With Utah motorcycle deaths up 50% this year, officials stress importance of safety gear and call for increased caution

(Courtesy photo|UDOT) Motorcyclist Peter Ballentine shows off the sort of safety gear that saved him during a horrific crash.

With Utah motorcyclist deaths up by 50 percent so far this year — including six in the past month — Utah officials on Thursday urged riders to take steps similar to those that saved Peter Ballentine’s life back in 2012.

On a trip back from Jackson, Wyo., “I came over a rise and there were five black Aberdeen Angus cattle in the road.” He managed to miss most, but clipped the last one — sending him and his cycle skidding, cracking its gasoline tank.

“My motorcycle exploded, pouring gas all over me and setting me on fire.” But he was wearing tough, flame-resistant motorcycle pants, jacket, gloves and a helmet. He rolled to extinguish the fire on him.

When paramedics saw the charred clump of metal that was once his motorcycle, they tried to put Ballentine into an ambulance — falsely assuming he must have horrific injuries. “I said, ‘I’m perfectly fine.’ I didn’t have any broken bones. I wasn’t bleeding. I didn’t have any numbness or tingling.” He had little more than a scratch.

(Courtesy photo|UDOT) Charred remains of motorcycle after crash involving Peter Ballentine.

John Gleason, spokesman for the Utah Department of Transportation, said at a news conference Thursday that his agency would like to see more people buy the sort of gear that saved Ballentine and take refresher safety classes to help avoid accidents. It also is urging other drivers to watch more closely for motorcycles.

“We’ve already seen 10 motorcycle fatalities this year, which is double what we saw last year at this time,” Gleason said. Six occurred in April, “and it’s concerning because we are just heading into those months when we see fatalities increase because there are more people out trying to enjoy the weather.”

Even though motorcycles represent only 3 percent of registered vehicles in Utah, their riders accounted for 14 percent of highway deaths last year, a total 39 killed.

Pam Manson | The Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City police investigate the scene of an accident, on 500 south, in which two motorcycle police officers were injured.

Gleason said motorcyclists should plan for and factor in the cost of safety gear and training when they buy their vehicles, but often fail to do so.

“But those are critical components to surviving a crash or avoiding a crash,” he said.

Ballentine said the gear that saved him is expensive. “But you have to think how much your body’s worth, and what is an emergency room bill worth.”

“How do you put a price on having something that saves your life? Peter’s gear saved his life,” said Vance Harrison, CEO of Harrison Eurosports in Sandy, where Ballentine bought his gear, and where UDOT held its safety event.

Harrison said when he had several customers die within a short period a few years ago, “it really affected our staff. So we instigated a rider safety course free to our customers. We do it every year.”

UDOT and its Zero Fatalities campaign have teamed up with several local shops to offer discounted brush-up classes. A list of participants and discount codes are online at ut.zerofatalities.com.

Ballentine urged, “Every spring take a rider safety course just to renew your knowledge and skills that have grown lax during the winter from not riding.”

Also, he advised, “Check out your motorcycle. Check the tire pressure. Check your oil. Make sure your brakes work. Make sure your turn signals work. Helmets are supposed to be retired every five years, so if yours is older than five years — get a new one.”

Finally, he said, “Be aware of what’s around you. Expect that driver will turn in front of you, and be prepared.” He adds that has saved him many times in his 50 years of riding motorcycles.

Harrison added, “As a motorcyclist, you have to be aware of your surroundings. You have to pretend you are invisible — which you are actually.”

Many fatal motorcycle accidents are caused by other inattentive drivers, Gleason said. For example, about a third of all fatal motorcycle accidents come from other drivers hitting cyclists who were turning left — including several this year.

“You almost have to train your brain to look for motorcycles and pedestrians, and not just focus on other vehicles. The other part is putting down distraction, putting down the cellphones,” Gleason said.