SOCAFRICA launches motorcycle safety program

US-AFRICOM-PhotoWhile the allure of motorcycle riding may be evident, the risk of being seriously injured in an motorcycle accident is well-documented and a clear detraction from the thrill of riding in the open air.

According to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, in 2008 alone, 5,290 motorcyclists were killed and another 96,000 were injured. As a direct comparison, the chances of serious injury or death are severe when compared to the automobile.

In 2007, motorcyclists were approximately 37 times more likely to die in a crash and nine times more likely to be injured. Additionally, the fatality rate for motorcyclists that same year was six times higher than those involved in a car crash.

Despite the risks, however, the popularity of motorcycles among U.S. military members is on the rise. Service members already face risk in combat and in dangerous training activities. However, risk can be mitigated by commanders to allow for the successful completion of the mission, whatever it may be.
Riding a motorcycle is no exception.

Special Operations Command-Africa launched a Motorcycle Mentorship Program in July to partner more seasoned riders with less experienced ones in an effort to demonstrate proper motorcycle safety and supplement standard instruction programs that also teach motorcycle safety.

“We’re not trying to replace the training riders get,” said U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Eddie Ricord, a 35-year motorcycle riding veteran who developed SOCAFRICA’s program.

“This is intended to provide new and inexperienced motorcycle riders a chance to learn directly from seasoned motorcycle riders who can build and pass on potentially life-saving experiences,” he added.

No stranger to hazard, Ricord is also an Army Special Forces warrant officer with over 450 airborne jumps logged in his 33-year career. He describes riding a motorcycle as a lifestyle and takes pride in his safety record. Despite significant experience, he continues to take motorcycle safety training courses at least once every two years.

“I’ve had more broken bones from jumping than from motorcycle riding,” he said.
SOCAFRICA’s first motorcycle mentorship ride took place Aug. 24, on a route that covered nearly 100 miles in and around Stuttgart. Riders were organized into small groups with veteran riders leading less experienced riders.

Before departing, each group received a map with scheduled rest breaks, emergency procedures, contact information and even pre-arranged hand signals to allow the riders to communicate non-verbally.

“The greatest concern I found was the nagging thought of injury [while]trying to increase my skill level safely,” said Senior Airman Louis Hernandez, the youngest and least experienced rider participating in the ride.

Improving riding skill was a clear objective of Hernandez’s in getting involved with the MMP. As a member of a family of avid riders, Hernandez also had the foresight to stock up on safety gear to avoid serious injury, should he be involved in an accident.

“If I fall while riding within my limits, I now know I have greatly improved the odds of standing up and being upset about my bike, as opposed to a trip to the emergency room,” he said.

According to the U.S. Army, which developed the MMP, the troops at greatest risk are between 18 and 25 years old. However, in the last several years, riders ages 23 to 33 years old have seen an increase in motorcycle mishaps. While the majority of accidents either directly or indirectly involve excessive speed, the real culprit is poor decision-making.

“Experience level is the main reason troops get into accidents, not necessarily age,” Ricord said. “A rider 25 years old who has been riding for eight years has more experience than a 40-year-old riding [for] two years.”

According to Ricord, it’s the choices riders make that put them in peril. A stressful day, being late to work, not accounting for poor weather conditions, being too tired to ride but doing it anyway — these and other similar choices often lead to mishaps.

“It’s all between the ears,” Ricord said.
These intangible factors are the driving force behind the MMP. According to the U.S. Army Safety Center, motorcycle fatalities had risen dramatically from 2004 through 2008, but dropped significantly in 2009. There are an estimated 60 programs throughout the Army that are now gaining traction among the other services.

While the thrill of riding in the open air is still a pastime enjoyed by a relative few, those few who take their own safety seriously enough to participate in programs designed to reduce their chances of injury — or worse — can go a long way toward protecting themselves.

Exercising foresight, taking precautions and getting prepared may not be exciting, but they can increase the odds of staying out of the emergency room.