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Deadly weekend puts focus on motorcycle safety

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FARGO, N.D. -- North Dakota Highway Patrol Lt. Jody Skogen said Monday he couldn't recall a more deadly weekend for motorcyclists than the one just past.

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At least four people died in motorcycle or minibike crashes in eastern North Dakota.

One person died in Minnesota's Otter Tail County when the motorcycle he was driving left the road on a curve. Another man died in the county when the four-wheel ATV he was riding rolled as it slid down an embankment.

In Wisconsin, three people died Saturday in separate motorcycle accidents.

Officials with the Minnesota State Patrol and North Dakota Highway Patrol said they didn't have statistics on whether motorcycle deaths occur more often in the spring, but they said this past weekend's nice weather may have set the stage for trouble by luring out large numbers of vehicles of all kinds.

Invisibility factor

With motorcycle accidents, a number of factors can come into play, but the largest is visibility - or the lack of it - according to Skogen and others.

"It's easier to hide a motorcycle in a blind spot of a vehicle than to hide a full-size pickup, and we lose full-size pickups in blind spots,'' Skogen said.

Trooper Andy Schmidt of the Minnesota State Patrol said his primary advice to motorcycle drivers is to assume other drivers don't know they are there.

Schmidt said drivers of cars and trucks "have to stop looking for just cars, pickups and trucks and start looking for motorcycles."

Del Hofer owns Harley-Davidson Sales in West Fargo and has been riding motorcycles for 60 years.

He said driver indifference is the most serious danger facing motorcyclists.

"The biggest problem we have is the car does not respect the motorcycle," Hofer said.

Too many drivers, he added, have a cell phone to their ear, increasing their distraction level and making it even more difficult to notice a motorcycle in the vicinity.

Hofer said motorcyclists need to anticipate what drivers around them may do while also having a good understanding of how their own machine handles and how long it takes to stop if they need to.

Gearing up

Motorcycles require more stopping distance than cars, according to Sgt. Mitchell Rumple of the North Dakota Highway Patrol.

Rumple said wearing helmets and other safety gear is a good idea "in case the unforeseen happens."

Hofer agreed.

He rides with a helmet and wears protective leathers.

"I want that edge," said Hofer, who added he believes North Dakota could do more to encourage people seeking a motorcycle license to seek training.

In North Dakota and Minnesota, the first step to getting a motorcycle license is to pass a written test after which a driver is given a training permit.

In North Dakota, the permit period is six months, but it can be renewed for an additional three months.

In Minnesota, the permit is good for a year, but it can be renewed.

For a full-fledged license in either state, drivers must pass a skills test.

Skogen said he believes the skills test required in North Dakota does a good job of establishing that someone has the basic skills necessary to operate a motorcycle.

"It just comes down to the personal responsibility and the caution we take when we're behind the wheel or behind the handle bars," Skogen said.

Trooper Schmidt said he used to get the itch to buy a motorcycle every spring.

The thought was always put away, however, after he handled the first motorcycle crashes of the season.

Now close to retirement, Schmidt said he's thinking about a motorcycle again.

But he's still not sure.

"I don't know if I'd drive it enough to justify one," he said, adding that a daughter's marriage plans may mean a bike will have to wait.

"Sounds like I'm going to have a wedding to pay for," he said.

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The Forum and the Echo Press are owned by Forum Communications Company.

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