On May 27, 2011, a 19-year-old Soldier and two friends were riding their motorcycles in Colorado Springs, Colo., when they were struck by a vehicle. Spc. Christopher Wheeler, who had recently returned from deployment, died at the scene. He became the Army’s 23rd motorcycle fatality this fiscal year.
As of press time, the Army has had 24 motorcycle fatalities this fiscal year, compared to 18 motorcycle fatalities during the same period last year. The spike in deaths — a 75 percent increase — has Army leadership concerned and seeking solutions.
The Army isn’t alone. According to the Air Force Safety Center, from January to March of 2011, the Air Force experienced a 150 percent increase in motorcycle fatalities.
According to the Naval Safety Center, the Navy and Marine Corps experienced a devastating peak in 2008, losing 33 Sailors and 25 Marines to motorcycles, prompting a revamp of its motorcycle safety program. This fiscal year, they’ve lost 12 Sailors and nine Marines, the Navy website states.
One of the challenges facing officials is the public’s perception that Spc. Wheeler’s scenario — being a young driver, recently deployed and being struck by another vehicle — is the norm in motorcycle fatalities. It isn’t. Of the 24 fatalities recorded by the Army, most were Soldiers in ranks E5 through E8, Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center officials said. Less than one-third had deployed within a year.
In most of the Army’s 24 deadly motorcycle accidents this year, loss of control of the motorcycle was the primary cause. Collision with another vehicle was the second leading cause of fatal motorcycle accidents.
Only one of those fatalities occurred in U.S. Army Europe.
Within the Stuttgart military community, there hasn’t been a motorcycle fatality in a decade. U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart Safety Manager Hans Dreizler credits a proactive campaign by the Safety Office to keep Stuttgart drivers informed and trained above the requirements outlined in Army Europe Regulation 190.1.
One unique part of that campaign is the Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club Motorcycle Safety Course in Leonberg. The Safety Office first approached ADAC about providing a hands-on course for Americans 11 years ago. Since then, the voluntary course has been made available to licensed ID cardholders each spring.
English-speaking instructors take the students through a series of exercises designed to enhance their reaction to real world situations.
Cavaris King, a Stuttgart military community member, had only been driving a motorcycle for one month when she took the course in May. She said it was confidence-booster.
“At the end of the course I felt more confident in my riding abilities and motivated to attempt new challenges,” she said.
Also in the class was Richard Derousse, a contractor at Patch Barracks. He’s raced motorcycles on three continents. Though he often reaches speeds of 180 mph, he’s quick to say that it isn’t about speed.
“Going fast is easy … it’s stopping that’s hard,” he said.
As if to back up that statement, he wore a white protective suit covered with multiple black scars, each telling a story of a crash, sometimes at speeds greater than 80 mph. He and fellow racer, Elijah Muse, a civilian employee on Kelley Barracks, came to the ADAC course to act as walking and breathing examples of how important the right safety gear is to a biker.
After years of pushing both their machines and themselves to the limit on the tracks, these two know what right looks like, and too often, they aren’t seeing it on the streets.
Derousse said he often sees guys driving beyond their abilities on the road, something he has no desire to do. He thinks finding one’s limits while surrounded by oncoming traffic and other hazards is a bad idea.
“Even a guard rail can be fatal at moderate speeds,” he said.
On the other hand, racing tracks are designed to eliminate as many hazards as possible. Derousse said if more street riders had access to a track, they might get their adrenaline fix with much less risk. While competing in races can be expensive, he said some places offer track time for as little as €99.
“One of the big things I see a first-time biker do,” Muse said, “is buy the biggest bike they can afford … and then cut corners on their safety gear.”
Nobody could accuse Muse of cutting corners. One of his specially made suits cost €3,000. It includes built-in armor and titanium joints. He credits it with saving his life when his bike went down at 130 mph in 2009. Except for a bruise from his handle bar slamming into his chest, he was unscathed.
Even if street bikers don’t need anything that exotic, Muse says they really should be wearing protective clothing from head to toe. He says the Soldiers who wear only ACUs and the standard issue boots on bikes have no protection from the asphalt in a crash.
If they sound a little fanatical about safety, they are. Both Derousse and Muse love motorcycles, and they said it gets frustrating when serious accidents force the Army to conduct safety stand downs and issue more mandatory courses and briefings that get between them and their bikes. That’s why they’ve begun to crusade for motorcycle safety.
In addition to offering their experiences to the other students in the course, they wanted to see for themselves if the class was worth recommending. It more than met their expectations.
Muse said after all the years of riding, there are still things beyond his comfort level. “When the instructor started throwing boards and water hazards on the course, I felt myself tensing up,” he said.
After the class, he said he had a higher degree of confidence.
Derousse said the course helped him realize he wasn’t looking far enough ahead. He said that’s the nature of driving a motorcycle: there’s always something to learn.