Tom Mueller drives his car maybe once or twice a month to get to work, but he usually chooses to cruise the road on one of his seven, brightly-colored BMW motorcycles.
Mueller said he commutes 60 miles a day to work in Chandler from his home in Queen Creek, and at least twice a day he gets cut-off by cars.
That’s on a good day.
Born in South Africa, Mueller has traveled by motorcycle in a 142 different countries across the world, and he says Arizona is one of the most dangerous places he has ever ridden. He has lived in Arizona for nine years.
“I can get cut off roughly five times in one day,” said Mueller, floor manager at Victory BMW in Chandler. “I like to call those ‘Don’t See Tom’ days.”
Arizona ranked 10th in the country for most motorcyclist fatalities in 2005 with 138 deaths, and 9th in 2006 with 142 deaths, said Brian Turmial, a spokesperson from the Arizona Department of Transportation.
Mueller said Arizona needs to find a solution for the safety problems motorcyclists face every day. He said he would personally campaign for such a change.
And lawmakers say more driver education is needed as a growing number of motorcyclists hit the Arizona roads each year.
“It’s too (expletive) dangerous to ride a bike (in Arizona),” Mueller said. “It’s one of those places where I get the feeling like someone is after me.”
Mueller said one problem he encounters while riding are the freeways, and he doesn’t take them very often because “it’s crazy on a motorcycle.”
Tom Filesi, a Gilbert resident who rides 3-4 times a week, said he also won’t go on the freeway because of congestion — especially at rush hour — and would like to see an HOV lane on the 101 and 202 freeways.
Projects for HOV lanes are underway in the East Valley and eventually could help make roads safer for motorcyclists who are eligible to use the lanes.
Construction started last month on an HOV lane on the Loop 101 Pima Freeway from Princess Drive to the Loop 202 Red Mountain Freeway, according to the ADOT Web site, www.azdot.gov, And construction for HOV lanes on the Loop 101 Price Freeway from Baseline Rd. to state route 202 Red Mountain Freeway will begin in 2008.
In addition, construction is planned to begin in 2010 on an HOV lane on the Loop 101, from state route 202 Santan Freeway to Baseline Road.
ADOT also is studying whether to build HOV lanes on the 202 Red Mountain Freeway.
Mueller said motorcyclists don’t ride to cushion their pocketbooks by saving gas. Nor do they do it to save time on the commute to work. They ride for the passion.
Jerry Weiers, a member of the Arizona Legislature, is one of those passionate riders. A “brain vacation” is how he describes the feeling he gets when he is cruising on his Harley Davidson motorcycle.
“It’s relaxing to me,” Weiers said, “and it allows you to focus on your surroundings.
Weiers said motorcycle riders have to be “totally conscious” and “constantly on the edge” in order to stay safe on Arizona roads.
But Weiers said the state’s laws are sufficient to protect motorcyclists. He said people driving their vehicles recklessly are part of the problem, and that distractions cause drivers not to follow traffic signals and slow down.
“We have all the laws we need,” he said. “We just need people to follow them.”
Richard Fimbres, director of the governor’s Office of Highway Safety, is a member of the Motorcycle Safety Advisory Council, which provides education, training and awareness for those who ride motorcycles or with to learn how to ride.
“As the fastest growing state in the nation, we have a lot more people on the road,” Fimbres said. “There are very young, inexperienced riders and older riders who don’t realize that bikes are more powerful, and their reaction time is a lot slower.”
Fimbres said there has been a huge increase of motorcycle use in Arizona, where currently there are 150,000 riders. Among those riders are 20,000 motorcyclists who are unregistered and without a motorcycle endorsement on their drivers license.
This a great increase from 1998, where there were only 59,700 riders, according to ADOT.
Pat “Pooh Bear” Conley, chairman of the Arizona Confederation of Motorcycle Clubs, said educating drivers on motorcycle safety would cut down on the number of motorcycle deaths every year.
Conley said it’s easy to pick out the uneducated drivers because they are on the lookout for something the size of a truck on the road, rather than for smaller vehicles such as motorcycles.
“The more gas becomes an issue, the more people will have to watch out because vehicles are getting smaller and lighter,” he said. “What we do more than anything else is we think education is the solution to safer motorcycle riding.”
As the chairman of a lobbying body for the Legislature, Conley said he would like to see more money invested in driver education, and that more high schools should offer driver-education classes.
Conley said he became a much safer rider after he took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course when he was 40 years old.
“We’re just another vehicle on the road,” he said. “We’re not more dangerous, so to speak, it’s just that we tend to lose sometimes.
Kurt Smith, a salesman at Chandler Harley Davidson, is also a big advocate for education and rider safety.
“All bikers try to be safe and we want to be heard.” Smith said. “No matter where you’re at you have to be cautious.”
Smith, who has ridden for nine years, owns a car as well as his Harley. Although he is one of the many unregistered motorcyclists in Arizona, he said he wants to take the Harley Davidson riding course called “Riders Edge.”
“Riders Edge,” which is located at select Harley Davidson/ Buell dealerships, offers the same training you would receive at the MVD, but a little extra, he said.
“Life is too short to not have fun,” Smith said. “When it’s your time, it’s your time. Motorcycles will increase that risk.”
By the Numbers:
5 - the percentage of increase in motorcycle fatalities nationally from 2005 to 2006.
2.9 - the percentage of increase in motorcycle fatalities in Arizona from 2005 to 2006.
4,810 - the number of motorcycle fatalities nationwide in 2006.
142 - the number of motorcycle fatalities in Arizona in 2006.
150,000 - the estimated number of motorcyclists currently in Arizona
20,000 - the estimated number of unregistered and unlicensed motorcyclists in Arizona
59,700 - the estimated number of motorcyclists in Arizona in 1998.
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