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Bikers' thrills lead to more spills

Motorcycle deaths rose 140% in 10 years, in part because more people are riding, and using stronger engines.

May 25, 2008|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Weekend warriors, the growing number of leather-clad motorcycle lovers who fire up their high-performance bikes around Memorial Day and take to California's scenic roads, are increasingly falling victim to deadly accidents caused in large part by risky riding.

Shane Matthews, weekend crew chief of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department's air rescue squad, knows the dangers of the highway firsthand. His crew pilots a blue and yellow Bell helicopter to remote crash scenes, plucking up one injured rider after another -- or worse.

"On nice weekends, when the weatherman says it's going to be sunny, we get the copter gassed up and ready to go," Matthews said. "Because you can just predict that someone's going to do something that started out fun and ends up a disaster."

Throngs of riders on chrome-laden cruisers and sleek sport bikes seek out twisting roads and wind-in-your-face freedom, converging on spots like the Rock Store near Malibu, Neptune's Net on Pacific Coast Highway or the Deer Lodge north of Ojai.

The increasing number of riders has brought a jump in motorcycle-related injuries and fatalities, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Over the last decade, the CHP has tracked a 140% increase in the number of motorcyclists killed in collisions statewide. In 2006, 433 riders were killed and 10,188 were injured in California.

Nearly half of the fatalities occurred between June and September, a pattern that recurs each year, according to the state data. The CHP report is compiled annually from traffic collision data sent by local police and sheriff's jurisdictions and from CHP field offices.

Fran Clader, a CHP spokeswoman, said there are more motorcycle riders on the roads each year. In urban areas, many collisions are the result of inattention by automobile drivers sharing the road with the more agile two-wheeled bikes. But bikers out for a recreational ride often take risks that can result in tragedy, such as speeding or racing each other.

CHP data show that the vast majority of accidents are caused by young men going faster than the posted speed limits.

In recent years, the average age of registered motorcycle riders has risen to the mid-40s as more baby boomers hit the roads. The bikes they are selecting have bigger and more powerful engines, "leading to more fatalities," Clader said.

"People are pulling out motorcycles that they haven't ridden in a while and their skills might be a little rusty," she said.

All it takes is a moment's inattention.

Speed was apparently a factor in the single-bike crash last year of a young man on California 33, a two-lane mountain road in Ventura County favored by riders. Robert Evans and Susan Lavelle found him moments after the crash sitting on the dirt shoulder, dazed, with a compound fracture in one leg, Evans recalled.

"The first thing he said was, 'How's my bike?' " Evans said.

Evans and Lavelle calmed the man and directed his riding companions to a spot where cellphone reception was good enough to summon help.

"What bothers me is they are in a place where it takes so long to get help," said Evans, who frequently hikes the Ventura County backcountry and has witnessed several crashes. "You can't just have an ambulance there in 10 minutes."

Ventura County's deep mountainous territory and two scenic state highways make it a popular draw for weekend bikers.

Gordon Clawson, an Ojai physician who used to work in the emergency room at the local community hospital, said the calls followed a familiar pattern. "If I'm in Ojai and see that blue and yellow helicopter flying overhead, I turn to someone and say, 'Well there's another crushed motorcycle.' "

The Ventura County Sheriff's Department's Aviation Unit is called when a rider's injuries are serious and the crash location is too remote to send an ambulance, Matthews said. A helicopter can fly a patient from Rose Valley, a popular riding destination off California 33, to Ventura County Medical Center in about eight minutes, he said. By ambulance it would take more than an hour.

On a recent spring Sunday, the five-man crew on Air Unit 9 responded to three separate calls of downed motorcycle riders. On the first call, a man in his 50s hit some gravel while riding his Suzuki cruiser in the Santa Monica Mountains, Matthews said. Wipeouts can occur when riders lose control on loose gravel or lean too deeply into a turn.

Robert Sebree, the crew's paramedic, stabilized the man and loaded him onto the chopper for the short flight to a rooftop landing pad at Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks. The crew members were back at their Camarillo hangar for less than 30 minutes when they got a second call to rescue a dirt-bike rider on a trail near the Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area.

There was no place to land the chopper, so Sebree was lowered to assist the injured 45-year-old man. The biker was lifted into the belly of the helicopter and transferred to a nearby ambulance.

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