San Diego County has the dubious honor of ranking the fourth worst — of 58 California counties — in motorcycle crash deaths.
In 2016, the county broke its own record for the number of people (overwhelmingly men) who died in such crashes. “We see two groups in most of the crashes: military men who’ve been deployed and they come back with a big check and buy the fastest motorcycle they can find,” says California Highway Patrol officer Kevin Pearlstein. “Then we have the older gentlemen, people who always wanted a motorcycle and finally got it.”
Chris Cochran, spokesman for the state Office of Traffic Safety, says his statewide numbers match Pearlstein’s observations. The rankings are determined through sophisticated statistical analysis that includes weighting for population, number of licensed drivers, miles of road and so on, he said.
“We’ve seen two spikes in deaths,” Cochran said. ”One is in the 19-to-25 age group, the other is the over 45-age groups.” Cochran noted a grim first that occurred September 17th, a head-on collision of two motorcycles on Ortega Highway in Orange County that left both riders, in their 20s, dead.
In San Diego, the 20-something returning-from-deployment group is four or five years older than the statewide numbers — because they were deployed in their early 20s, Cochran said. (The county Medical Examiner did not respond to requests for information on how many of the motorcycle deaths involved servicemembers.)
In 2016, the San Diego Medical Examiner reported 63 motorcyclists died, including one death classified as a suicide. That was a 33 percent increase from 47 motorcycle deaths in 2015, including one homicide — that of Zachary Buob, who was killed in a road-rage encounter by driver Darla Jackson.)
(Typical crash death numbers for years from 2012 forward are in the low to mid 50s, according to county records.) (The Medical Examiner’s Office and county communications staff did not respond to many calls and emails with questions for this story.)
The Office of Traffic Safety says there were about 1470 reported motorcycle-crash deaths and injuries reported in 2014 — the latest year available.
“Most of those crashes, about 70 percent, were single-vehicle crashes,” said Cochran. “The motorcyclist is nearly always at fault. When he’s not, it’s usually because an oncoming car turned in front of the motorcycle and the rider couldn’t stop.”
“Lane splitters,” motorcyclists who creep up the highway lawfully on the dotted lines between lanes, rarely die because of it, Pearlstein noted. “They tend to fall off and break something, but because they’re in slow traffic at slow speeds, they almost always survive.”
Pearlstein says each age group has its own crash pattern. The older motorcyclist tends to have bought a top-of-the-line Harley Davidson, when they should have started on a smaller cycle and gotten used to the heft and torque of the big brand.
“The older gentlemen tend to crash on windy backcountry roads because they went there thinking it’s safer, but they’re not experienced at handling switchbacks and curves,” he said. “We see indications that they braked heavily midway through the curve, where an experienced driver would lean into it and look ahead.” Those crashes tend to happen on weekends, he said.
While the different age groups have different M.O.s in crashing, there are some universal observations to the solo crash, which tends to be among inexperienced motorcyclists, Pearlstein said.
“They bought too much motorcycle, with the most power they could find,” he said. “Your first motorcycle should be a learner.” Young men with “crotch rockets” crash on Otay Lakes Road, on Palomar Mountain and in Julian, he said. Speed is almost always a factor and those crashes are also solo-vehicle crashes, he said.
“Oceanside [CHP sector] has more of the military crashes than we do, but we see them,” Pearlstein said. “The Navy and the Marines are very aware of this and they have on-base courses for motorcycle safety and beginning motorcyclists.”
The CHP has a 15-hour motorcycle-safety course that’s required for riders under 21 but is available to anyone. The classes are offered all over the state at hundreds of locations, including on military bases.