Deaths in motorcycle crashes doubles in 2008
Police trying to curtail future incidents.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
The 1995 Honda motorcycle had been whizzing up an Interstate 35 frontage road in April, approaching St. Johns Avenue, seconds before police said the driver bumped a curb and lost control.
The crash left the motorcycle in a mangled heap.
It also killed Robert Reed Murray, 57, and his passenger, Amanda Kay Corso, 28.
Austin police Detective Adrian Duran said the accident scene "was probably one of the worst I've seen. Motorcycles are even less forgiving than (cars) are."
The deaths have become part of an alarming reality in Austin: The number of people killed in motorcycle crashes last year more than doubled from 2007, rising from eight to 18. Motorcycle deaths accounted for 31 percent of the city's overall traffic fatalities in 2008, compared with 13 percent in 2007, according to police statistics.
Law enforcement officials said the increase appears to be following a national and statewide trend that they think is partially the result of more drivers finding cheaper transportation during last year's gas price surge.
Austin police also count mopeds and scooters in their fatality count. At least one death in 2008 involved such a vehicle.
State and national data concerning motorcycle deaths for 2008 are still being compiled and weren't available Tuesday.
However, John Young, state coordinator for motorcycle training for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said he thinks statistics will reflect a "significant increase," based on conversations with officers across the state.
The spike has prompted Austin police to begin asking motorcycle shop owners to alert customers about the increase and to more often pull over drivers who are not wearing helmets.
Texas law permits people 21 or older to ride without a helmet, as long as they have insurance that will cover up to $10,000 in medical bills or have completed a motorcycle safety course.
Drivers found violating the law can receive a ticket, which carries a fine of up to $500.
Police officials are expected in a meeting today to discuss other ways to address the increase in fatalities.
"It comes down to education, enforcement and engineering," Austin police Cmdr. Donald Baker said. "The biggest impact we are going to have is on the enforcement and education areas."
The chairman of the Texas Motorcycle Rights Association, who goes only by the name Sputnik, said lawmakers also should increase penalties for drivers who disregard the safety of motorcyclists.
They "should share the road and give motorcyclists their fair lane," Sputnik said.
Statewide, police officials from across Texas recently joined motorcycle riders, transportation agency representatives and others in forming the Texas Motorcycle Safety Coalition to address motorcycle deaths. Austin police officials also attended the meeting, which was held in December in College Station.
According to Austin police statistics, the increase in motorcycle deaths happened during a year that saw one fewer traffic fatality overall, with 59 deaths in 2008.
Investigators last year noticed the jump in motorcycle deaths and started studying them more closely, Baker said.
They learned that in 10 of the cases in which drivers were not wearing helmets, five of the drivers were not licensed to drive motorcycles. None of the 10 drivers had completed a motorcycle safety course, Baker said.
Neither Corso nor Reed, killed in the Interstate 35 frontage road crash last year, was wearing a helmet, investigators said.
At the same time, the number of people driving motorcycles exploded statewide in 2008, Young said.
He said officials had projected that they would train about 36,000 drivers in motorcycle safety last year, which would have accounted for the typical 2,500 new drivers they get each year. Instead, they trained 41,491.
"We had instructors who were training as hard and as fast as they could," Young said.
Charles Bishop, an avid motorcycle rider who organizes monthly trips to the Hill County with a dozen to 30 riders, said he is always safety conscious.
He said he usually refrains from driving in heavy traffic and prefers to stay on rural roads.
At the urging of a friend, he recently began wearing a fluorescent vest so motorists can more easily spot him.
Safety, Bishop said, "really boils down to the individual and how much judgment they have. If they don't have good judgment, they are likely to get hurt a lot quicker."