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Motorcycle safety can save Airmen

DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- Senior Airman Timothy Thrall suits up in the required safety gear before heading off base for a ride on his motorcycle.  Airman Thrall is assigned to the 355th Component Maintenance Squadron and is one of many motorcycle riders on base.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Russell Wicke)

DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- Senior Airman Timothy Thrall suits up in the required safety gear before heading off base for a ride on his motorcycle. Airman Thrall is assigned to the 355th Component Maintenance Squadron and is one of many motorcycle riders on base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Russell Wicke)

DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. (AFPN) -- For anyone on two wheels, the asphalt offers no pardon for its hunger, and guardrails, lamp posts and four-wheeled vehicles do not forgive an impact.

Motorcycle accidents continue to rob the Air Force of its most precious resource – people.

“I saw an Airman with little riding experience snap his back over a guardrail during a motorcycle accident,” said Tech. Sgt. Donald Kuhlman, a 355th Wing ground safety technician here. “Those of us riding with him cautioned him multiple times about his speed.”

The Airman lost his life because he did not heed advice offered by seasoned riders.

Sergeant Kuhlman is an avid motorcyclist who has more than 24 years of experience riding nearly 100,000 miles on two wheels. He said he will never forget that accident scene he witnessed.

Tragically, Air Combat Command has already lost two Airmen to motorcycle mishaps this year. But even more tragically, this year two families are without a son or brother, and two units have lost a crucial team member.

“One death is one too many,” said Col. Michael Spencer, 355th Wing commander.

Air Force leaders have made it clear motorcycle safety is a priority. The best way to do this is through proper education and experience, said Master Sgt. Brian Blangstead from the 355th Communications Squadron. He is vice president of the base’s Motorcycle Advisory Counsel and has nearly 30 years of riding experience.

“In many ways an experienced rider is less likely to be involved in an accident (on a motorcycle) than (in an) automobile,” he said. “A motorcycle will stop faster, accelerate quicker, needs less space to escape and is much more maneuverable than any car.”

But it is the impact that makes the fatality rate so much higher on a motorcycle than in a car, he said. This is one reason why leaders believe it is important for a rider to gain as much knowledge and experience as possible. A good way to develop experience is to find a place free of public road hazards.

Sergeant Blangstead, who has a taste for racing, makes frequent trips to a race track in Phoenix. It is a place that features hay bales instead of guard rails, and an entry fee buys a biker the chance to legally scratch the itch for speed in a controlled environment. People can also receive instruction from experienced racers.

But education coupled with a controlled environment is still no insurance against a crash, said Sergeant Blangstead. He is living proof that appropriate safety gear will keep the heart beating.

After a serious crash at the track, he said he regained consciousness in the hospital. Fortunately, Sergeant Blangstead walked out of the hospital that same day, thanks only to his safety gear and the medical team on stand-by.

“Thanks to the riding jacket and pants, I traded road rash for bruises,” he said. “But the real deal was the huge fracture the helmet took for my head. It looked surreal, but I was holding reality in my hand. My life was spared by the high technology of my helmet.”

Sergeant Blangstead still required critical medical attention after crashing on a track where hay bales cushioned his fall and bigger vehicles were absent.

“Had this happened somewhere on tree-lined back roads, I doubt the outcome would have been the same,” he said. “Track days have their place for riders who want to ride uninhibited or free of public road hazards. Track days give room to crash and proper medical attention awaits unplanned events.”

But the public roads with traffic and obstacles amplify the need for a safety mindset and proper garb. According to Sergeant Kuhlman, riding a motorcycle can be dangerous enough without the rider being careless.

“You have to ride like you’re invisible to other drivers,” he said. “No one sees us and that’s how we have to ride.”

This is another area where safety gear will purchase a life.

“Visibility of the motorcycle to other drivers is a function of the rider’s skill, technique and the ability to make him or herself visible,” said Capt. Kevin Smoot, the 55th Electronic Combat Group executive officer and a motorcycle rider.

Bright clothing, reflective vests and proper lane positioning are critical to being seen; however, the lack of being seen by other motorists only presents a partial threat to motorcyclists. Hazards such as potholes, large bumps, uneven pavement, hot tar, sand, loose gravel, wind, rain and hail usually mean nothing more than a dented bumper for a car or truck. Those same hazards to a bike rider can embody death or paralysis.

According to Captain Smoot, these hazards can be disturbing to an educated rider. How much more of a monster will they be to the careless rider who is not looking for the hazard?

“Peer pressure from undisciplined and reckless attitudes can lead us to ride dangerously,” said Captain Smoot. “Defensive riding is a must, especially when the rider wants to ‘push up’ the power with a twist of the throttle. It is at this point the experienced and responsible rider is mindful of his or her limits.”

The Air Force is looking for such seasoned and responsible riders to be examples to novice riders.

“We need to be the interested and caring disciplinarians for our friends and fellow motorcycle riders when the limits are being pushed,” said Captain Smoot.

In other words, be prepared to call “knock-it-off” to a friend.


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