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White-Knuckle Commuting : Thousands Zip to Work on Motorcycles Despite Documented Risk


A helmeted motorcycle rider on a powerful red-and-black racing bike weaved skillfully between cars on the congested Harbor Freeway, alert for any sign that a driver might change lanes and wipe him out.

"Motorcycle riding is dangerous," Jack Worrall agreed on a recent sunny day, before starting the 28-mile commute home from his university job. "It scares me constantly, but I'm willing to trade that (fear) for the feel of riding."

Splitting traffic lanes on the most dangerous freeway in Los Angeles with a passenger clinging on behind him, Worrall, 43, gunned the sleek two-wheeler with the big 750cc engine between a van and an old station wagon.

Every day Worrall and several thousand other Southern California commuters crank up their bikes and brave the congested freeways and busy surface streets. Nowhere else are there quite so many of these powerful motorcycles roaring down the white lines.

"Southern California is the motorcycling capital of the world," said J. B. Moore, spokesman for the Highway Patrol's California Motorcyclist Safety Program. "It's because there are more people putting more miles on motorcycles than anywhere else . . . and (as a result) there are more injuries and more deaths too."

Commuting on a motorcycle is far more dangerous than driving a car. Research reported in the American Journal of Surgery shows a cyclist's chances of injury or death in a crash are 50 times higher than people in automobiles.

In Orange County, California Highway Patrol statistics from 1987 (the most recent figures available) state that one in 40 motorcycle accidents results in a fatality. Furthermore, 46 motorcyclists died in accidents that year.

Who are these people who ride motorcycles day in and day out? And why do they take the risks, knowing that at any instant a car may cut them off or that an oil slick could spill the bike?

Most motorcyclists, young and old, are quick to defend their two-wheeled machines and say that media sensationalism, hostile motorists and uninformed politicians exaggerate the dangers and promote a negative image, making recreational riders out to be scruffy outlaw bikers on choppers.

"Motorcycling has an image problem," said Dexter Ford, executive editor of Motorcyclist magazine in a recent editorial opposing legislative attempts to impose safety laws on all riders.

The Costa Mesa-based Motorcycle Industry Council in 1985 conducted a national survey of people who do not drive motorcycles and found that 39% of those polled had either "very negative" or "somewhat negative" attitudes toward motorcycles. The poll also found that 30% were neutral and 26% were positive toward cycles.

For motorists trapped in traffic, the sight of motorcycles splitting lanes or weaving through street traffic can be irritating and does not look safe--or legal.

Lane splitting is legal, authorities agree. Research shows that most motorcycle-auto crashes are the fault of the car or truck drivers who violate the cyclist's right of way. It is also true that when a motorcyclist goes down, the impact can be tragic--and long lasting.

Virgil Petrocelly, a 49-year-old cabinetmaker, sat at a table in a Pomona rehabilitation hospital staring at the picture of an eating utensil, unable to write the word fork. Laboriously he scrawled f-o-r-t, then stabbed the pencil down in anger, hissing, "That's not right!" Although Petrocelly has recovered from most of his other injuries after crashing his motorcycle on the San Bernardino Freeway last October, the damage to his brain has short-circuited his ability to read and write, therapists say. Sometimes he knows the word or number, sometimes not.

Like many others, he was not wearing a helmet at the time he went down. Severe head injuries are the rule, not the exception, in such crashes, safety experts say.

Erin Millsap, a 21-year-old championship wrestler at Cal State Fullerton, was a passenger on a motorcycle driven by a former teammate when the bike crashed on a steep slope on Bastanchury Road near State College Boulevard on Sept. 15.

Millsap was thrown from the motorcycle onto the pavement.

In 1983, Fountain Valley police stopped using motorcycles to patrol traffic because of the number of officers injured while riding.

When actor Gary Busey, 45, lost control of his motorcycle on a Culver city street and went down in December, 1988, he hit his unprotected head on the curb and was rushed to the hospital in critical condition.

At the time, Busey was actively lobbying against a bill in the state Legislature that would have required riders to wear helmets. After months of rehabilitation, Busey returned to work, still opposed to mandatory helmet laws for experienced riders over 21. California law now requires youngsters 15 and under to wear helmets, but no one else.

Despite reports to the contrary, Busey's position has not changed, according to his business manager, Herb Nanas. "Gary hasn't changed his mind; he still rides without a helmet," Nanas said in a recent phone interview.

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