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Motorcycle safety is not like riding a bike

Team Oregon riding trainer offers tip for staying safe on a bike

Increased motorcycle fatalities in recent years emphasize the importance of riders practicing and improving their skills, say safety advocates and instructors.

Motorcycle fatalities in 2020 rose 11%, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That year saw 5,579 motorcyclists killed and 82,528 injured.

Stewart Holmes, motorcycle instructor for the training program Team Oregon, urges motorcyclists to take responsibility for their own safety and to protect themselves through practice, training and good judgment. The program holds classes and workshops throughout the summer.

“They are perishable skills,” Holmes said. “If you aren’t constantly practicing, when things go sideways, you may not be able to react.”

Holmes remembered the day he hit a deer seven years ago. He was taking the long way home, he said, on Sterling Creek Road.

“When the deer ran in front of me, I straightened up and put on the brakes — there was no way to avoid it. I killed the deer, wrecked the bike, but I didn’t go down. I was unhurt; I made it home safely.”

Holmes doesn’t credit his 40 years of riding experience for his survival that day, but rather his extensive training and practice. It’s one thing to know what to do, Holmes said, but another to have muscle memory built in.

Holmes urges riders to practice braking and quick stops.

He prefers that riders take classes, like ones through Team Oregon, where they can practice drills with skilled instructors in a safe environment. But riders can find quiet places like parking lots, accelerate up to 15 to 20 miles per hour and practice braking.

In a panic stop, like for a deer or an unexpected car, riders often grab the front brakes. But Holmes stresses the importance of smooth and progressive application of the front brakes, to properly transfer the rider’s weight to the tire, giving it more traction and allowing for more braking power.

Holmes encourages riders to trust their bikes to be capable of handling corners — common spots for motorcycle accidents in Oregon. Holmes said he believes many accidents could be avoided with frequent practice and good judgment.

“Every time I hear about a crash, almost without fail, I think this crash did not have to happen,” Holmes said.

Holmes said riders often fail to choose a line of sight through a curve — planning where the bike needs to go and how to get there. Motorcyclists often get to the middle of a curve before realizing they’re going too fast.

Holmes said bikers need to press more, lean more, do not brake and trust the bike to do what it’s capable of doing. Holmes said riders need to remember the motorcycle will go where they are looking. They need to keep their eyes up and focused on where they want to go.

Riders know they should not consume alcohol or be under the influence of any substances while riding, but many forget the danger of fatigue.

Holmes suggests riders watch for small failures, like being easily surprised, skipping gears when switching gears or coming to a stop unbalanced. These can mean a rider needs to take a break. Even pulling over for as little as five to 10 minutes can help.

Holmes said his classes give riders the confidence to enjoy riding and be safer. Holmes became a motorcycle instructor after he took a Team Oregon class with his son.

“It made me an instant convert,” Holmes said. “In the basic course I learned things I didn’t know after 30 years of riding. My abilities and enjoyment have increased dramatically because of the experience.”

Those on four wheels can also help keep riders safe.

“Recognize that it is not a motorcycle, but a motorcyclist,” said Patrick Hahn, advanced training and engagement manager for the Team Oregon program at Oregon State University. “Somebody is really counting on that person to come home.”

Hahn said the biggest mistake drivers make is a misunderstanding based on size. Motorcycles are smaller — it’s easier for them to be lost in blind spots — and cars are less likely to look for bikes because they don’t pose as much of a threat as larger vehicles.

Motorcycles’ narrow profiles with a single headlight makes it harder to judge how far away a bike is and how fast it’s coming up. Hahn urges those behind the wheel of a car to look twice at a bike to better judge following distance and to give motorcycles the room and the time they need at intersections.

It’s also important to give motorcycles more room on the road, Hahn said. Motorcyclists may not occupy the entire lane, but drivers need to resist the temptation to follow closely or, worse, try to go around a motorcycle.

“There are three lane positions: center, left and right. We use those to make ourselves more visible in traffic, and we have to be ready to move around obstacles.”

Motorcyclists need to be able to maneuver around gravel, uneven roads, potholes, oil spills or other road obstructions Hahn said. At this time of year, drivers may also not be prepared to look for motorcyclists, as fewer bikers ride in the winter or fall.

Team Oregon is now offering classes in Medford, including advanced riding techniques, June 2- 4; a cornering clinic, June 5; a braking clinic, June 25; a precision maneuvering clinic, June 26; and a rider skills practice, Aug. 27. See team-oregon.org for more information.

For more information about how to ride safely, see the list of videos at the bottom of the page at nsc.org/road-safety/safety-topics/motorcycle-safety

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.