Bucking the trend

Despite national increase, local motorcycle deaths low but hurdles, safety questions remain

The number of motorcycles traveling the Kenai Peninsula’s roads are rapidly dropping as fall temperatures do the same. Recreational riders have stored away their bikes at the end of what could be considered a safe riding season.

 

Only one motorcycle-related death occurred this year on the Peninsula compared to multiple deaths in previous years, authorities said.

However, similar deaths have increased nationally by 55 percent since 2000, according to a State of Alaska Epidemiology report. Conditions specific to the state make motorcycle riding more dangerous than in other states, but Alaska’s crashes resulting in hospitalization have fluctuated during the past decade. American Legion Riders and local authorities would support a universal helmet law, they said.

As of Sept. 12, one motorcycle death occurred on the Peninsula. Last year, four deaths occurred, and a total of 10 motorcycle deaths occurred statewide, according to the Department of Transportation & Public Facilities.

Sgt. Eugene Fowler, Alaska State Trooper and member of the Bureau of Highway Patrol’s regional traffic unit, attributed the two years’ deaths on the Peninsula to inattentiveness, either by the motorcyclists or drivers of other vehicles.

From 2000 to 2010, the Alaska Trauma Registry captured 745 hospitalizations due to motorcycle crashes, which accounted for 13 percent of all traffic accident-related hospitalizations in the registry.

Hospitalization rates were highest among adults aged 50-59 years, according to the report. White males — who were the majority of hospitalized motorcycle crash victims — were 90 percent Alaskans, not tourists.

Also, rates were highest among residents living in the Gulf Coast and Northern regions, with 17 percent and 22 percent, respectively. The report concluded riding in Alaska is dangerous for many reasons.

Bob Myles, director of the American Legion Riders Kenai chapter, blames crashes that safe riders suffer on frost heaves and large cracks caused by permafrost.

“The highways are particularly dangerous because of the frost heaves,” Myles said. “They fill the (road) cracks with sealant, and that can create issues with the stability of a motorcycle. When it rains, the sealant gets really slick.”

Don Ridl, the Legion’s state director, agrees with his fellow member’s opinions, adding riders are rarely informed of unmaintained roads.

“In other states, when roads are under construction, like on a class A highway, road crews place warning signs for motorcyclists,” Ridl said.

And debris covers the Peninsula’s roads during summer, Fowler said.

“The area certainly has a high number of gravel roads that intersect with the paved roads,” he said. “And with sanding in the winter ... there are times when sand, dirt, gravel cover the highways. Add weather conditions to the mix. We have lots of types of riding environments, and sometimes those things catch up to riders.”

The influx of visitors on the Peninsula every summer adds to the dilemma, he said.

Loss of control without a collision is the leading cause of motorcyclist hospitalizations at 46 percent; collisions with a vehicle or pedestrian are the second leading cause at 34 percent, according to the report.

A Soldotna man was killed in late-May when his motorcycle collided with a compact SUV at Mile 91.2 of the Sterling Highway.

Jaramiah Hundley was transported to Central Peninsula Hospital shortly after the collision around 4 p.m. where he was pronounced dead, troopers reported. When Troopers arrived, they initiated life-saving measures until paramedics arrived.

Mickie Warwick, 56, of Anchorage, was the sole occupant of the other vehicle, a Ford Escape that was towing a travel trailer.

The troopers reported the Ford Escape was traveling northbound on the highway when it began turning left into a driveway in front of the motorcycle. The motorcycle was traveling southbound on the highway and impacted the passenger side of the vehicle.

The report argues “longer periods of daylight during the summer months may make prolonged travel more tempting, increasing the potential for driver fatigue.”

Alaska does not have a universal helmet law, but helmets are required for motorcyclists less than 18 years old, all passengers and riders with instruction permits.

Crash victims are 70 percent more likely to sustain a traumatic brain injury and 2.3 times more likely to die if they were not wearing a helmet during a severe wreck, according to the report.

The Legion, or the majority of its members, would support a universal helmet law, Ridl said. About 99 percent of the Legion’s riders wear helmets.

Kenai’s Legion director wears a helmet for one obvious reason, he said.

“My own personal opinion is that if you don’t wear a helmet you’re looking to donate body parts,” Myles said.

Requiring riders to wear helmets is a contentious issue, Fowler said.

“I believe people should wear them,” Myles said. “But everyday the federal government is taking more choices away from us. So, the question is, when does it stop.”

Health care providers should educate patients who ride motorcycles about the importance of wearing helmets and protective clothing, Public Health suggests. Hospital charges totaled $29 million during 2000-2010, according to the report.

 

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy.shedlock@peninsulaclarion.com.

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