Back in February, when an unseasonable spate of warm weather hit, Bobby Snotherly brought out his Suzuki motorcycle for the 50-mile commute between his home in Dinwiddie County and his job as service manager at Richmond Harley-Davidson in Ashland.
As he was rounding Interstate 95’s bend as it passes through downtown Richmond, a car started drifting into his lane.
“I had to get on the shoulder between her and the jersey wall; if not, I would have been run over,” said Snotherly, 53, who has been riding motorcycles as long as he has had a driver’s license. “She wasn’t paying attention. She was on the phone: looking down at it, looking up, looking down at it.”
More motorcyclists died on Virginia’s roads in 2017 than any year since 2007, according to figures released last week by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, which says it is delving into the numbers to try to extract any trends that might be behind the increase.
The 107 deaths among motorcyclists in 2017 was up nearly 50 percent from the 72 recorded in 2016. The high during the prior 10 years was 126 in 2007.
“We’re hoping that we’ll be able to find some sort of pattern that might explain this a little better,” said Brandy Brubaker, a DMV spokeswoman.
The Virginia numbers mirror what’s happening nationwide. Statistics from the National Highway Transportation Administration showed an increase of 5.1 percent in motorcycle fatalities in 2016, the largest number of fatalities since 2008.
Local motorcyclists acknowledge that riding is inherently more dangerous than other forms of transportation and that skill, recklessness, motorcycle maintenance and alcohol impairment can all play a role in crashes. But they also see a more disturbing modern trend that makes riding increasingly riskier.
“Phones, phones, phones, phones,” said Joey Ledford, owner and technician at Richmond Superbike in Sandston, which sells and services motorcycles. Ledford also blames increasingly technologically sophisticated cars and dashboard displays that take drivers’ eyes off the road.
“We all look at our cellphones when we drive,” said Cory Manning, 37, who runs Engine and Frame, a repair shop and nonprofit community garage for motorcyclists on Valley Road in Richmond.
He added: “Everyone does it. ... I try to stay far away from other cars at all times.”
There were 1,453 texting-while-driving convictions in Virginia in 2017, the same number as a year before. The number has ranged up and down over the past seven years, according to the DMV, from 1,016 in 2013 to 1,685 in 2014.
The DMV’s Brubaker said 208 people died in Virginia last year in crashes involving distracted driving, a fatality classification that is on pace to meet or exceed alcohol-related fatal crashes in the near future.
Overall in 2017, 843 people died on Virginia’s roads, a 20 percent increase over the state’s low of 700 highway deaths in 2014.
“Definitely, distracted driving is a growing trend,” Brubaker said. “It’s a behavior. It’s something people choose to do. ... It’s something we hope we can combat with awareness campaigns.”
In a news release last week in which Gov. Ralph Northam declared April as Highway Safety Month, his administration pledged to focus attention on “particularly vulnerable” road users: pedestrians, motorcyclists and bicyclists.
“Texting while driving, although against Virginia law, continues to be one of the leading factors in distracted driving crashes and is one of the most visible unsafe motorist behaviors,” said Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine. “While a driver is distracted, he or she may not be able to react to a changing environment on the road.”
Attempts to toughen the state’s laws regarding cellphone use while driving, to capture activities beyond texting, died in the General Assembly this year.
“Right now, law enforcement has stopped writing tickets. Because they can’t tell whether someone is playing ‘Angry Birds,’ which is legal ... or engaging in illegal activity,” Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said on the Senate floor during debate on the measure.
The DMV cannot yet say how distracted driving trends intersect with the growing number of motorcycle deaths.
About 40 percent of all single-vehicle motorcycle fatalities last year involved a motorcyclist with a blood alcohol level above the legal limit, the agency said last week. And at the same time, the number of licensed motorcyclists is up: Motorcycle endorsements for Virginia license holders went from 353,117 in 2010 to 422,477 in 2017.
The DMV did note, however, that “in more than half of all crashes involving motorcycles and automobiles, the automobile driver didn’t see the motorcycle until it was too late.”
To that end, Ledford and other motorcyclists say adding after-market lights, horns and exhaust pipes can all help make motorcycles more visible. Ledford emphasized flashing taillights that make it harder to look past motorcycles stopped at red lights or stop signs and “odd lights” beyond the single headlight on most bikes.
“Odd is good,” he said. “It makes it look different. That way you’re noticed.”
Using helmets that fit correctly and wearing reflective clothing are bits of good advice that not everyone takes, he added.
“Very few people want to do that,” he said. “They want to ride a black bike with a black jacket and drive it really fast.”
Proper maintenance is also crucial for general motorcycle safety, Ledford said.
“If the wheel falls off the car, you can probably get to the side of the road. If a wheel falls off a motorcycle, it’s a bad day,” he said.
Safety courses, such as the Virginia State Police’s free Ride 2 Save Lives courses, which are structured for intermediate and experienced riders, and the Motorcycle Safety Center of Virginia’s paid rider instruction programs, are all crucial, say Ledford and others.
“Do whatever you can to make yourself as visible and as safe and educated as possible. The rest is luck,” said Ledford, who estimated that over more than a decade at his shop’s current location in Sandston, he has lost nearly a customer a year to a fatal crash.
Bikers also implored drivers to put down their phones and watch for motorcycles.
“There’s not a day I don’t come to work or go home and see someone texting while driving, talking and all over the road,” said Snotherly, who recently lost a co-worker in a fatal motorcycle crash. “I just wish people would be more aware of their surroundings.”