Just having them pass you can be scary — groups of high-speed motorcyclists darting through traffic at speeds that make even lead-foot drivers wince.
Called “bullet bikes” and “crotch rockets,” with the drivers crouching low over the body of the bike, the motorcycles tear down roads at harrowing speeds.
A pair of deadly motorcycle accidents in Maryland over the weekend that left three dead are renewing calls for tougher penalties for speeders. Cycling groups, meantime, say not all riders are to blame.
The latest wreck was Sunday near Easton, when a group of allegedly speeding motorcyclists zipped down U.S. 50, a highway crowded on summer weekends with beach traffic.
Police say a biker slammed into a station wagon driven by an elderly woman going with her husband to a community center. The impact spun the station wagon around and it was then hit by another speeding biker. Both cyclists were killed; the elderly couple and another cyclist who lost control of her bike were hospitalized.
Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley said that it appears the bikers were driving at an “extremely high rate of speed,” though police weren’t ready yet to release specifics. “The force of the crash was extremely hard,” he added.
Two days earlier, a 22-year-old man in western Maryland died moments after buying a new 2007 Yamaha YZ R6 bike. Authorities say he veered into oncoming traffic and hit a truck hauling an empty fuel tanker.
There was no word that speed caused the western Maryland crash, but speed was a factor in an accident last month on the Capital Beltway in suburban Washington.
Police were chasing a suspected speeding motorcyclist in Prince George’s County when an officer’s car clipped a sport utility vehicle, sending the SUV flying over a guardrail and into oncoming traffic. That accident claimed two lives and sent 15 people to hospitals.
Shipley said there are many more reports of close calls. Twice last week, state troopers observed motorcycles traveling at speeds exceeding 100 mph, but could not apprehend them. One of those cases was in Talbot County, the site of Sunday’s deadly crash.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, motorcycle fatals in Maryland rose 60 percent, from 53 a year to 85 a year, from 2001 to 2005, the most recent year with available statistics. In Virginia, motorcycle fatals went up 53 percent, from 45 deaths in 2001 to 69 deaths in 2005.
High-speeding cycles are becoming more common around the region, said Maryland Delegate William Bronrott, D-Montgomery, who says lawmakers should consider stiffening penalties for excessive speeding. Currently, Bronrott said, Maryland law does not allow speeders to be jailed.
“What we should look at in the legislature is strengthening our law and looking at enhanced penalties against motorists using any type of vehicle who are egregiously exceeding the posted speed limit,” he said.
“I’m not just talking 10, 15, 20 miles over the speed limit. That’s bad, and we already have laws addressing that type of speeding. But what we’re seeing is people going 30, 40, 50 miles over the speed limit, putting themselves and law-abiding motorists at great danger.”
He added, “It’s upsetting to be overtaken by a bike going over 100 miles an hour.”
Maryland does not require people over 18 to take a safety course before getting a motorcycle license, although the state offers them and drivers who don’t take a course must take a road test, said Buel Young, a spokesman for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration.
Young said his agency gets complaints about fast-driving cyclists, but the state also gets complaints about auto drivers who aren’t alert for cyclists.
“It’s a two-way street. We get calls from both sides,” he said.
Motorcycling activists said that irresponsible drivers, not the so-called “high performance” bikes, are to blame for the recent deaths.
“It’s not the motorcycle’s fault. It is the rider’s responsibility to handle the motorcycle in a safe manner,” said Neal Ackerson, state director of ABATE of Maryland Inc., a motorcycling group that numbers several thousand members.
Asked about banning certain fast-driving cycles, Ackerson replied, “It’d be like you banning a Corvette. It’s the same thing.”
But Bronrott said something must be done to address the problem, even if the answer is not banning the bikes. Many of his constituents have asked for action.
“What I hear is, they’re rolling down the road, obeying the speed limit, and they look in their rearview mirror and here comes one, two, three or sometimes a pack of ‘bullet bikes’ that shoot past them at incredible speeds,” he said.
On the Net:
State traffic data: http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov
ABATE of Maryland Inc.: http://www.abate-of-maryland.org
Maryland Motorcycle Safety Program:
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