2013 Critical Days of Summer, Week 7: Born to be Wild

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Brandon Sutliff
  • 341st Missile Wing Safety
As a motorcycle owner and operator, I must say that riding is quite a thrill. There is a sense of freedom when riding a motorcycle; you are keener of the surrounding environment and feel like you are part of the machine. It is different than driving a car; leaning into a long rolling corner, and being more connected to the road. The experience does, however, come with real risks. Every operator has to weigh these risks and ensure the reward of riding outweighs the hazards.

The Air Force lost nine Airmen due to motorcycle mishaps during last years' Critical Days of Summer. Along with those losses, there were 95 reported mishaps involving a motorcycle which resulted in lost duty days. All 95 individuals are extremely lucky. The margin of error between being injured to being deadly is very small when it comes to motorcycles. The goal of every motorcycle operator should be to recognize all of the risk factors and take steps to protect themselves to the highest degree possible.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration reported that the percentage of intoxicated motorcycle riders in fatal crashes is greater than the percentage of intoxicated four-wheeled vehicle operators. Six of the nine Air Force losses last year involved alcohol. Alcohol slows a person's reaction time; something very important when operating a motorcycle and attempting to maneuver around fixed or moving objects.

Training helps to recognize the basics and aids to correct bad habits. For military members, training is required before being allowed to operate a motorcycle, whether on or off the installation. All riders are required to attend the Basic Riders Course through the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Malmstrom's Safety Office has teamed up with Montana State University-Northern to provide this course at no cost to military members. For veteran riders, there are courses available to help brush up on the basics and learn new tricks. Again, at no cost to the military member, the Experienced Riders Course and Advanced Riders Course are available. As of January, according to the Department of Defense Instruction 6055.04, all military motorcycle operators are required to complete a refresher course every five years. Potential and current registered riders can contact their unit motorcycle representative to sign up for courses.

Personal Protective Equipment:
A big risk taken when riding a motorcycle is that riders are more exposed to the elements. In an accident, the risk of injury is much greater than a car accident. A DOT or SNELL certified helmet, jacket, gloves, over the heel boots and pants are required and reduce the likelihood of traumatic injury when compared to just a pair of sunglasses, a t-shirt, shorts and tennis shoes. When meeting the pavement at 50 mph, it is simple: PPE saves lives.

Weather conditions:
Most people associate motorcycle riding with warm, sunny weather. Just like operating a car, there is greater risk for accident and injury when Mother Nature does not want to cooperate. Wet roads bring a loss of traction and reduced visibility, not a good situation considering motorcycles have less rubber on the road and no windshield wipers. Wind is often a culprit when it comes to motorcycle accidents. Strong crosswinds can blow an operator and their bike off the road much easier than a car. In any case, check the weather conditions for your planned route and have a plan if adverse conditions are encountered.

Road conditions and familiarity: The roadway surface condition can also be a risk factor in a possible motorcycle incident. Rocks and debris can cause a loss of traction. Oil and grease on the roadway can cause the rear wheel to break loose and turn a motorcycle sideways. Road construction can cause a headache. What was thought to be a paved road can turn into a gravel bypass for a number of miles. Driving on an unknown road can lead to the discovery of new traffic hazards, including blind corners, obstructions and animal crossings. Check local and state resources, such as a state Department of Transportation website, to check current road conditions, possible construction and other traffic hazards.

Every time I get on my bike, I know there are additional risks compared to jumping in the car. All motor vehicle operators need to be aware of their surroundings and to reduce the number of distractions. Motorcycle operators need to have an even greater sense of this, as there is less protection between them and the pavement if an accident occurs. Proper training, serviceable PPE and knowledge of conditions tip the balance in the motorcyclists favor for a safe, enjoyable trip.