Despite dangers, Floridians love their motorcycles
Steppenwolf's hard-charging rock anthem, "Born to Be Wild," and the Peter Fonda movie of the same name from the late 1960s are reflections of our national obsession
Almost 700,000 motorcycles are registered in Florida, about three times the number in 2000 when 255,000 were registered.
But that obsession has been deadly. New figures released Oct. 1 show that 425 motorcyclists and 32 passengers died in Florida motorcycle accidents in 2012. Deaths increased from 413 in 2011 and 350 in 2010, for a three-year average of 396.
In addition, 7,809 cyclists were injured in 2012, an increase of 8.55 percent over 2011.
So far this year, 15 motorcyclists have died on Duval County roads, eclipsing last year's 13 deaths for all of 2012, according to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office.
Three reasons are citied for the high number of deadly motorcycle accidents in Florida.
First, the sheer number of motorcycles, about 700,0000, makes it more likely they will be involved in an accident. The second is the repeal of Florida's helmet law in 2000. The third reason is the mild weather, which allows motorcyclists to climb on their bikes almost any time of year.
Angelo M. Patacca Jr., a board-certified civil trial attorney with the law firm Terrell Hogan, often represents motorists and motorcyclists in civil cases involving motorcycle accidents.
As the father of two sons, he has a keen interest in safety when he climbs on his Harley.
"You want to decrease the risks. There is no way to eliminate all the risks," he said.
Patacca cites his own experience and scholarly papers to note that most motorcycle accidents are caused by the drivers of cars.
He cites what he said was a definitive 1981 study by H.H. Hurt Jr. at the University of Southern California's Traffic Safety Center, which identified causes of motorcycle accidents.
"The failure of motorists to detect and recognize motorcycles in traffic is the predominating cause of motorcycle accidents. The driver of the other vehicle involved in the collision with the motorcycle did not see the motorcycle before the collision or did not see the motorcycle until too late to avoid the collision," Hurt noted in the study.
Many fatal accidents are caused by a motorist turning left in front of an oncoming motorcycle, Patacca said.
Most fatal motorcycle accidents occur in intersections, and bikers should do all they can to make themselves conspicuous, by putting reflective tape on their bikes, riding with a modulating headlight, installing running lights and wearing yellow or green high-visibility reflective vests, Patacca said.
"See and be seen," he said. "It's just smart to make yourself more conspicuous to cars."
Rob French, 45, who got his first bike in high school and now drives a Suzuki Boulevard C-90, has an interesting view on dealing with cars.
"I ride like no one can see me," said French, a production manager at Jack Rabbits, a local nightspot. He believes the safest way to ride is to assume that other drivers can't see you. He approaches intersections and cars carefully and leaves plenty of room between his bike and cars in front of him.
About a fourth of all motorcycle accidents involve only a single vehicle, and French and Patacca both contend that sometimes bikers may be going too fast for conditions or have bikes too powerful for them to handle.
Some accidents are caused by motorcycles being driven improperly or illegally. For example, it is illegal in Florida for cyclists to "white line" ride, which is traveling between lanes of cars.
In Florida, the law says a motorcyclist has the right to his own lane, but may share a lane with another biker, riding side by side.
A 2013 study conducted by the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research determined, after analyzing 10 years of Florida motorcycle crashes, that 60 percent of the time, motorists in other vehicles were at fault when they collided with motorcycles.
From 2007 through 2012, the latest statistics available, 118 motorcyclists were killed on Duval County roads.
In Clay County, 10 bikers were killed; eight died in Nassau County and 30 in St. Johns County from 2007 through 2011.
In fatal crashes in 2011, 188 drivers wearing a helmet died; 218 drivers not wearing a helmet were killed.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, helmet use is estimated to prevent 37 percent of fatalities among motorcycle drivers and 41 percent among passengers. In 2010, helmet use saved the lives of 1,544 motorists — another 709 lives might have been saved if all the motorcyclists had worn helmets.
Two recent Duval County crashes, on Sept. 24 and Oct. 1, were directly tied to police activity; neither driver was wearing a helmet.
John A. Blunt, 39, was killed on Oct. 1 when he crashed his motorcycle into a parked U-Haul truck while being pursued by police.
According to a Jacksonville Sheriff's Office news release, a police officer spotted Blunt riding a motorcycle and began following him because he knew Blunt's license had been suspended. After clocking his motorcycle at speeds of more than 100 mph on Atlantic Boulevard, Sgt. J.P. Morgan ended the pursuit. Blunt attempted to turn off the road and struck the rear of the truck. He died at a local hospital.
On Sept. 24, Ray Bullard, 56, of Jacksonville, crashed his motorcycle into a marked JSO cruiser at the intersection of Wilson Boulevard and Jammes Road on the Westside. The police car, driven by Officer J.T. Kramarsic, was heading westbound with lights and sirens going when it was struck on the right rear side by Bullard's motorcycle. Bullard was killed in the collision.
In 2011, Florida officials determined that 49.3 percent of motorcyclists ride with helmets.
"I am pro helmet. I have never been on a bike without a helmet. I have never carried a passenger who didn't have a helmet," said French, who has been riding motorcycles off and on for almost three decades.
"I do want to keep my brain in," French said, noting that one of the common nicknames for a helmet is "brain bucket."
While some eagerly wear a helmet and think wearing them is a good idea, others see requirements to wear a helmet an infringement of civil liberties.
"That's a personal choice," Patacca said. "I always do. You are less likely to suffer fatalities. Helmets have proved time and time again they help prevent fatal injuries and significant brain injuries."
"Having brain injuries lasts a lifetime," he said.
French added that a pet peeve of his is people riding in shorts and flip-flops. Long pants and boots provide the rider with more protection if there's an accident and prevent nasty leg burns, he said.
In Florida, everyone younger than 21 must ride with a helmet and eye protection. Those wanting to ride helmet-less must be covered by an insurance policy providing at least $10,000 in medical benefits for injuries incurred as a result of a motorcycle crash.
Motorcyclists are also covered by driving under the influence laws — a recipe for disaster for both cars and motorcycles. Drinking is a favorite pastime at some of Florida's big motorcycle events, such as Bike Week and Biketoberfest in Daytona Beach.
French said many of what he calls "weekend warriors" know "just enough to be dangerous."
Under Florida law, new motorcyclists regardless of age must take and pass the Basic Rider Course through the Florida Rider Training program before they can obtain a motorcycle-only license or have the motorcycle endorsement added to their automobile driver's license.
"From a safety point of view, there is only so much we can do," Patacca said. "We need to take a lot more into our own hands."