Caution on the Colorado Western Slope

We have a plague here in Western Colorado – and it is killing people.
Motorcycle enthusiasts are coming to our Colorado State Patrol District to enjoy the mountain scenery, amazing touring roads and deserts. And … they are dying in record numbers.
Just since March 2018, we have had 10 motorcyclists ride their last rides here. And since the spring of 2013, we have had 44 fatal motorcycle crashes. It’s natural to ask what the causes of these crashes are – Other drivers not paying attention? Bad weather? Animals?

The answer – and the truth – are scarier and more sobering than you might think – more than eight out of 10 of these fatal crashes are the fault of the driver of the motorcycle. And the vast majority are single-vehicle crashes. Moreover, this year in the two fatal crashes that involved other vehicles, it was still the motorcyclist at fault in one of the crashes. The saddest fact is that almost all these crashes were certainly preventable.

It happens … motorcycles are operated by drivers of a wide variety of backgrounds and experience. And we’ve all been there – felt the wobble, took the wrong line, missed the apex, felt the hint of a high-side.

And it’s not just the amateur who is involved. I’d been riding motorcycles for years when I put myself in a bad situation. I was working a bicycle event on Molas Pass and escorting an ambulance through the race closure, against the bicycle traffic. I was in a blind curve and extremely aware and nervous of the oncoming heavy bicycle traffic, so I had my emergency lights and siren on. However, another motor officer traveling with the traffic was not paying attention, assuming the road was closed, and just watching the bicycles to his right. I tried to get off the road, but there was no shoulder, just a rock wall. My Ultra Classic was hit head on by the other officer on his Road King. He also had his iPod earbuds in and couldn’t hear my siren. We both received serious injuries, but they weren’t life-threatening, thankfully. A momentary lapse of attention while riding will kill you.

We love our motorcycles – there is nothing better than loading up for a ride in our area. But I have also learned the hard way that there is no forgiveness in our hobby and lifestyle. To drift onto the white line or shoulder, when there is one, can quickly become dangerous or deadly. Having investigated dozens of fatal motorcycle crashes, most of them come down to these factors … distracted driving, excessive speed, alcohol or drug impairment and rider inexperience.

Distracted driving
We get after car/truck drivers all the time because they are constantly distracted and putting our lives at risk. However, we are just as distracted. I can’t even begin to guess at the number of riders who I observe that are constantly checking out who is checking them out. When I look at the mountains, rivers or other scenery while I ride, my trusty steed is steering right where I am looking and before I know it, I have put myself in a bad situation. Keep both hands on the bars, don’t use the highway pegs in town or in traffic. Keep your head on a swivel and use your “scan pattern” as you ride. We must pay attention.

Excessive speed
Speed kills us quickly. Our roadways are fun when we have our bikes fully engaged. I love it. But, the rules of physics are not in our favor while riding. Most riders have never had the opportunity to train on closed-circuit tracks as I have.

Many riders don’t have the skills necessary to lean the bike even further, push the bars and even add some throttle and look where we want to go – not where we don’t.

When we suddenly realize we are too fast for a curve, many of us stomp on the rear brake, which straightens up the bike and off the road we go. Off into the signs, trees, rocks and cliffs where the sudden stop is never good. Many riders don’t have the skills necessary to lean the bike even further, push the bars and even add some throttle and look where we want to go – not where we don’t. That is against our well-developed survival skills.

Alcohol and drug impairment
Do I really need to spend time on this subject? Just don’t … don’t do it! Alcohol and drugs, combined with a motorcycle, or any other type of vehicle, is just plain stupid, irresponsible and selfish.

Rider inexperience

OK, we are all good with these last items. Now let me address one that will tick off more than of few riders – rider inexperience! And I’m not just talking about the new or rookie rider. I’m also talking about you 20-, 30- and even 40 plus-year experienced riders. Here is what I hear over and over, “I’ve been riding for over “blank” number of years.” Uh no, most of us haven’t.
We rode in our teens and early 20s. Then came the wife, kids, careers, etc. We had to sell the bike. We loved our spouses, raised our kids, were successful in our careers and toward the end of them, we bought our dream bike. We went to DMV and got our endorsements, bought our leathers and maybe a helmet and back out on to the road we went. “I don’t need a training class, been riding for 30 years.”

Nope. The average age of a male rider killed in Colorado is 52 years old. The average female age is 46. As an experienced, well-trained professional rider, I can spot “that guy” in a blink. Just watch a group of “old guys” pull up to a stoplight. Everything looks good until it is time to stop. Bikes and legs go everywhere and more than once I’ve seen them fall over and had to get off or out to help them pick the bike up. Once stopped, the bikes go into neutral and the “checking out who is checking me out” starts. No one seems to look in their mirrors.
Many riders are killed in rear-end crashes because they don’t watch what is going on behind them, moving or stopped. It’s a good thing most groups ride in a staggered formation because most riders have difficulty maintaining their position within the lane, right or left track. Pick one and stay in it! If you ride an older bike, keep practicing your panic stops with proper technique, using the front and rear brake. Most of your stopping power is in that beautifully designed front brake system. Thank goodness for bikes with linked ABS.
Best of all, spend a few bucks and a little time and go through a basic and advanced MOST class. MOST is an acronym for Motorcycle Operator Safety Training. Even if you are one of the few that truly has been riding for 30 years, I guarantee you will pick something up to make you a better rider. For the Colorado State Patrol, motor officers must recertify every year. It seems like most years, at least one trooper has not honed his skills and does not successfully complete the recertification, which is sad, because that job is the absolute best one in the patrol.
One other item I have noticed over the years as I watch group rides is that the strongest riders are at the front of the pack and the least experienced riders are at the rear. All of us, even in a CSP Motor formation, have experienced the “slinky effect.” The rear-most riders are always speeding up and slowing down faster than the guys up front. Guess who is usually involved in the fatal crashes … the guy in the back. He is the least experienced and is often having to ride the hardest to keep up, and instead of watching the roadway, he is watching the taillights in front of him. Group leaders, think about putting your weaker riders toward the front where they don’t have to ride near the edge of or past their abilities.

Group leaders, think about putting your weaker riders toward the front where they don’t have to ride near the edge of or past their abilities.Group leaders, think about putting your weaker riders toward the front where they don’t have to ride near the edge of or past their abilities.

In closing, we all know that riding a two-wheeled beast is fun, exhilarating and fulfilling as well as dangerous. Colorado is obviously a great place to ride, but our beautiful roadways will kill you quickly. Please get properly trained, be ever-so-alert and wear proper safety equipment to include a good helmet that is at least a modular, full-face helmet.

Sgt. Michael Balenti is a 25-year veteran of the Colorado State Patrol who has worked the Western Slope of Colorado his entire career. He is a Level IV Crash Reconstructionist. He served on the CSP motor team from 2011 until 2016 when he was promoted to Sergeant and they took his beautiful bike away from him, for which he has never forgiven the powers-that-be!


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