Safety key as more Tri-Citians drive on two wheels to work (w/photos)

Bill Thackaberry likes to ride his 1976 Triumph Bonneville to work when the weather is nice.

It's fun and helps him save money on gas, said the quality assurance engineer at Fluor Hanford. He estimates his motorcycle gets 50 mpg, compared with his Explorer's 19 mpg.

On Wednesday, Thackaberry also drove to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory complex to participate in the annual Motorcycle and Scooter Ride to Work Day. More than 100 motorcycle and scooter riders showed up for the PNNL-sponsored event.

Thackaberry said the event highlights advantages of commuting on two wheels and raises safety awareness. Learning proper road etiquette helps motorcycle riders stay safe and enjoy their rides, said the Richland resident.

That's important because riders can be badly injured in an accident.

Nationwide, there are an estimated 75 fatalities per 100,000 motorcycles, compared with 18 per 100,000 cars.

In the Tri-Cities, there were 16 collisions involving motorcycles, including one fatality, reported from January to June this year, said Lt. Jay Cabezuela of the Washington State Patrol. Troopers also ticketed 25 motorcyclists for not having a motorcycle endorsement on their driver's license in that period.

Yet more and more drivers are switching to two-wheelers to ease the pain at the pump.

Motorcycle and scooter sales are up this year, said Michelle Kiddy at Shumate Motorsports in Kennewick. In fact, there's a waiting list for some scooter models, said Kiddy, who recently bought an Aprilia scooter herself. It's easy to maneuver and fun, she said.

For Pauline Brown and her husband Matt, riding motorcycles is less about saving money on gas than about experiencing new sights and smells.

But safety is a huge issue for Pauline Brown, a senior engineer at Hanford's vitrification plant. She always puts on a high-end helmet and protective leather covering before hitting the road on her 1000cc Yamaha.

The Browns, who live in West Richland, said they often go on long motorcycle trips with their two boys, ages 11 and 13. And they never forget the rules of the road because for years Matt Brown taught motorcycle safety classes.

Riders always must be prepared for the unexpected and be aware of their surroundings, said Matt Brown, also an engineer at the vit plant.

He said in many cases car drivers fail to see motorcycle riders and pull out ahead of them. A good motorcycle rider needs to anticipate such things and understand the proper use of front brakes and steering, he said.

"Riding is 90 percent mental," he said, adding it's a good idea to take motorcycle safety classes to refresh skills every few years.

Kurt Recknagle of Richland says his four-stroke Bajaj Chetak scooter is a safe ride. He uses it to get around town and even fetch groceries.

"It's my little work truck," said the senior research engineer at PNNL.

He said his gas costs are almost negligible because the used scooter, which he bought for $1,800 three months ago, goes about 108 miles on a gallon of gas. That's hard to beat.