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Military hobby turning deadly

A growing number of Navy and Marine deaths on sport bikes prompts development of a training course.

September 29, 2008|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

An active-duty Navy member was riding his Honda CBR600 sport bike near Barrett Lake last week when he added 30 mph to the 55-mph speed limit, locked up his brakes and skidded through a turn, losing control of his motorcycle, according to the California Highway Patrol in El Cajon.

The rider's body was found 140 feet down an embankment, his bike 75 feet away, the CHP said.

The 34-year-old was one of three Navy personnel who died in the San Diego area last week on sport bikes, deaths that brought into focus a disturbing military statistic:

Last year, 34 of the 37 motorcycle fatalities for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps were on sport bikes, according to the Naval Safety Center; that toll is on track to double this year. As of June, 30 of this year's 32 motorcycle fatalities for such military personnel took place on sport bikes -- race-derived motorcycles that are prized for their quick acceleration, high speed and nimble handling.

Sport bikes come with high accident rates in the civilian world as well, according to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. The machines, which can cost as little as a few thousand dollars, are often purchased by inexperienced riders.

Recognizing that a growing number of military personnel were surviving their deployments only to kill themselves on motorcycles when they returned home, the Naval Safety Center partnered with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation last year to develop a new Military Sportbike RiderCourse.

The course targeted the problem by focusing on the psychology of riding and specific sport-bike techniques. It debuted at Camp Pendleton in late May of this year and has since been adopted at 48 other military sites. More than 1,600 personnel so far have taken the course.

"As we were analyzing our mishaps last year, our team picked up on a new data point, which was the prevalence of sport bikes in those mishaps," said Rear Adm. Arthur J. Johnson, commander of the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk, Va. The trend was not apparent in 2005 or 2006.

"The traditional motorcycle training we were providing wasn't developing the skills they needed to succeed riding high-speed, high-power sport bikes," Johnson said.

More than half of the 25,000 Navy and Marine Corps personnel who ride motorcycles ride sport bikes, and "we suspect that number is rising," Johnson said. Most of those riders are 26 or younger.

Although there are no rules barring military personnel from riding bikes on personal time, the armed services requires them to take periodic safety classes.

Before the new course rolled out, the military offered two safety classes. Both were developed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation and centered on general riding techniques.

The new program places more emphasis on techniques specific to sport-bike riding, such as how to properly brake and corner -- two areas in which deficiencies cause the most accidents. It tackles the complex psychology of motorcycling -- asking riders to take a look at why they ride the way they do.

"The real skill in riding safely is the decision-making between the ears -- not the manipulation of the controls," said Ray Ochs, training director for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation who developed the new course. "It's more how you assess personal risk, how much you pay attention."

Self-assessment -- of road situations, skills and personal proclivities -- is crucial to riding success, Ochs said. That's why he began the class curriculum with a survey that asks students questions including whether they like to do "crazy" things just for fun or whether they act on impulse.

"I was thrown off by it at first," said Steven Sedory, a Marine from Orange who took the class during its inaugural run. "I felt like there were some things in there that were self-incriminating."

Sedory owns a Yamaha R1 sport bike, which he bought for $10,200 in November after returning from Iraq with a $10,000 wad of tax-free cash burning a hole in his camouflage pocket. The lanky 23-year-old, who's been riding for five years, says he enjoys his bike for "the freedom of not having any doors or rooftop. The wind. It's fun."

Like many military personnel deployed in combat zones, Sedory is young and yearns for action. It's a demographic profile that neatly overlaps those of sport-bike riders, who on average are also 20-something males feeling the need for speed.

"When you're a young enlisted person, you're not your own master," said Steven Thompson, author of "Bodies in Motion: Evolution and Experience in Motorcycling." "Your life is carefully controlled, so the escape of control is often very liberating."

That's a situation Lt. Col. Matthew D. Seringa understands all too well. A commander with the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego, he summed it up in a "warrior transition lecture" to his squadron as it returned home in June from a four-month deployment.

"One final thing, and we've talked about this before," he said to the more than 150 Marines being greeted with hugs, tears and balloons. "I know a lot of you have been dreaming about that new motorcycle. Drive safely. Take care of yourself. The Marine Corps needs you."

With that, the Marines let loose a big shout and started piling out to the parking lot, where a number of new, shiny motorcycles waited.

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susan.carpenter@latimes.com

Times staff writer Tony Perry contributed to this report.

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