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Judge Harrelson column

Wild Hogs and the law

March 20, 2008
Judge George Harrelson
Last year a movie named “Wild Hogs” told the story of several middle-aged Baby Boomers, who decided to take a cross country motorcycle trip to try to recapture their youth. The film accurately reflects the increased popularity of motorcycling among older men and women. I can be counted in that number. I’ve been riding a motorcycle for seven years and love the feeling of the wind on my face, the smells of freshly cut grass, wood fires and farmyards, and the drop in temperature when you enter the shade of a grove of trees. With the price of gasoline, I expect one will see even more motorcycles this year.



As a judge, I have individuals come before me as the result of failing to obey laws that apply to the use of motorcycles. Unfortunately, I also see drivers of cars and trucks who are involved in accidents with motorcycles. In many cases, they never looked for nor saw the motorcycle when they pulled out from a stop sign or made a turn. Last year motorcycles represented only about 3 percent of the registered vehicles in Minnesota, yet they accounted for 12 percent of the traffic fatalities. Tragically, several were in my area.



Motorcycle Laws. To legally ride a motorcycle, a person must have a valid motorcycle endorsement, carry required insurance, and comply with Minnesota’s laws regarding motorcycle operation. Motorcycle riders are required to wear protective eyewear. On one of my first motorcycle trips, I found out why. On the way to court one morning, I was passed by a large truck. It kicked up dirt, sand, and small rocks. One of the small rocks hit my sunglasses. Had I not been wearing protective eyewear, I would have been driving blind and may have lost an eye.



Motorcycle Safety. While not a legal requirement, completion of a motorcycle safety program is highly recommended. According to the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety, over 90% of motorcyclists involved in accidents were self- taught or learned from family or friends. I never rode a motorcycle in my youth (Yes, they had been invented by then). I learned of the Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Program and completed the weekend course. It was by far the best educational program I have ever experienced. I learned the right way to operate a motorcycle, basic riding skills, street strategies to avoid accidents, and applicable laws. Upon successful completion, one receives a motorcycle endorsement. If you know of a person who is interested in riding a motorcycle, you should strongly suggest they attend this program. Information can be found at www.motorcyclesafety.org or by calling 1-800-407-6677.



Minnesota’s Helmet Law. Motorcyclists under the age of 18 are required to wear a helmet, whether they are a driver or a passenger. Adults are not required by law to wear a helmet. I estimate that 75-80% of riders must think that it is “cooler”, literally and figuratively, not to wear one. Unfortunately, most motorcycle deaths and serious injuries could have been prevented if the driver or passenger had worn a helmet. Under Minnesota’s helmet law, if a person is riding without a helmet and is injured, the person causing the injury is only responsible for those injuries that would have occurred if the rider had been wearing a helmet. This means if you are riding without a helmet, you are physically and financially riding at your own risk. My court reporter can tell you the advantages of a helmet. He was involved in an accident in which his helmet was split open. The doctor said that were it not for the helmet, he surely would have died, or spent the rest of his life in a nursing home.



Protective Gear. There is no law which requires a motorcyclist to wear a jacket, gloves, boots, or even pants. I’m sure these semi-naked riders feel they are really cool. The downside is a serious case of what is known as “road rash”. Road rash is a euphemism for leaving copious amounts of a person’s skin on the street or highway.



Alcohol and Age. It should come as no surprise that alcohol is a major contributor to motorcycle accidents, particularly fatal accidents. Data shows that 50% of all riders killed had been drinking. Only one-third of these had a blood alcohol concentration above the legal limit. I would propose that our laws should be changed to either a zero-tolerance rule or an allowable limit of .04 % alcohol concentration, which currently applies to pilots and commercial drivers. Alcohol slows both mental and physical functions. Age also slows our reflexes and our bodies aren't as resilient when there's an accident. Last year nearly 60 % of motorcycle fatalities were riders in the 35-54 age group.



With all of the dangers of motorcycling, some ask whether the experience is worth the risk. For me, as well as many others, the answer is “You bet!” Dangers can be lessened by wearing a helmet and protective gear, staying alert, knowing your limitations, and driving defensively. If you drive a car or truck, watch out for bikers. Sometimes it seems like we are invisible. To my fellow bikers, “Be careful out there!” I would much rather see you on the road than see you in court!



If you have any questions about the court system or suggestions for articles, please contact me at: George.harrelson@courts.state.mn.us #
 
 

 

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