The vulnerability of motorcyclists on Colorado roads was recently underscored by a single tragic day in Aurora.
On July 30, authorities responded to two accidents involving motorcycles in the area. They took place just five hours apart, and in both cases, the motorcyclists were killed.
Sergeant Mike Douglass of the Aurora Police Department's traffic section feels these losses personally. "When you do a notification to a family, you see how painful it is for them," he says. "If people really understood what happens because of these motorcycle fatalities, or any traffic fatalities, I would like to think their behavior would change."
The APD, working with the Colorado Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has targeted motorcycle safety as part of its "Violation of the Month" program for August. In conjunction with this effort, Douglass offers safety advice for motorcyclists and drivers in the hopes of preventing or diminishing this kind of heartbreak in the future.
Motorcycle fatalities happen all too frequently in Colorado. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, 101 motorcyclists died in the state in 2017, representing around 16 percent of 630 total traffic fatalities.
By the way, the 101 motorcyclist deaths was actually an improvement over the previous year, when 126 motorcyclists were killed on state roads.
In Aurora, however, the current percentage of motorcyclists who've lost their lives is worse than last year's Colorado average. At this writing, there have been twenty fatal accidents in the city circa 2018. Of those, five — a quarter of the total — involved the deaths of motorcyclists.
Even though the fatalities on the 30th both happened within the APD's jurisdiction, the settings were different.
In the first, officers received a call at around 3:52 p.m. about an accident in a rural area near the intersection of East 48th Avenue and North Imboden Road. The department reveals that a motorcyclist halted at the stop sign on East 48th before attempting to turn south onto North Imboden — at which point he pulled into the path of a northbound truck towing a trailer. Following the collision, the motorcyclist didn't respond to treatment and was pronounced dead at the scene. He had been wearing a helmet and neither alcohol nor speed appear to have been factors in the crash.
Five hours and six minutes later, at 8:58 p.m., Aurora police officers received a call about another crash, this one in a suburban area near the point where East Iliff Avenue crosses South Kittredge Street. Witnesses referenced by the department later said two motorcyclists were traveling at a high rate of speed when one of them clipped the side of an SUV trying to make what's described as a legal turn at the intersection. After impact, the motorcyclist was transported to a local hospital, where he succumbed to his wounds. He, too, was wearing a helmet, and there were no immediate indications of alcohol involvement.
Because the investigations into the accidents are ongoing, Douglass can't talk about additional details. But in general, he says the year he's spent in his current position with the APD traffic section has reinforced his understanding of how susceptible motorcyclists are to serious injury when they tangle with automobiles.
"When you have highways or roadways that allow for higher speeds, a car does a better job of protecting people," he maintains. "You have seat belts, closed passenger compartments and a lot more body and weight to help protect the occupants. And with motorcyclists, you can have the unintended consequence of the rider coming off the bike."
Although Douglass rode motorcycles in his personal life for a year or so, the risks eventually convinced him to take other modes of transportation. But his experience makes him passionate about "doing everything we can do to keep riders safe."
Here are his tips.
The Pros and Cons of Wearing a Helmet
"When I was riding, there would be times when I would wear a helmet and times when I wouldn't," he says. Either approach is legal under Colorado law, but for him, "I preferred the helmet. No one plans on being in a serious enough accident to where their life is in jeopardy. But for me, personally, I liked to have that little extra bit of protection in case the accident ended up not being that serious — where the helmet does what it's supposed to do and I land in just the right way. You definitely don't want to get a concussion or worse. So I can't fault people for not wearing helmets, but I think it makes them safer."
The Importance of Visibility
"Make sure the headlight on your motorcycle is operational, even if it's during the day," he notes. "That's helpful, because it's a lot easier to see a motorcyclist when that light is on. It's also good to wear bright clothing. I've seen some people wearing things like those bright-yellow traffic vests. They're not the most stylish thing, and I know there are a lot of people who think about style when they ride. But you can definitely see riders better when they're wearing that yellow vest."
Dress for the Trip
In addition, Douglass suggests that "motorcyclists wear protective clothing, like a jacket with some kind of padding or hard plates. It's also good to wear long pants and boots. Having the proper attire for a motorcycle in a worst-case scenario is probably the best bet."
The Less Zooming, the Better
"I know some riders will be tempted to go in and out of traffic on a motorcycle, because they're quicker, they have a higher acceleration rate and they can fit through a smaller gap between two cars that are traveling in the same direction than a car can," Douglass acknowledges. As a result, "not all, but some riders may take risks you wouldn't take in an automobile. I think they need to consider that, because not everyone is going to see them so well or stop that quickly."
Spaces Both Riders and Drivers Should Keep in Mind
"Motorcycles stop more quickly than cars," he points out. "They weigh less and they usually have pretty good brakes for performance. So if a motorcycle stops quickly, there's no guarantee the car behind the motorcycle is going to be able to stop as quickly, especially if you're talking about SUVs or any vehicle that has notable cargo."
For this reason, Douglass goes on, "both motorcyclists and motor-vehicle drivers need to realize there needs to be a little bit of a larger gap between the car or SUV or whatever it might be and the motorcycle in front of it. If a motorcyclist can ensure that there's a natural gap or a buffer between him or her and the car they just passed, that helps. And motorists in cars should look and realize, 'Hey, this motorcycle is a little close in front of me. Maybe I need to slow down to create a larger gap in case he stops quickly.'"
Drivers, for their part, "need to make sure they're looking for motorcycles," Douglass emphasizes. "I know not everybody looks in mirrors before they make lane changes or turns. But motorcycles are hard to see, and all cars have blind spots. Most of the time, we get around those blind spots because there's a larger-profile vehicle than a motorcycle. But a smaller vehicle like a motorcycle can get obstructed by that blind spot a lot easier than a full-size car or truck."
Douglass references a phrase frequently used by motorcycle-safety advocates: "Look twice, save a life." The slogan is "simple," he says, "but it makes a great point. You may not see something the first time you look, but the second time, you probably will."
Stay Calm and Carry On
While some observers have noted tension between motorists and motorcyclists over the years, Douglass hasn't seen evidence of it himself. But he feels that "almost anything can be a factor in aggressive driving. Unfortunately, people's egos get in the way: They'll think, 'He cut me off,' or 'He took the lane I was going to go into' or 'He stopped too fast in front of me.' Just a myriad of things where there might not have been any ill intent and it's just something that person perceived."
In his view, "I don't think people should be possessive of the roadway. It's a road, so share it — and if someone cuts you off, just treat it like no big deal. Back off and let them do their thing and move on."
And live to ride or drive another day.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.