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Motorcycle crashes, deaths spike 23 pct. in SoCal: Gas prices, economy blamed

Jamie Rico has been in five crashes since he started riding motorcycles in his 30s. One of those crashes broke his spine.

“It’s not if you are going to be in an accident, it’s when,” Rico, 51, said in the garage of his Mission Viejo home as he gazed at his silver four-cylinder Honda sport bike, a luxury police-styled motorcycle.

But he kept riding — until this year. Watching another rider go down on the freeway convinced him to hang up his helmet.

“How many times could you get hit before you start really saying, ‘Wow, am I going to do it again?’” Rico asked.

A KPCC analysis of statewide crash data found overall motorcycle collisions and fatalities increased 23 percent from 2003 to 2012, the latest data available through the Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System.

The statistics reverse an earlier trend. After reaching a peak in 2008, motorcycle accidents in California plummeted 16 percent the following two years before spiking back up.

Other vehicle accidents had been dropping along with motorcycle crashes and have kept dropping.

The jump in motorcycle wrecks was especially big in Los Angeles County: a 49 percent increase since 2003.

And especially deadly.

In Los Angeles County, 59 percent more motorcyclists were killed in crashes in 2012 than in 2010. In Orange County, motorcycle fatalities were up 15 percent during that same time period.

Traffic experts don’t know exactly why motorcycle fatalities and crashes are climbing back up. Motorcycle registrations are up since 2010, but not enough to make up the difference: only 5 percent in Los Angeles and Orange Counties.

But experts and riders said it's probably caused by more inexperienced or rusty riders on the road, enticed by two things: years of rising gas prices and a better economy.

“You know it could be the same as everything else,” said Chris Cochran, spokesman for the California Office of Traffic Safety. “The recession is becoming over, and people are getting out there and doing more of what they were doing earlier.”

Motorcycles are often secondary vehicles for most people, Cochran said. They have a car or truck they use during the week and ride the motorcycle for fun on the weekend.

Cochran said the recession could have kept recreational riders off their bikes for a couple years until people had money to maintain their two-wheelers.

“They were basically putting their motorcycles in the garage and leaving them there,” he said.

It’s always motorcycle season

On a warm weekend, the buzzing and crackling mufflers of motorcycles bounce off the canyon walls on Mulholland Drive in the Santa Monica Mountains as riders challenge themselves to hug its steep and winding corners.

“It’s almost now a destination that a lot of riders like to come to,” said California Highway Patrol officer Leland Tang, an agency spokesman.

You can catch souped-up bikers riding, knee down and motorcycles leaning to one side as if at any moment the tires will skid out from underneath them. And sometimes they do.

“We see a lot of recreational riders pushing that envelope,” Tang said, getting into wrecks and getting hurt.

Tang said he's noticed tourists from other countries renting motorcycles to tour Los Angeles County's canyon roads.

Avoiding pain at the pump

When you ask motorcyclists why they think crashes and fatalities are up, their answer is gas prices.

Mike Locke, a mechanic at Al’s Cycle Shop in Echo Park, said business picks up right along with gas prices. Drivers bring in busted or dusty bikes that have been sitting in garages to get them back on the road.

“You also see a lot more scooters, just 'cause they’re cheaper,” Locke said.

Historic gas prices and motorcycle crash data in Los Angeles County seem to support this theory.

Regular retail gas formula in Los Angeles peaked the summer of 2008 at $4.49, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That was the prior peak in motorcycle accidents: 3,048 in Los Angeles County, the data show.

In December that year, gas prices plunged to $1.82. Motorcycle accidents went down for two years, then started climbing again in 2011. That year, gas prices hit $4 again, and motorcycle accidents in L.A. County hit 3,112, surpassing 2008's high.

Lane splitting

If saving on gas seems incentive enough to buy a motorcycle, Southern California traffic can be even more convincing.

Echo Park resident Brandon Gleave, 35, bought a Harley in May for two reasons.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “It saves me a lot of time.”

Gleave cuts his commute by splitting lanes: riding on the dotted lines between cars or trucks on the freeways.

California is theonly state where motorcyclist can split lanes because it's not prohibited by state law.

“There is no law other than how it’s treated by law enforcement,” said motorcycle accident attorney Sy Nazif.

State traffic agencies, including the California Highway Patrol and the Office of Traffic Safety, for years posted guidelines on their websites on how motorcyclists should safely split lanes. In general, they advised riders never to split lanes when traffic is moving faster than 30 mph.

But the agencies took the guidelines down this summer after questions arose about whether they were legal guidelines.

Bay Area Assembly Member Bill Quirk (D-Hayward) has introduced a bill that would make those lane-splitting guidelines state law.

“It’s much safer to be between cars,” Nazif said. “Is it 100 percent safe? No, we’re on a motorcycle. It’s never 100 percent safe. But it’s far safer than having this stop-and-go, where we sit in line with everybody else.”

The Safety Transportation Research and Education Center at the University of Berkeley published a report in August that said motorcyclists who split lanes were less likely to be rear-ended but were more likely to have rear-ended another vehicle.

“They were also more likely to be involved in weekday collisions and more likely to be involved in collisions during peak traffic times,” the report found.

Lane splitters are also at risk of sideswipe accidents.

By far the biggest killer of motorcyclists in Los Angeles County isn't either of those types of crashes. It's the broadside. That usually happens when a motorcyclist or a vehicle gets hit on the side while trying to make a left-hand turn.

An unforgettable crash

Rico, the multiple crash survivor from Mission Viejo, said after he helped a motorcycle rider get off the freeway earlier this year after a bad wreck, he couldn't get it out his head.

All day at work, he thought about how vulnerable the motorcyclist was. That image was so powerful, Rico couldn’t bear get back on his bike at the end of the work day.

He took a vanpool home.

For six months, he left his motorcycle at work. Thieves began stripping it for parts. Rico eventually brought it home and fully restored it.

It sits parked in his garage.

He won’t sell it. He keeps it because it’s a beautiful bike and he loves the power, he said. 

So the silver motorcycle sits and waits for Rico to decide if he’ll ever get back on.

“I might take it on a joy ride with my wife,” he said. “I’m still thinking about that one."

This story is part of Transportation Nation, a public radio reporting project that combines the work of multiple newsrooms to provide coverage of how we build, rebuild and get around the nation.  To read other Transportation Nation stories, click here. Let us know what you think in the comments below, on KPCC's Facebook page or on Twitter (@KPCC).