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Marine's Deaths Focus Pentagon and Civilians on Motorcycle Safety

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More marines have died stateside in 2008 than in Iraq or Afghanistan on motorcycles according to a Pentagon report published in USA Today May 7th, 2009, prompting new directives requiring service members to undergo extensive safety training including psychological assessments.

Robert Gladden is the director of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation and is well aware of the statistics.

"Our foundation has been working with the military for some time to develop a curriculum to meet their specific needs," he commented on my radio show Thursday, May 7th, 2009. "The good news for the public is that course is being tailored for mainstream usage in the very near future to help keep everyone safe."

Motorcycle safety is tantamount to me, as I ride two Piaggio MP3s, the 250 and the 500, and will be stepping up to the Aprilia Mana 850 (a new automatic transportation alternative from the sports bike giant). And as a full supporter of the troops, anything to make them safer is a bonus. As a rider, I know attitude plays a big part in safety. Aggression, anger, arrogance can all play a part, and adrenaline is a mainstay on a bike. These combinations can be fatal.

"Many soldiers come back and tell us they actually need to ride their bikes as a way to channel the left over emotions from active duty, a therapy of sorts. It's our job to make sure they realize that fun is one thing, that excitement is one thing, but that safety is the prime directive. Many get lost in their selves. But military men and women have a strong sense of duty, of unit cohesion, and would never do anything to harm their squadron or unit. We teach them by not being safe on a motorcycle they are harming themselves, and others around them, and their unit in the end. It is really an effective tool for us as safety educators," he added.

First Lt. Algernon Clay, 27, a pilot and Suzuki GSX-R 600 rider, told USA Today in the above referenced article that some find the training humbling.

"It's a huge problem that we have -- that Superman complex," Clay said. "You know, 'I survived IEDs (improvised explosive devices), bazookas, whatever.' "

Out of the 18,000 marines estimated to ride motorcycles, only 700 have taken the course so far. However, Marines cannot register their bikes on base and are subject to discipline if they ride without the training, so more are signing up every day.

However, it's not just the Marines that need the training. Everyone that rides should take the Motorcycle Foundation's Safety Course (or comparable) and wear all the gear at all times, according to recommendations from every major motorcycle manufacturer and the DMV. In fact, those that take the course in most states don't have to get a motorcycle permit, they can go and immediately take the written test upon course completion.

"Safety on the road is everyone's business. Yes, motorcycles can be dangerous as can a car. Any moving vehicle at any rate of speed can be a danger to its occupant," Gladden continued. "But they are not danger-prohibitive, meaning they're not so dangerous one shouldn't ride."

Part of the problem in safety is that in the United States motorcycles are still seen as recreational instead of as a valid means of transportation. Companies are trying to change that. Piaggio USA, parent company of Vespa, Aprilia and Moto Guzzi has launched a "two wheels as transportation" to get more Americans out of cars and on to scooters.

"The average American could save up to $6000 a year by replacing their second car with a two (or three) wheel alternative," Piaggio CEO Paolo Timoni explained. Timoni has seen his scooter brand build over 100% in the United States since gas prices soared up to $4 a gallon last summer.

"Between car insurance, payments, maintenance and fuel a recent survey concluded that a second car on average costs about $500 a month, yet we know that almost 80% of second cars are used strictly by one person for transportation to or from work. Replace that car with a Mana, or an MP3 and the savings are instant."

If Timoni and Piaggio as well as Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Buell and Harley Davidson get their way and their markets continue to expand, that means more motorcycles on the road.

"Certainly the more bikes the more training that will be needed, not just by those that ride but really by autos. Two-thirds of motorcycle accidents involve autos or other drivers infringing or not seeing motorcyclists. Drivers need to start making it a game. Spot every scooter and motorcycle on the road. Count them. That way, you begin to see that there are a lot out there, and growing. In CA, lane sharing is legal. Move over. Make room. Share the road. Check blind spots often, it could be your favorite talk show host in it," Gladden joked with me.

But he's right. Each day on my motorcycle a "close call" happens. Each day some driver has a cell phone up to their face (illegal in many states) or is texting while driving, playing with radios, CDs, GPS, kids, makeup, in car DVDS or any of the other 1000 distractions drivers pay attention to, leading to over 30,000 deaths on the road each year in traffic accidents, with about 5000 being motorcyclists. In 2006 according to a Department of Transportation Report, 7.3 motorcyclists were killed for every 10,000 registered.

