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Motorcycle accidents prompt plea for awareness

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
Daily Inter Lake | July 29, 2021 12:00 AM

Area motorcyclists are preaching a message of increased awareness and more attentive driving after recent fatal and serious crashes in Northwest Montana.

Lisa Pooler, who spearheaded motorcycle safety classes in the Flathead Valley more than a decade ago, is one of three instructors who offer classes for those wanting to learn how to ride and brush up on their skills.

She began teaching in 2005 while living in New Hampshire and continued after moving to the valley in 2010. Pooler is the area representative for Motorcycle Safety and Awareness, a program operated by Montana State University Northern in Havre.

Pooler said two recent incidents made her and other riders decide to spread awareness on the issue.

"We had one fatal accident and another that nearly was a fatal, and it just really made me mad," Pooler said. "Motorcyclists get a bad rap, but we're not all criminals. It's not all 'Sons of Anarchy.'

"We're regular people, doctors, lawyers, construction workers," Pooler said. "I'm a paralegal and we're not disposable people."

ONE OF the accidents that spurred an awareness rally last Saturday in Kalispell was a recent fatal crash that occurred on U.S. 2 East in Evergreen.

According to the Montana Highway Patrol, Bradly Nieves was driving a 2005 Harley Davidson north on U.S. 2 when a 60-year-old woman from Eureka entered the highway from a side road and struck the motorcycle.

Nieves, who wasn't wearing a helmet, was thrown from the bike and died of his injuries.

Pooler said another bad accident happened that same weekend when a driver changed lanes and struck a motorcyclist. He suffered serious injuries and is still recovering, she said.

"We started talking, and we decided to try and raise people's awareness of motorcyclists," Pooler said. "We want people to see us, pay attention and put down their cellphones.

"People also need to slow down," she said. "If you can't judge how fast an oncoming vehicle is going, then just wait."

ACCORDING TO to the Montana Highway Patrol, of the 18,942 collisions on state roads in 2019, 4,970 were attributed to inattentive driving and 3,306 to speeding.

The third leading cause of crashes in 2019 was failing to yield the right of way. No. 4 was following too closely.

While the presence of alcohol and drugs still were the top two causes of fatal crashes in Montana, inattentive driving was No. 4.

Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino said with increased traffic during the summer and better weather months, drivers need to check their rearview mirrors more often, be mindful of blind spots and pay more attention to their surroundings.

"Accidents between motorcycles and other vehicles are going to be more significant because a motorcyclist just doesn't have the protection," Heino said. "A lot of the incidents we go to result in hospitalizations or deaths."

According to the Montana Highway Patrol, the number of motorcycle crashes dropped from 372 in 2018 to 299 in 2019. In 2020, there was an increase to 331.

The number of fatalities in 2018 was 21, while 22 people died in 2019. But in 2020, the number increased to 30 deaths.

Among the 332 motorcycle crashes in 2020, drivers wore a helmet 153 times, and 12 died of injuries suffered in a collision. There were 189 drivers who didn't wear a helmet, 14 of whom died.

For passengers involved in a crash, of the four who wore a helmet, none died. Of the 22 who didn't wear a helmet, three died.

In a few cases, it wasn't known if drivers or passengers wore a helmet.

"There is definitely a higher survival rate among [motor]cyclists who wear helmets and proper clothing," Heino said.

POOLER ECHOED the sheriff's comments.

"Yoga pants or shorts are not appropriate clothing for riding a motorcycle," Pooler said. "I know there is a huge debate about wearing helmets, but I always wear mine. … Riding a motorcycle can be scary and you have to anticipate everything."

Pooler said riders, at a minimum, should wear jeans or Carhartt-type pants. Leather is recommended, but she added that Cordura fabric is a little lighter, but also very strong.

"Even the color of your jacket can make a difference," Pooler said. "There's no rule that says every jacket has to be black."

Her other safety recommendations include wearing boots that rise above the ankle and have a good, gripping sole.

"You want a sole which helps keep your feet on the foot pegs and a boot which helps protect your feet and ankles in case you have an accident," Pooler said. "The same goes for your hands. Good leather gloves help your grip and protect the hands."

She added that placing reflective tape on the bike or wearing highly visible jackets, rain gear, T-shirts, helmets, wind pants and gloves can help.

POOLER ALSO explained a little bit of how motorcyclists ride.

"Maybe a handful weave in and out of traffic, but we have our reasons for weaving in our lane of travel," Pooler said. "It may be to avoid a pothole, an obstruction or to increase our visibility to others. When we have our high beams on, it's not because we're jerks, we're just trying to be more visible."

Pooler said education is too often overlooked.

"Motorcycles aren't even part of driver education in Montana and that really needs to change," she said. "It's really nonsensical it isn't taught."

She said taking a safety course, whether it's for beginners or veteran riders, can make a big difference.

"You can learn to be a better rider," Pooler said. "One of my friends is a veteran rider with decades on a bike and he said there was nothing being taught he didn't already know.

"Well, I talked him into taking a refresher course, and he said it was the best $75 he ever spent and he learned things he never knew," she said.

POOLER SAID there are two other instructors teaching motorcycle safety in the valley. Just four years ago, she was the only one.

"It's good there are two more because I've been able to get a little break," she said. "But we can always use more because the more instructors we have, the more courses we can offer."

There are four more classes, which are held at Flathead Valley Community College, on the schedule for 2021. While all of them are fully booked, Pooler said those interested can get on a waiting list. More information can be found by calling 800-922-2453 or visiting https://motorcycle.msun.edu/

"The basic course is two days from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday," Pooler said. "For the refresher, it's a one-day course. We can take 10 people at a time, so we're looking for a bigger space so we could do more."

One course is this weekend. The others are slated for Aug. 14-15, Aug. 28-29 and Sept. 11-12.

Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 406-758-4441 or sshindledecker@dailyinterlake.com.