As the weather in Michigan begins its gradual turn towards the warm and sunny, so begins the yearly rebirth of motorcycles out of their winter storage. As motorcycles and mopeds begin to populate the roads, another factor is added to the responsibility every motorist has to keep themselves and those around them safe.
People on motorcycles face more challenges in addition to the drivers that have gone months without seeing motorcycles. College Bike Shop sales representative Drew Barbeau, who has been riding in Lansing for the last decade, says the primary complaints they get in the spring are actually about the state of the roads.
“Potholes and ruts are a big one this time of year,” Barbeau says. “Salt is like heavy sand on the road and it’s corrosive on metals, we hear about that a lot … road conditions are a big complaint.”
Program Coordinator of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation rider training program at Washtenaw Community College Lindsey Higginbottom agrees that many riders complain about the road conditions, and that handling obstacles on the road is yet another part of riding a motorcycle.
“Be aware of [obstacles], keep your eyes watching for them,” Higginbottom says. “The whole key to riding safe is primarily visual awareness and situational awareness, so pay attention to what you’re doing.”
In 2015, motorcycle deaths in the U.S. had remained largely constant since 2009, after declining from a slight increase in 2007 and 2008, according to information from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Highway Loss Data Institute.
According to the most recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) statistics on motorcycle safety, 141 people on motorcycles were killed in Michigan in 2015, ranking Michigan as the 10th most dangerous state. However, it should be taken into account that the riding season in Michigan typically only runs for three of the four seasons, leaving multiple months when there are fewer bikes on the road.
Wearing a proper helmet also makes a difference in the survival rate for motorcycle accidents. According to the most recent NHTSA statistics on motorcycle safety, 40 percent of those 141 motorcycle fatalities in Michigan happened to people who were not wearing a helmet. According to the NHTSA, proper motorcycle helmets are estimated to reduce the likelihood of fatalities by 37 percent.
Road conditions and stationary obstacles on the road, however, are still only part of the things motorcyclists are faced with. Cars, trucks and other vehicles represent additional concerns for riders, especially as more people bring their bikes out of storage in Michigan, and Lansing is no exception.
“I don’t feel people in Lansing are more aware of motorcycles than they are anywhere else in Michigan,” Barbeau says. “I couldn’t say Lansing is particularly dangerous, there are lots of bikes around in the summer. But with the colleges around here people not used to season changes, or even driving in the US, they’re not used to looking for bikes as the seasons change.”
The responsibility of looking for motorcycles is still not supposed to be strictly on the shoulders of car drivers. As a motorist, every person on the road should be responsible for their own safety, and thus that of those around them.
“Rider distraction is, in my mind, a bigger hazard to us than distracted drivers around me,” Higginbottom says.
Driver education programs also teach students that awareness on the road is an important part of operating a motor vehicle. Understanding the challenges in spotting motorcycles is part of the curriculum for driver education in Michigan.
“They’re more difficult to judge the speeds and they’re more difficult to see, they can even be hidden in the blind spots,” says a driving school industry representative. “So when you’re making a right lane change and you check over your right shoulder, that C-pillar can hide a motorcycle… The other thing is when you’re in a car – this is almost a lost art now – is yielding to oncoming traffic. I always tell students to sneak one more peak when you’re making a left turn. A motorcycle can actually get lost in the background images, the parked cars and the scenery.”
While Lansing might not have a particular reputation for having safe or dangerous riding conditions, it’s still pertinent to stay alert for two-wheeled vehicles. Many college students from Lansing Community College and Michigan State University ride mopeds, which have smaller, less visible profiles than motorcycles, so motorists should also be aware of students commuting for school.
“Every car driver should have a motorcyclist in their family,” Higginbottom says. “When I started riding, my mother’s comment to me was: ‘I didn’t realize there were so many motorcycles out there until you started riding.’ She had no reason to see us, so the old ‘look for motorcycles’ is very true.”