My rule? Don't do anything in a car you cannot do on a motorcycle. Try riding a bike at 60mph or above and texting, phoning, grabbing an iPhone. It becomes obvious death or injury is just an instant away.

"That's a great rule," Gladden stated. We try and teach that in our courses to some degree, because safety is really quite basic. No one is indestructible, that's the biggest thing we stress in our military classes. One simple decision about gear could save a limb in an emergency," he adds.

So what are some of the rules being taught to the military and the public alike?

First, before ever buying a bike, get trained. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation offers loaner bikes in their 130+ classes (check their website for locations (http://www.msf-usa.org). Long before my three-wheeled wonder arrived I had trained in Long Beach, CA on a Harley provided by the Foundation; scooters are available as well.

Before entering the class, gear is crucial. Helmets, whether the state strictly enforces the laws or not, are a first line of defense. Shoei and Helmet City are two of the leaders in that field, both in sports and street bikes.

Brent Milan is the Southern California representative of Shoei.

"Buying the right helmet is crucial," he began. "The right fit, and the right use. Make sure any helmet is DOT approved, and carries the DOT sticker (department of transportation) otherwise you might just be buying a brain bucket," he laughed. "Decide whether you want a full face helmet to cover your eyes, your chin, the sides of your face, or an open face. Obviously, a full-face helps keep things from flying on your face, remember, it's your windshield," he added.

"Helmets work," he adds. "We have a helmet hall of fame signed by drivers who have had spills and walked away, battered and scratched reminders that when things go wrong you want every piece of protection you can get."

Next, Gladden reminds about wardrobe.

"There are many new and very fashionable ways to be safe on motorcycles. A jacket should always be worn, and many now have elbow, back and neck support built right in, the same with pants and jeans, there's a whole new fashionable world of motorcycle safety out there," he added.

James Laub is a sales manager at Vespa of Long Beach and has been riding since six years old. He tells clients to take it as far as they are comfortable.

"It's such a quick and small investment to be safe," he stated. "Whether on a scooter or a sport bike, a cruiser or touring bike, there's ways to keep safe..

Laub recommends shin and knee guards from manufacturers such as sixsixone.

"For under $60 you can get knee and leg protection, and that's a bargain. Knee surgery or a broken tibia or fibula will cost a lot more, insurance or not, and after a week of wearing them they're as second nature as socks. There are light-weight protectors for upper body that are virtually undetectable. In the city, on the freeway, or on city streets they can be lifesaving and all for under a few hundred dollars and five minutes of time a day."

As for training, Laub recommends the courses even to those bringing their kids in for a first scooter or an experienced rider upgrading to a larger sized engine. "The benefits of two wheels (or three) are so great that we are seeing a big upturn in our business. It's my job to make sure the client understands everything involved, it's not just a sale, it's a lifestyle, one that can be rewarding both emotionally but today more than ever, financially," he added.

After the gear and the training, it's up to the rider to be sure they're ready. This is really stressed by Gladden in the military courses.

"Drivers need to remember to drive to their skill level," Gladden added. "Friends would rather wait for you to get through an intersection safely than to wait for an ambulance because you should be on a 250 or 500cc but bought an 1100 or a heavy touring bike. One of the biggest mistakes is entering cycling on too much bike. Marines come back from active duty and don't want to start small, they want the bigger, or faster bikes, right away. It's our job, and the job of sales people, to assess a rider's capabilities, everyone from the salesman to myself are charged with keeping cyclists safe."

And at the end, it all amounts to attitude and personal responsibility. Part of the military training includes psychological assessment, is that something Gladden would like to see for all cyclists?

"Yes, whether it's in our class or just at home, on a motorcycle or not, the mindset of the driver is the most important aspect. Know yourself before you get behind the wheel. It's not just drugs or alcohol that can impair. Depression, anger, arrogance, or just carelessness are just as deadly, and that's something that the soldier or civilian can control and learn when to leave the bike (or car) alone. There's no replacement for common sense," he concluded.

As America retools and rethinks the way we move about, motorcycles have got to be part of the national solution. Single passenger or two passenger consumer vehicles are not yet mass produced (on four wheels) and millions are discovering the economic alternative and downright fun two wheels provide. The perception of motorcycles as killers or just vehicles for fun is rapidly changing due to economics and as it does the educational process must grow with it on base and public highways alike.

To hear the interview with Robert Gladden and the audio on Motorcycle Safety from the syndicated Karel Show go to http://feeds2.feedburner.com/TheKarelShow