Tags: Featured Feature story
June 19, 2012 | 04:59 PMELKHORN — Without the confines of an automobile, motorcyclists can enjoy the open road and have the wind at their backs.
However that metal wall and roof does more than stop the wind. It provides a layer of protection between the motorist and the rest of the world.
In the past few weeks, four bikers were killed on Walworth County highways. A few others were seriously injured. Two of the bikers died in accidents in which another driver allegedly didn't obey the right of way and pulled out in front of them.
The recent spike in motorcycle crashes caused the Walworth County Sheriff's Department to issue a press release that reminds motorists of the "Rules of the Road."
"It's an age-old highway safety traffic saying designed to protect some of the most defenseless drivers on our highways," the press release said. "Motorcycles offer limited visibility to other motorists."
In the past, bikers were often viewed as tattooed troublemakers, but that stigma has slowly been shed. Today, many bikers hold professional jobs and a few of Walworth County's finest also ride on their time off. Members of law enforcement who ride during their spare time recently shared their safety tips with the Regional News.
One of the biggest gripes that cops who ride bikes have is with people talking on their cell phones or sending text messages. These distracted drivers are often the people they see pull out in front of them and who aren't paying attention.
"One of the things I'm seeing a lot of when I'm biking right now is people going down the road texting," Delavan Lt. Gregory Strohm said. "If you are texting and talking on the phone you can't pay 100 percent attention to the road. I'm really hoping we get to the point where we outlaw using a cell phone while you are driving. It just way too distracting."
Walworth Police Officer Steve Sigmund said he also has seen a lot of people driving while using their cell phone or their GPS.
"If they start drifting are you going to be able to avoid a collision?" Sigmund asked. "Hopefully, you can."
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Both Strohm and Sigmund said it is also important to watch cars at intersections.
"Try to make eye contact with people at crossing intersections. In other words, when someone comes up to a stop sign and I am on the highway going past them, I will always try to make eye contact with them and I will slow down until I actually see them look at me," Strohm said. "That's huge. That would avoid a lot of problems for motorcyclists to make sure you are looking at that person and to make sure they see you."
Sigmund said a mistake he often sees is people making dangerous decisions after being cutoff by another motorist.
"A guy is going down the road in a bike and someone pulls out in front of them, and he has got to lay on the binders a little bit. That rage starts to kick up a notch and he tries to pass in front of them and that is where you start getting your problems," Sigmund said. "Yes, the person pulled out in front of you, it was stupid, but it makes no sense to put yourself in jeopardy to gun it and get around them. Just to make faces at them. Go back a notch and just keep going."
Strohm said another rule of the road was reinforced to him last summer while he was riding his motorcycle in California with a few other police officers.
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That lesson was not to ride too close to other vehicles. His motorcycle was hit by what he calls "alligators." An alligator is tire-tread strip that comes off a busted tire.
While riding down the expressing way, the car in front of Strohm hit an alligator, which sent it flying back at his motorcycle.
"She hit it with her car and it flew up in the air and hit the left side of my bike," Strohm said. "It hit my buddy on the right side of his bike. All together it did about $1,200 damage to both of our bikes."
Luckily for Strohm, he was able to keep his balance and not fall off his bike on a busy California freeway.
"You don't want to go down there because you would get run over," he said. "We were probably too close, but there was a lot of traffic on the freeway out there, and if you leave too much room people will cut in front of you then."
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"Obviously, at night you have to be very careful of wildlife, and at any time you have to be careful of loose gravel in the roads," Strohm said.
Strohm said he has lights on the front and back of his bike, which increases its visibility at night.
"There are some bikes that people don't see and I just feel more comfortable with you a few lights on my bike," Strohm said.
Instead of tips, Strohm also offered a plea to other motorists. That plea is to drivers, who aren't passing, to stay in the right lane.
"People aren't doing that anymore either. I notice that on I-90 when you are going up toward Madison that people just drive wherever they want and invariably they are in the left lane talking on their cell phone," Strohm said. "It makes it very unsafe for bikers because you are not suppose to pass on the right. These people will drive under the speed limit, in the left lane on their cell phone. To me that is deplorable."
What about helmets?
The press release from the Walworth County Sheriff's Department recommends wearing helmets and other protective gear when riding a bike.
"Wisconsin laws do not require you to wear a helmet, but it still is highly recommended," the release states. "It is the single most effective tool a motorcyclist has to protect themselves from brain injury or death on the roadway. Padded reflective clothing is highly recommended. Wearing highly reflective clothes will increase the chance of others seeing you while your ride."
However, despite the warnings there is some disagreement on how much a helmet will help. ABATE of Wisconsin is an organization that actively opposes mandatory helmet and seatbelt laws.
Sigmund said his personal view on helmets is that they won't do much in a major accident.
"The only thing its going to do is have you have an open casket," Sigmund said. "You have no protection if a car is going to turn in front of you, or come at you head on. It's your body versus metal and a helmet."
Sigmund said he wears a helmet in the states that require it, but otherwise doesn't.
Strohm said he doesn't always wear a helmet, but said he thinks they provide additional safety for bikers.
Despite the dangers and the recent spike in deaths in Walworth County, Strohm said he wouldn't give up biking for anything.
"I love to ride, I ride a few thousand miles a year. It is a great thrill, every place I have been to on my motorcycle I have been in a car," Strohm said. "It is just so much different on a bike, you are living the experience as opposed to looking out the window of a car," Strohm said. "I can't describe the feeling unless you do it. In the last five years I have taken Route 66 with various people out to California and then come back through the mountains and the Rockies. There is no greater experience than riding a motorcycle through the desert and then going through the Rocky Mountains when there is snow on the ground or the side of the road. It is just a tremendous experience, and it is not the same experience in a car, I don't feel."