Bikers, Enthusiasts Gather for Motorcycle Safety Event
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 2, 2008 A few hundred bikers and enthusiasts gathered in the Pentagon’s north parking lot today for the second annual National Capital Region Joint Services motorcycle safety event.
Pentagon motorcycle police officer Stephen Boyd leads an Arlington County police officer through a series of cones during a cycling demonstration at the second annual National Capital Region Joint Services motorcycle safety event held at the Pentagon May 2, 2008. Photo by Fred W. Baker III, Department of Defense
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The event brought together an assortment of guest speakers including members of Congress, and department secretaries, Hollywood stars and military commanders, all avid bikers.
Probably the biggest head-turner at the event, though, was Catherine Bell, an actress known for her role of Marine Lt. Col. Sarah MacKenzie on the television show “JAG,” and who recently has starred in the Lifetime Television hit series “Army Wives” as Denise Sherwood.
A self-described tomboy and risk taker, Bell has always had a passion for fast cars, motorcycles and boats, she said. But, she told the group, there has to be a balance of risk and reward.
“As much as I am addicted to the thrill of riding, there is definitely a balance as to how much I am willing to risk when I ride a motorcycle or I’m out on the track,” she said.
Bell said her roles in her acting career have given her some insight into the military life. She said she understands servicemembers’ need to blow off some steam, especially after a deployment, but said the onus is on leaders to ensure troops make the same smart decisions at home as they do in the field.
“We have to find ways to help our soldiers make smart decisions when they’re back home, especially when they’re away from the control and structure of on post,” Bell said. “It’s understandable they would want to cut loose, … but our challenge … is to find ways to reinforce the mindset that balances risk with reward -- and not choosing a motorcycle as a vehicle of choice to let totally loose, so that once they’re home safely they will stay in one piece.
“Above all, we have to instill the mindset that riding a motorcycle to take out pent-up energy after months of working under such controlled circumstances is a formula for disaster,” she said.
The United States has more than 6 million registered bikers, according to Department of Transportation officials. Motorcycles represent 2 percent of vehicles on the road, but represent 10 percent of crashes. Motorcycle fatalities have more than doubled since 1997, officials said.
This past week, the U.S. Army lost its 25th soldier this year to a motorcycle fatality, Army officials said. Last year, DoD had nearly 100 fatalities in motorcycles accidents.
Maj. Gen. James W. Nuttall, deputy director for the Army National Guard and an avid motorcycle rider, has been riding for four decades. In his younger days, he said, he did his share of unsafe riding.
“Quite frankly, the only reason I’m standing here before you today is because I’m lucky,” he said.
He now rides a Harley Davidson Screaming Eagle Ultra II, which cost more than his first house, Nuttall joked.
Nuttall said safe biking is all about getting soldiers to do the right thing, even when they’re not around leadership.
“The hardest thing we have to get our soldiers to wear is the safety vest. Why? Quite frankly, you look stupid. It’s all about fashion when you get on a motorcycle,” Nuttall said.
The general said sport bikers are typically better dressed with safety gear, but they are also the highest risk for accidents and fatalities because of the speed of the bikes.
“You get in an accident at 50 miles an hour, you’re still going to die. You’ll have a good looking corpse though,” he said.
There have been 13 deaths of Guard members this year, Nuttall said. Nearly all of those were on sport bikes. Ten of those were servicemembers younger than 26, he said. Already the death toll is twice as high as this time last year, he said.
He attributed the majority of accidents to inexperience and a lack of training, saying soldiers were coming back from combat deployments with “more money than brains” and buying new motorcycles.
“You’d be amazed at the amount of accidents that occur within the first few hundred miles. People who have no business being on motorcycles -- no training, no nothing,” he said.
To ensure servicemembers are trained, U.S. Army Installation Management Command is expanding its support by ramping up a mobile surge capability of trainers, motorcycles and portable classrooms. When units return home from deployment and there is a demand for the training, groups of trainers and equipment “deploy” to the unit.
Army Maj. Gen. John Macdonald, deputy commanding general of Installation Management Command, said proper training and safety gear for a motorcycle is the equivalent to protection worn in combat.
“You wouldn’t ask a soldier to go outside the wire without an Army combat helmet on. We don’t let them go without [body armor]. We don’t let them go without a weapon,” he said. “When you talk to youngsters, it really is the same thing as when you go into combat.”
Vans with eight motorcycle simulators deploy as part of the “surge.” They can take as many as six vans. Also, for those who are buying more powerful bikes, his group has a computer simulator with all the power of a large motorcycle. A soldier rides the simulator motorcycle and uses three wide-screens to get a feel for how the bike would handle.
“The nice thing is you can go in there and test turns and braking power, and you can crash and just hit restart,” Macdonald said.
Together, the Army combines hands-on training, Web-based course work, and simulators to improve soldiers’ odds on the road, he said.
“All that experience is what we need youngsters to learn before they go out and crash and can’t hit restart,” Macdonald said.