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Avoidable Injuries: Motorcycle Safety in Southern California

It is a bright July morning in Encino. A middle-aged motorcyclist breezes through traffic on the San Diego Freeway. He easily passes cars and trucks. It’s an ideal morning for riding – the road is dry and the oppressive afternoon heat is still hours away. The motorcyclist is just north of Mulholland Drive when he hits a car.

A routine series of events follow – motorists slam on their brakes and someone calls 911. A California Highway Patrol dispatcher issues a SigAlert at 9:12 a.m., lanes close and local TV crews warn of a miles-long traffic jam.

The motorcyclist is rushed to a nearby hospital, where he dies. His family isn’t notified by press time, so he becomes memorialized in brief news reports as “a man in his 50s.”

Invisible Motorcyclists

Around 400 people are killed in California motorcycle crashes every year. Over half of all deadly motorcycle accidents involve other vehicles. Many of these drivers say that they simply “didn’t see the motorcyclist” before impact. The relative invisibility of motorcyclists is one of the leading contributors to fatal crashes.

Motorcyclists are often hit when they stray into a car’s blind spots or become obscured by objects outside of a car, such as bushes. “Biggest driver of motorcycle accidents remains another road user failure to see an approaching motorcycle, even a motorcycle in plain sight and seen by other motorists,” says traffic safety expert Jim Ouellet.

Busy Southern California Roads Also Create Unique Hazards for Motorcyclists

Blake P. Anderson, chairman of the Southern California Motorcycling Association, says that rush hour traffic and distracted drivers present significant dangers to Los Angeles bikers. Mr. Anderson also notes that speed and alcohol amplify normal road hazards.

“Riders must remain aware that they are essentially invisible, that any amount of alcohol and that riding recklessly are bad news,” Mr. Anderson says.

The Lone Crash Victim

In early June, a 26-year-old Fontana Police Department officer was enjoying a ride through the Angeles National Forest.

Officer Thomas Chamberlin was on a winding mountain road above the city of Azusa when he lost control of his bike and hit the side of the mountain. The Marine veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffered critical head injuries and had to be airlifted by emergency crews.

Chamberlin was pronounced dead at USC-Los Angeles County Medical Center. His death was one of the dozens of fatal solo crashes to occur in Los Angeles County every year.

About a Third of California Motorcycle Deaths Occur in Solo Crashes

Of the motorcyclists involved in fatal collisions in 2011, 147 involved no other vehicles, according to the California Highway Patrol.

CHP statistics indicate that motorcyclists are at fault in 92 percent of solo crashes. Traffic safety expert Jim Ouellet says many rider issues can cause a solo crash and that no single fatal “rider problem” emerges in accident data.

“Rider problems can be entering turns too fast, then braking badly, tailgating, over braking and slide-out during collision avoidance,” Mr. Ouellet says. “Published research shows that rider collision avoidance errors are not remedied by rider training or experience.”

California’s scenic mountain roads may also present a unique danger to local riders, especially young ones. “New riders and speeding riders have easy access to world-class mountain roads in the nearby San Gabriel, San Bernardino, and the San Jacinto Mountains,” says Blake Anderson of the Southern California Motorcycling Association. “Single-vehicle accidents occur up there on the weekends at alarming rates.”

Proper Equipment May Reduce Motorcycle Crash Injuries

Motorcyclists who survive crashes often suffer catastrophic spine and brain injuries. These injuries often require lifelong care or otherwise diminish the quality of life for survivors.

According to the California Department of Public Health, 13,021 motorcyclists were hospitalized for nonfatal traumatic brain injuries between 2002 and 2012.

In 2011, 61 motorcycle fatalities involved riders who lacked proper safety equipment. The use of the proper gear is the single most effective way for motorcyclists to improve their chances of surviving a serious accident and reducing their injuries.

“All the gear, all the time’ (ATGATT) is something that the Southern California Motorcycling Association urges all of its riders to follow and most of them do,” says Chairman Blake P. Anderson. “This means a helmet, heavy boots, armored gloves, armored riding pants and jacket under all circumstances.”

Thin Beanie or “Half-Helmets” Have Become Popular in Recent Years for California Motorcyclists

These trendy novelty helmets often fail to provide meaningful protection for bikers and have not helped reduce the number of traumatic brain injuries on the road.

“Beanie helmets are as useful as a fake fire extinguisher,” says safety expert Jim Ouellet. “They’ll protect against scalp sunburn and traffic tickets, but are worthless at reducing impact loads.”

The California Office of Traffic Safety also recommends that motorcyclists use proper safety gear at all times, including the Department of Transportation-compliant helmets and eye protection.

The push for increased safety gear use comes at a time when motorcycle fatalities are rising throughout the state. Motorcycle fatalities increased 4.6 percent from 2011 to 2012, according to California’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System.

This article is provided by Greene Broillet & Wheeler, LLP, Southern California’s pre-eminent plaintiffs trial law firm. For more information about Greene Broillet’s motorcycle injury practice, contact us online or call (866) 634-4525.