After two fatal motorcycle crashes, riders and troopers urge caution and no distractions

As the summer riding season picks up, motorcyclists plead with drivers to cut out distractions and watch out for them. Wendy DiAlesandro/The Portager

Memorial Day 2022. Joseph and Christie Olson of Windham decided to take their 2012 Harley-Davidson out for a spin. Maybe later in the day they would visit with their children and grandchildren. It was a beautiful day.

At about 4:30 p.m., a 17-year-old from Deerfield failed to yield while making a left turn in his pickup at state Route 224 and Bedell Road in Mahoning County. The Olsons’ motorcycle struck the truck’s right side.

The high school sweethearts who had been married since 1981 were both killed, one at the scene and one shortly afterward.

With the riding season in full swing, the dangers of hitting Ohio’s roads on a bike have already shattered three lives in Portage County, and public safety officials are urging drivers to be aware of each other.

On June 5, 26-year old Aaron Redd of Ravenna was killed when his Harley crashed into a Ford F-150 that was pulling a farm tractor. The accident occured on Waterloo Road near state Route 43 in Suffield Township. The 21-year-old driver of the truck was in the process of turning into a private driveway. Redd was ejected from his bike and pronounced dead at the scene.

From Jan. 1, 2017, to June 21, 2022, Portage County logged 279 motorcycle-related crashes, according to the Ohio Highway Patrol.

In 2020, Portage County had 59 crashes with 49 injuries and no fatalities. The year 2021 closed with 57 crashes causing 48 injuries and one fatality. So far this year, the county has tallied 12 total crashes, with 11 injuries and one fatality. The Olson tragedy factored into Mahoning County’s statistics.

Statewide, motorcycle accidents with fatalities numbered 155 in 2017, 142 in 2018, 156 in 2019, 205 in 2020 and 215 in 2021.

The upticks in 2020 and 2021 may be related to the pandemic, when people preferred to pass the time on their bikes instead of interacting with other people, OHP Lt. Nathan Dennis said. What 2022 will bring is anyone’s guess, but the statistics speak for themselves.

So far this year — and the season is young — the state has tallied 54 fatal accidents involving motorcycles and 331 serious injuries.

Another factor may also be at play: young distracted drivers. From 2017 to June 21, 2022, the Ohio Highway Patrol recorded a 40% increase in overall crashes involving distracted drivers aged 15 to 24.

“A lot of it is not only distractions but motorcycles, being a lower profile, are not quite as apparent as a car or truck,” said Ohio Highway Patrol Trooper Brian Cannon. “So if someone takes a quick look rather than a thorough look, they’re likely to overlook it. If you have a distraction on top of that, that’s going to increase that effect.”

Cannon cited situational blindness, a documented phenomenon where people do not see what they do not expect to see. In other words, they are not expecting to see a motorcycle, so in their mind it’s not there.

“If you’re looking for a specific thing such as a car or truck, you may miss what’s also there in front of your face,” Cannon said. “So I think looking specifically for a motorcycle before you potentially cross a roadway or turn would be very helpful. Look twice, save a life,” he concluded.

Riders insist the problem is getting worse.

Just ask Ron Timms, 80, who’s been riding since he was 14 and can remember when license plates cost 45 cents.

“That was the good ol’ days,” he laughed.

Times have changed. As Guardian of Membership for Ravenna 12 Ohio Widows Sons, a motorcycle club exclusive to riders who are at least third-degree Masons, it’s his job to ensure safety.

Riders must maintain a staggered formation. Anyone riding side by side or falling too far behind gets one warning. If it happens again, their membership is voided.

Safety is everything, and other vehicles — both cars and trucks — are the enemy, Timms said.

In a world where visibility is a matter of life or death, Timms has no problem stacking the deck: His custom three-wheeled Honda Gold Wing is decked with over 50 lights. But there’s little anyone can do about distracted drivers.

“The last wreck I had was a lady yakking on her cell phone,” he said. “I’ve had two bikes destroyed.”

Tailgating and cell phones are equally lethal in Timms’ view. He tells stories of people following him so closely that he can’t even see their headlights. Or people so focused on their cell phones that they don’t even realize that they’ve drifted into another lane. Terrifying stuff.

“Size is everything,” he said. “You just don’t count if you’re on two or three wheels. They just don’t see you.”

He’s learned a thing or two. When the light turns green, he lets oncoming traffic, or even the vehicles in the lane next to his, clear or at least proceed before he hits the throttle. If he’s coming up on an intersection where there is no light, he does the same. It’s amazing how many drivers don’t use their turn signals.

Timms looks, looks again, and lets the other motorists do what they will. Somehow, he manages to enjoy riding while maintaining a mindset that every motorist he sees is actively trying to kill him, he said. Distance is everything.

“It gives you that few seconds you need. If you’re on a bike, they tend to look right through you,” he said. “Or they look at you, and you’re no problem.”

There are lots of things motorcyclists would like to say to drivers of cars and trucks, little of it very nice. Timms’ is a more diplomatic stance.

“Pay attention,” he pleaded. “Stay off your phone, and don’t tailgate. Give us some room.”

Tom Fortner, 49, of Wadsworth, wrapped up his meeting at the Kent American Legion and headed for his motorcycle. He, too, has noticed the roads becoming more dangerous.

“Everyone’s got their face in a cell phone,” he said. “You see that more and more.”

Like Timms, Fortner relies on distance to keep himself safe.

“I just watch everything around me, keep clear distance, and I’m always looking way ahead of myself,” he said.

His advice to motorists?

“Give us some room,” he said. “And don’t blow grass clippings into the street. That’s like hitting a sheet of ice.”

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.