RACINE COUNTY - A string of serious, and even fatal, motorcycle crashes in Racine County or involving local residents may prompt the belief that motorcycle crash rates are increasing.
But law enforcement officials here said they have no crash statistics to back up that perception. Some say it simply seems like there is a hike in crashes because some have occurred during the day, in heavily traveled areas, or gained increasing amounts of public attention.
Since Aug. 21, six people have been injured or killed in motorcycle crashes in Racine County. Also during this time, a Mount Pleasant woman was killed, and her husband critically injured, in a motorcycle crash in Minnesota.
"We definitely have had a lot of motorcycle crashes, but (also) serious (vehicle) crashes," Mount Pleasant Police Capt. Brian Smith said. "I don't think we've had a huge increase in it, but unfortunately we've had some (higher-profile crashes)."
Racine Police Sgt. Marty Pavilonis and Racine County sheriff's Lt. Dan Klatt agreed with Smith, saying they have not seen an increase in motorcycle crashes in their communities. They said motorcycle crashes occur consistently, but some recent wrecks gained more public attention.
"I don't have any reason or answers as to why we're having these serious crashes," Smith said. "Inattentive driving, I think, is the No. 1 cause. We have a lot of distractions (for vehicle drivers) now. Nice stereos, car phones and people are texting. It is still happening (despite texting while driving being illegal)."
According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, investigating officers statewide report that the most common cause of a vehicle-motorcycle crash is the vehicle driver turning left in front of an oncoming motorcycle. That's because the vehicle driver said he or she simply didn't see it.
Of the seven crashes that occurred locally or involved Racine County residents, Smith pointed to three as possibly being caused by motorcycle driver behavior or the lack of attention that vehicle drivers pay to motorcyclists.
In one, Melissa Corona, 24, of Racine, was killed when the motorcycle she was riding on somehow lost control, ejecting her from the bike. In another, Fred Hackbarth, 67, of Caledonia, was seriously injured when his motorcycle was struck by a vehicle at an intersection. The third involved Mount Pleasant couple Michael and Ann Murphy, who were struck by an oncoming car in Minnesota after the motorcycle they were on pulled out in front of it, according to Minnesota State Patrol reports.
"Some are operator error on the motorcycle (driver's) part," Smith said.
But local law enforcement officials said they have no hard evidence that vehicle driver inattentiveness, and improper behavior by motorcycle drivers, were factors in each of these motorcycle crashes. Some of these crashes occurred so recently that they remain under investigation and precise causes aren't yet determined.
In 2009 - the most recent year for which crash data is available - one motorcyclist was injured or killed statewide every 3.9 hours, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. That's approximately 100 motorcyclists killed each year in Wisconsin traffic crashes, according to the DOT.
"They don't understand the seriousness if they get into a vehicle crash. It can be life-ending or life-altering," Smith said.
But Heather Fleming, 38, of Caledonia, knows the consequences all too well. Her father, Hackbarth, remains hospitalized with broken bones and internal injuries after his Sept. 21 crash. He suffered additional setbacks Monday and Tuesday with gastrointestinal bleeding and a bowel obstruction, she said.
"He can't go to the gym, he can't work, he can't ride the motorcycle," said Fleming, a nursing supervisor.
The crash took some of the joy out of his life, she said. Her father bought the motorcycle earlier this year, after her mother died of cancer last fall.
"You could have lost another parent," she said, because some vehicle drivers don't watch out for motorcycles. "You should be acutely aware of other people on the road."