Sport bike speedsters are turning the heads of police in Maryland

Danger: Law enforcement agencies voice concern over the risks associated with the high-performance motorcycles.

February 20, 2005|By Sarah Schaffer | Sarah Schaffer,SUN STAFF

Karl Vincent sees it all the time: high-speed performance motorcycles whizzing past his truck at speeds in excess of 100 mph, cutting off motorists on Interstate 97 and other roads near his Anne Arundel County home.

"It does make you jump, especially when they come right by you," said Vincent, as he sipped coffee at a Millersville gas station. "When they take off at a light ... all hell raises."

Risky encounters with such high-performance machines are becoming more common on Maryland highways as sport bikes have gained in popularity among the young, thrill-seeking set.

Recent movies, such as last year's Torque starring rapper Ice Cube, have celebrated street racing by urban motorcycle gangs, while Web sites have popped up to promote and sell DVDs that depict speeding and stunts involving high-performance motorcycles.

Police say they're concerned about the hazards posed by groups of sport bikers zigging and zagging through traffic at speeds in excess of 100 mph. Last September, a 21-year-old man was killed on U.S. 340 near Frederick when he lost control of his sport bike and crashed into a tow truck while performing a high-speed maneuver. The rider, who wasn't wearing pants, was being videotaped by a stunt promoter following him in a sport utility vehicle.

Authorities are wary of attributing a rise in motorcycle highway fatalities in Maryland - to 69 last year from 51 in 2000, and 29 in 1994 - to the popularity of sport bikes, but, as the incident in Frederick attests, they play a role. At the Anne Arundel County police property lot in Millersville, officers keep about a dozen bikes that have been involved in fatal crashes, including the Suzuki bike that 24-year-old James Lee Rollins of Lusby was riding when he lost control and was killed in July 2003. Speed was a factor, police said.

Helicopter surveillance

Throughout the Baltimore area, police departments are wrestling with how to catch and ticket risk-taking riders without engaging in dangerous high-speed chases. In Anne Arundel, for example, police have turned to tracking suspects by helicopter and stressing rider education. A possible penalty - reckless driving - is punishable by six points on a driver's license.

"You don't want to see somebody get killed ... for a traffic violation," said Sgt. Bill Booth of the Anne Arundel County police. "We still try to stop violators, but ... when you go to stop them, they just take off."

High-performance motorcycles have become popular in recent years because they offer a lot of power at an affordable price, Booth said. The sport bikes, which have a chainsaw-like sound, weigh less and are much smaller than cruiser-style bikes such as those made by Harley-Davidson.

"They're basically an engine on two wheels," he said "and with most of these high-performance bikes, you can out-accelerate a Corvette and do it for 10 times cheaper."

David Buck, a spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration, said the popularity of Suzuki sport bikes - and other high-powered makes including Ducati and Honda - is an extension of the popular culture's fascination with extreme sports.

"Not everyone can go skiing down a mountain in Switzerland or jumping out of a plane," said Buck. But, he said, many people can buy a sport motorcycle and fly past other motorists on the highway.

Driving home from work on U.S. 50 recently, Mike Higgins was startled to see two riders of high-speed motorcycles pop wheelies and weave through rush-hour congestion. "They're trying to get themselves or someone else killed," recalled Higgins, who lives in Odenton.

Rider advocates agreed that the accessibility of sport motorcycles makes them attractive. They stressed, however, that there is a proper venue for stunt-biking and racing.

"That kind of extreme riding ... has no place on public streets and highways," said Tom Lindsay, a spokesman for the American Motorcyclist Association, an Ohio-based group representing more than 260,000 members nationwide.

"Responsible motorcyclists who want to test their limits do so in a controlled setting," added Lindsay, pointing out that the association organizes and sponsors thousands of events per year, including racing events at tracks around the country.

In his experience, Lindsay said, street riders bent on hot-rodding represent "a very, very small minority of the American motorcycle community."

Lex O'Brien, a Montgomery County resident who owns a BMW motorcycle and works for a bike shop in Jessup, agreed. He said he has been passed by sport bike riders going twice the speed limit on local highways.

"It's pretty irresponsible ... but it's a small clique of guys that do this," he said.

Negative impact

But the SHA's Buck said that even a small number of reckless drivers can negatively affect the safety of local highways. He stressed that Maryland's 10-year increase in motorcycle rider fatalities is "statistically relevant."

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