Rising gas prices mean more motorcycles than ever are on the road

By ANTHONY TROJAN, Post staff writer

"Ride like you're invisible, and everybody's out to get you."

That is the most important safety advice for motorcyclists, Jimmy "Suds" Vaughn said in a recent group interview.

Vaughn, an independent rider from Ellis County, joined Keith Cornwell of the Gryphons Motorcycle Club and J.C. "Big Kid" Prince of Roca in seeking to raise the public's awareness of riders and to encourage safe practices by motorcyclists as well.

"The No. 1 thing (for motorcyclists) is patience," said Prince, his club's sergeant at arms.

However, while motorcyclists need to ride safely, motorists in cars and trucks also need to pay better attention, the three men said.

"There are going to be a lot more (motorcyclists) out because of gas prices," Cornwell said, pointing out that most motorcycles get more than 40 miles per gallon.

Additionally, "baby boomers are buying motorcycles at a record pace," Prince said, pointing out that people older than the age of 40 are currently "the No. 1 buyer of motorcycles."

And with more motorcycles on the road, drivers need to be more aware of them, the three asserted.

"A big contributing factor in accidents is driver inexperience," said Cornwell, who serves as vice-president of his club.

"It's kind of neglected when they give you your driver's test and teach you how to drive and everything," he said. "They don't really teach you much about looking out for motorcycles and it's quite a costly thing when people don't."

All three of the motorcyclists - who have each been riding for more than 30 years - have been hit by cars - and have been hit recently.

"I got clobbered four years ago Halloween night," Cornwell said "My wife and I were coming back from supper 45 miles per hour across Joe Pool Lake, little girl pulled out in front of us.

"I'm self-employed. I keep health insurance on my son and my wife, but I couldn't afford it at the time for all of us, so I got hung with a $130,000 medical bill," he said. "Forty-five miles per hour, three weeks on life support, CareFlite, my wife got a new shoulder, all because a little girl was in a hurry to go to a Halloween party."

The person who hit Vaughn was also "in a hurry," he said.

"For me, some guy was in a hurry to get out of a parking lot up in Dallas on Highland Road and he like to took my right leg off," Vaughn said, telling that his leg "got sandwiched between his front bumper - it was an '86 Cavalier - and my air cleaner as I was trying to hit my rear brake, and it was almost severed.

"I got a steel rod, but it's pretty ugly."

Prince's accident was the most recent of the three, taking place last year in Dallas.

"I got hit a year ago April, up in Dallas," Prince said. "I was sitting there waiting to turn onto Forest Lane at a red light and a girl who ran a red light on a wet road lost control at 60 miles per hour and hit the front end of the motorcycle.

"Twelve inches one way she would have missed me and 12 inches the other way she would have killed me," he said.

Experiences like these are relatively common among riders, the three note, adding that a much more unfortunate occurrence is the death of a fellow motorcyclist.

Many club members and independent riders alike have a patch on their vests that reads "In Memory of Brothers Lost," Cornwell said, showing the row of patches beneath his, each stamped with a different name.

There are some riders who have abandoned using individual patches, he adds, explaining that some wouldn't have enough room on their vests. Those are the riders who only wear the single memorial patch.

Campaign help

In the 1980s, a statewide motorcycle awareness and safety campaign was started, striving to help make riding safer, the three said. As a part of the "Share the Road" campaign, cities and towns across the state began issuing proclamations encouraging safety and awareness and declaring the month of May to be "Motorcycle Safety and Awareness Month."

Thus far, the efforts on the Share the Road program have been driven by the individual cities, as motorcyclists have found little support within the Texas Department of Transportation, Prince said.

And Prince knows, Cornwell said, revealing that Prince is one of Roca's members who work on their Web site to keep riders updated about governmental and legislative issues.

"Our state will pay for a sign to protect wombats living under bridges in south Texas, but won't pay to help protect people on motorcycles," Prince said, explaining that TxDOT put up signs to alert drivers of the animals before beginning to list the other types of wildlife the agency puts up signs for.

However, funded by individual cities and towns, signs for Share the Road are going up nonetheless.

In Johnson County, the Alvarado City Council recently approved a measure that will add two more signs per year - focusing initially around their high school - to remind drivers to watch for riders, adding to the two signs the city already has in place.

Although it is still a small program, there is talk of it spreading to other states, Prince said, telling that he just returned from a meeting in Charlotte, N.C.

Prince and Cornwell also spoke of related issues, including the need for "stiffer penalties for hitting motorcyclists."

Several years ago, one of the trio's friends was traveling back to Waxahachie -where his business was based- after hours to take care of some matters he had forgotten.

While riding his bike on U.S. Highway 287, their friend struck by a car and killed.

The driver of the car was issued a ticket on the scene, the three say, for "failure to yield" and received a $250 fine.

"They killed (him) and only got a $250 fine," Cornwell said. "Think about that."

However, motorcyclists also need to strive to follow the laws of the road, said Cornwell, singling out sport bike riders for "reckless behavior."

Sport bikes - as opposed to the Harleys the three ride - are generally much cheaper than cruisers and as such are usually ridden by younger, less-experienced riders who are much more likely to take risks and act immaturely on their bikes, the three said.

Cornwell offered an example of a group of such riders that gets together in Fort Worth regularly and, with their antics, slow traffic to a crawl on the interstate.

"The sport bikes could ruin it for all of us," he said, asserting that while disruptive behaviors aren't limited only to sport bike riders, irresponsible riders on the flashy bikes could lead to tighter regulations and laws on all motorcyclists.

E-mail Anthony at alvaradopost@sbcglobal.net