled during that period, according to the Naval Safety Center.

Dutko attributes the increase in mishap rates to a dramatic increase in motorcycle purchases, particularly among vets. With fluctuating gas prices, motorcycles have become even more popular because they are a less expensive means of transportation compared to cars. But the NHTSA has found that among drivers involved in speeding-related crashes in 2006, more motorcyclists (37 percent) died than passenger car drivers (23 percent). Data suggests that the faster the bike, the greater the death rate: More than 70 percent of motorcycle rider fatalities in 2006 occurred either on a bike with an engine between 501 and 1,000 cubic centimeters in size, or an engine between 1,001 and 1,500 cc’s.

Dutko says that all Marine Corps bases require activeduty soldiers and sailors to complete a safety course to operate a motorcycle. At Camp Lejeune, three safety courses are offered to soldiers and sailors at the base, and are extended to veterans in the Jacksonville, NC, area. The course curriculum is designed by the internationally recognized Motorcycle Safety Foundation.

The 20-hour basic rider course covers classroom and road time, along with motorcycle operation, including how to start the bike, how to shift gears, how to stop, clutch manipulation, steering techniques and safety equipment. Dutko says it’s a different kind of driver’s education course designed specifically for motorcycles. For more experienced riders with cruiser bikes, there is a class to teach them curve negotiation and braking with a heavier vehicle, which might include a second rider on the back. This course is designed for motorcyclists who ride slower, weightier bikes that require a more tactical approach to navigating the streets. Dutko says the riders who typically enroll in this latter course also tend to enjoy comfort over speed.

Sergeant Major John L. Estrada addresses the 10th Marine Regiment
Sergeant Major John L. Estrada addresses the 10th Marine Regiment

A new sport bike course is available for motorcyclists whose machines can get up to speeds of nearly 200 mph. This class covers high-speed braking, high-speed maneuvering and tight cornering skills.

“It is mandatory for all Marines who own a motorcycle or are thinking about buying one, to come into the safety office and sign up for the basic rider course,” Dutko said. “We recommend that they take the class before they purchase the motorcycle. That way they have the skills needed to operate it when they buy it.

“A lot of times, the Marine will buy the motorcycle, and then come in here, and we’ll get them into the class right away. At Camp Lejeune, if somebody comes in here on a Thursday afternoon and wants to sign up for a motorcycle safety class, I can get him in a class by Monday.”

While motorcycle safety courses are readily available to active-duty Marines, according to Hinden, veterans must first seek out the safety courses and pay for them.

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Hinden, an Annapolis, MD, resident, travels regularly to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in nearby Washington, DC, to speak with injured veterans. He arrives via motorcycle, hands out riding magazines, and talks to them in motorcycle lingo. But more importantly, he focuses on safety, and tries to get dealers and manufacturers to support his plan.

He intends to establish an 800 number—or even provide numbers of local motorcycle clubs—so dealers can distribute them to veterans who purchase bikes. In turn, a veteran rider would come to the dealership, offer oneon-one mentorship to a new rider and escort them home with the new bike.

“I would meet them at the dealer. If I couldn’t go, I would find another club member to go. My guys would be glad to do it,” Hinden said. “Have somebody escort them home safely, give them some tips… Some of them drive 20 miles and just don’t get home. I’m trying to put it together and I need help.”

The problem is that, so far, nobody’s taken him up on his idea. Veterans haven’t called him, and companies such as motorcycle manufacturer Kawasaki and insurer Geico have talked with him, but have yet to partner with him.

“I really thought some of these companies would jump on this,” Hinden said. “Many of them go after people’s dollars, but it’s time they give something back, especially to these vets. If they weren’t getting killed in accidents, it wouldn’t be an issue. But they are. That doesn’t give [these companies] a repeat customer.”

To Kawasaki’s credit, the manufacturer is forging a similar program with former professional motorcycle racer Keith Code, who is adapting his riding school and taking it to military bases across the nation. This year he’s held clinics at 20 bases. “My first priority is to get a format for our involvement that ties in some dealers so we can help Keith expand the program moving into 2009,” said Doug Freeman a public relations representive for Kawasaki.

Camp Lejeune has worked closely with area dealerships to provide contact information and handouts to buyers regarding safety instruction, said Dutko. Veterans are directed to the base for free safety courses, while civilians are put in contact with safety course instructors at the local Coastal Carolina Community College, where classes range from $100 to $140 per course. It’s a typical practice around the country to use community colleges to provide civilian safety instruction.

Whether it’s on the base or in the classroom, Dutko agrees with Hinden that a new rider can gain a great deal from interacting with a veteran rider. Camp Lejeune promotes mentorship by requiring motorcyclists on base to register with one of the base motorcycle clubs, and to participate in group rides. Harley-Davidson has a similar program called Rider’s Edge, which pairs new riders with seasoned wheelmen.

“The best thing that we can do across the board is mentoring,” Dutko said. “If you are a new motorcyclist, riding with somebody else for a period of time or having someone critique your ride from Point A to Point B, and give you pointers along the way, that can do a world of good.”

“The seasoned rider has the opportunity to [say] here’s what I saw that you did well; here’s what I saw that maybe you can do better to help keep yourself safer,” Dutko said. “Our [newer] guys come back and tell us, ‘This is a great thing. I learned so much from that guy…’”

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The future holds great possibility, but Dutko lives in the present. Every day he must face the Daily Mishap report.

“When we lose a Marine, it’s like losing a family member,” he said. “And we really take that to heart. We know we’ve got more and more motorcyclists on the road. We’ve got to make sure that we get them the education, training and mentoring they need. We owe it to our Marines—our family—to do that.”

Dutko paused as he thought about the staggering motorcycle mishap statistics, and then came up with a number that he’d like to see on those reports:

“Zero,” he said. “We’re shooting for zero.”

by Joshua Pate

Required personal protective equipment:

• Snell-approved helmet

• Protective eyewear (goggles or full-face shield attached to helmet)

• Reflective vest (Motorcycle Safety Foundation approved; no backpacks worn over the vest)

• Long-sleeved shirt or jacket

• Long trousers

• Full-fingered leather gloves

• Hard-soled shoes with heels

Motorcycle Industry Council

Snell Memorial Foundation

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