Riding a high risk

Spring signals the return of motorcycles to the roads and the serious accidents that go with them, many of them caused by the inattentiveness of drivers in cars.

News Staff Reporter

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DENNIS C. ENSER/Buffalo News
Motorcyclists run a heightened risk in traffic because a majority of automobile drivers don't know what to do when they encounter a bike on the road. Many don't even see them.

When the snow melts every spring, certain things happen in quick succession: The sun comes out, the grass grows, flowers bloom, and people die on motorcycles.
After a long winter of jockeying for position with mammoth snowplows, car drivers suddenly find themselves sharing the road with motorcycles again. And when the two clash in traffic, no matter whose fault, the motorcyclist always loses.

More than 35,500 people hold motorcycle licenses in Erie County, about 18 percent of the driving population.

And the accident rate across the state is one crash for every 125 or so riders.

In fact, four or five injured bikers roll through the emergency room doors at Erie County Medical Center - the area's epicenter for trauma treatment - each week during the spring, summer and fall. "They're some of the worst injuries we see," said Dr. Timothy Jordan, trauma surgeon at ECMC. "Really the only other accident circumstance where it would be worse is when you have a car versus a pedestrian."

So far this spring, four local motorcyclists have died, and close to a dozen others have been critically injured.

"It's usually not even the motorcyclist's fault - it's just people not paying attention to what's around their car," said Deputy Mike Summers of the Erie County Sheriff's Department's accident investigation unit.

The most common setup for a motorcycle-car accident is when a car cuts a motorcycle off by turning left in front of it. Other times, cars rear-end bikers, or bikers misjudge when trying to steer around cars next to them.

Although safety courses teach motorcyclists defensive riding tactics and how to escape a sticky situation with a car, bikers rights groups say car drivers have to meet them halfway.

New York State requires that driver education classes include a component on safe driving near motorcycles, but few high schools mandate driver ed.

So unless drivers count bikers among their friends and family, they're unlikely to know much about what to do when they encounter motorcyclists on the road.

"Drivers just aren't that attentive to motorcycles," said Ross Cellino, an attorney who often represents motorcycle accident victims through his personal-injury firm, Cellino and Barnes. "Almost always, the driver says they didn't see them."

Regardless of the details of the crash, motorcyclists face a double threat when they crash.

In addition to the initial impact, they're almost always knocked off their bikes and thrown into the air. They may land dozens of feet away, or be hit by oncoming cars, and that's when the worst injuries occur.

Bones, especially the extremities; ruptured spleens; and damaged livers are the most common casualties of motorcycle crashes, he said. Those injuries usually can be treated through surgery, physical therapy and rehabilitation.

But brain and spinal cord injuries are the biggest risks for bikers, and from those, there's often no return.

Paralysis is a huge physical hurdle to overcome, but brain injuries can change what can't even be seen: the very core of a person.

"Even if they don't die, brain injuries can really change a person's personality, and that causes big problems in families," said Nesa Thurai, ECMC's chief of rehabilitation. "The person the family brings home isn't the person that they used to be."

Helmets are believed to be an essential safety element for motorcyclists, and New York is one of only 20 states with mandatory motorcycle helmet laws. In the mid-1970s, 47 states had them, but states began ending the requirement after Congress stopped threatening to withhold federal highway money to states without those laws.

The 30 states without across-the-board helmet laws have varying degrees of helmet requirements, such as provisions calling for new riders or minors to wear them.

Lobbies in states where helmet laws have been repealed argued that it's essentially a freedom-of-choice issue.

"The notion that the helmet is the silver bullet that will always protect you is just not honest," said Imre Szauter, legislative affairs specialist for the American Motorcyclists Association. "It's a personal choice of whether you want to take the risk or not."

Indeed, helmets are no guarantee of survival, no substitute for the protective shell that the outside of a car provides to its passengers. In all the local motorcycle fatalities this spring, the riders were wearing helmets. In some of the worst crashes, law enforcers reported that riders' helmets were ripped off upon impact.

But one way that helmet opponents get around the law is to wear the small half-shell helmets that offer no face protection, just a chin strap. They aren't approved for safe riding by the federal Department of Transportation, but it's unlikely riders would ever be stopped or ticketed for wearing one, Summers said.

"There's a lot of risks that people want to take, and we can't baby-sit them all the time," he said.

Motorcycle accidents aren't choosy - they strike riders young and old, brand-new to the bike or with years of experience. Of the four men killed in motorcycle accidents this spring, three were middle aged and the fourth was in his early 20s.

"Everyone's skills are rusty when the motorcycle season starts, but what we find is that even the older, more experienced riders on pretty expensive bikes are getting into accidents," Summers said. "It's not always the young kids out there hot-rodding."

The accident's consequences can far transcend the physical.

Fifty percent of drivers carry only a minimum amount of third-party liability insurance on their car insurance policy, Cellino said. In New York State, that's $25,000 - enough to buy a new motorcycle, but nowhere near enough to pay months of medical bills and equip a home for someone who has been paralyzed.

And no matter how much at fault a driver was, there's not usually much money to be gotten from suing that person. "Unless they're Donald Trump, it's not worth it, because you're not going to get anything from them," he said. "And then all the motorcyclist is left with is a life-altering injury that leaves them unable to speak or walk."

e-mail: hauer@buffnews.com

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