By Chris O’Neil, Chief, Media Relations Division
May is Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month
As a motorcyclist, I know there’s a lot that goes into being a safe rider. There’s training and experience that help build and sharpen our riding skills. There’s equipment designed to help us avoid crashes and equipment designed to protect us when things go wrong. There are awareness campaigns to remind us that distraction, impairment, and speed kill. And there are reports and safety recommendations, developed from our investigations, that often make headlines and create discussion within our community.
We recently completed our investigation of a fatal motorcycle and pickup truck crash that happened during the September 10, 2017, “Toy Run” group ride in Augusta, Maine. Unless you’re an avid NTSB report reader or live in Maine, this report likely didn’t catch your eye, and that’s unfortunate because the probable cause speaks to the foundation of every good ride—from your lone-wolf escape, to the Saturday pick-up ride, to the organized chapter ride—every good ride starts with a good plan.
About 3,000 motorcyclists gathered at the Augusta Civic Center to participate in the 36th annual United Bikers of Maine Toy Run on the day of the crash. The intended route had the herd in staggered formation entering I-95 from exit 112B, traveling to exit 113, where they would leave the highway to proceed east on Route 3/202, then south on Route 32, to reach their final destination of Windsor Fairgrounds.
After entering I-95 and for reasons that could not be determined, a 2007 Harley-Davidson XL 1200 suddenly moved out of the right lane, traveled across the center lane, and entered the left lane in front of a 2008 Ford F250 pickup truck. The pickup truck driver attempted an evasive maneuver but collided with the motorcycle, losing control of the vehicle, due in part to the truck having “collected” the Harley. The truck veered to the right, traveling across the center and right lanes and striking four other motorcycles. The truck and the 2007 Harley traveled through the guardrail, where the truck came to rest on its passenger side and the Harley on its right side in a ditch beside the pickup. Two motorcyclists died as a result of the crash. One motorcyclist and the pickup truck passenger suffered serious injuries, while the driver and four other motorcyclists suffered minor injuries. The motorcyclists involved in the crash were not United Bikers of Maine members, and the motorcyclist who died was not wearing a helmet as required.
We determined that the probable cause of the crash was the motorcycle operator’s unsafe maneuver in moving in front of the pickup truck. Contributing to this crash was the failure of the city of Augusta Police Department and the Toy Run event organizer, United Bikers of Maine, to identify and mitigate the risks associated with routing a group ride onto an interstate without providing supplemental traffic control or state police oversight.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time we addressed route planning for special events on streets and highways. In 2012, we investigated a crash in Midland, Texas, involving a parade float and freight train, where the city of Midland and the parade organizer failed to identify and mitigate the risks associated with routing a parade through a highway-railroad grade crossing.
In the case of the Maine motorcycle crash, we found that the event organizers and local authorities similarly failed in planning and communication. We concluded that appropriate risk assessment, involving all stakeholders, most likely would have resulted in the rerouting of the Toy Run event, so that it did not involve the interstate. Had the route remained unchanged, effective traffic control countermeasures could have been applied to increase safety. We also determined that using secondary roadways with lower speed limits for the event route, or at least providing additional oversight, including a traffic plan, and imposing adequate temporary traffic control countermeasures, would have been far more likely to result in a safe event.
Right about now you’re likely asking, “So how does this apply to me? My pick-up ride is about one percent of the 3,000-rider event in Maine.” Valid point. Your lone-wolf ride or pick-up ride doesn’t require coordination with local or state authorities. But your ride—just like an event ride—requires planning for safety. You need to plan your rides to “identify and mitigate the risks” associated with them.
I tend to ride a lot by myself, and although I allow myself to “explore” the countryside of the region, I at least let someone know what general area I plan to be in, when I plan to return, and if I’m planning any stops along the way. If I do a detailed turn-by-turn route plan, I’ll share that too, noting allowances for the occasional missed turn.
If I lead a pick-up ride, I do a safety brief before we go kickstands up, detailing the route, communications, hand signals, what to do if we get separated, and what to do if someone has an emergency. I try not to take my friends on roads I’ve not traveled, so I can communicate to them what to expect and highlight any potential hazards or unusual road conditions. I check weather, traffic, and other relevant environmental factors to ensure good situational awareness.
To some readers, I’m sure this sounds like overpreparation. I disagree. The moments spent going over a plan help trigger all the other safety behaviors we need to employ to keep ourselves safe on our rides.
There is a wise saying related to planning: “Nobody plans to fail, but many fail to plan.” Applying good planning principals to your rides will help you keep safety at the forefront of your activities, and is one more way to mitigate the risks we face every time we saddle up.