Florida's Fast Motorcyclists Are a Growing Menace

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Chip Somodevilla / Getty

An officer tickets a motorcyclist the night before the official kickoff of Bike Week 2006 in Daytona Beach, Fla.

The rider hops on his racing motorcycle and gets on Interstate 95 from Hollywood Boulevard, south of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., at 2 a.m. A mere six seconds later, he's already doing 95 m.p.h., headed for Miami. About 10 seconds after that he's at video-game velocity — 175 m.p.h., almost triple the speed limit — and the highway's dashed lane markers are blurred solid. He slows down occasionally to pop wheelies before resuming his screaming pace.

A few miles away, down the road, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper sees him from an overpass and gives chase. Once the rider glimpses the trooper, he maxes out at a stupefying 186 m.p.h., before exiting I-95, taking a spill and getting caught. "Do you need fire-rescue before you go to jail?" Trooper Y. Segui asks him. "No, no I'm fine," the rider says.

That extraordinary scene, captured last year by the rider's own helmet-mounted camera — the video was confiscated as evidence and made public by authorities — is even more extraordinary because it actually ended with an arrest. Usually, the police are no match for the racing bikes — known on the street as "crotch rockets."

As if rules-averse Florida didn't already have some of the nation's most dangerous drivers — more pedestrians are killed there each year than in any other state — now it's dealing with the rising popularity of Mad Max–like high-speed motorcycles. The rogue bikes are a particular bane in South Florida, where the weather is warm year-round and many of the roads are so flat and straightaway that they can easily be turned into a racetrack. Florida motorcycle crashes have been up in recent years — from 8,990 in 2006 to 9,618 in 2008, when state legislators responded with a tough new anti-speeding law — and law-enforcement officials say crotch rockets are a prime contributor. They worry the problem will get worse in the bad economy, since motorcycles (which most riders buy new but end up tinkering with to generate more power) are a lot cheaper than cars.

But the trend is also fueled — as the video confiscated by the highway patrol suggests — by an apparent competition among riders to post the wildest speed and stunt videos on YouTube. And if it involves successfully eluding the police, all the better. "The more cops that are on you, the better rider you have to be to get away," Segui says. "If you get caught, you're not a great rider." In the case of the arrest that Segui made, even getting thrown in jail didn't seem to matter to the 19-year-old rider, who did not have a driver's license, let alone a motorcycle license. "He said, 'The risk, it's worth it,' " Segui recalls. "He said that out of 30 times, if he gets caught once, that's not bad odds."

Beyond the risk to the bikers, drivers sharing the road with the daredevils are also in peril, law-enforcement officials say. Drivers can change lanes having no idea that a racing bike is about to appear — and tragedy can easily strike. At first, the buzzing of an approaching high-speed motorcycle sounds like a gnat near your ear, then it suddenly becomes loud and threatening. Segui remembers a woman who heard that noise and jerked her steering wheel in the opposite direction, jumping a curb and crashing.

Still, it's the bikers who usually face the worst injuries. Crash scenes involving racing bikes usually cover a large area compared with other accidents because helmets, shoes and body parts are thrown everywhere, he said. "I've never seen a crash at speeds higher than 100 that people have walked away from," he said. "I don't even like talking about it. It is graphic, graphic, graphic." It doesn't help that Florida repealed a mandatory helmet law for motorcyclists a decade ago. There were more than 500 Florida motorcyclist deaths in 2008 — compared with 22 in 1999, the year before the law was shelved.

Two years ago the Florida legislature imposed a $1,000 fine for anyone caught driving 50 m.p.h. or more above the speed limit. The second violation results in a $2,500 penalty, with the driver's or rider's license revoked for a year; a third means $5,000 and loss of the license for 10 years. State representative Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Miami Republican who sponsored the bill, can't say yet whether the measure has worked. But he concedes that for many crotch-rocket riders, "there's no law that's going to stop them from lavishly exceeding speed limits.

Highway troopers can only do so much, since chasing crotch rockets on busy roads and highways is often not an option. "The supervisor has to weigh every possible liability that he can before he allows that to continue on," says Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Lieutenant Tim Frith of Palm Beach County. He says the common speed of racing bikes there is 120 to 130 m.p.h. Lieutenant Alex Annunziato of the highway patrol in Miami says they have busted repeat violators by flying helicopters and tracking the bikes until they stop. "The problem is that takes a lot of resources," he says.

Lopez-Cantera believes the problem will continue until the racing-bike industry takes steps to limit who can buy the bikes. A recent effort to force buyers to have a license expressly for motorcycles before purchasing a racing bike, for example, was successfully stifled in large part by industry lobbyists. "I don't see where the industry can control the consumer," says Carrington Lloyd III, who owns Greater Yamaha in West Palm Beach and says he supports the law. "You can feed anybody as much knowledge as you want, but they're going to do what they want to do."

Lloyd used to own racing bikes, and he confesses to hitting speeds of 130 m.p.h. on empty, straight roads. He no longer does it, he says, because he has a family. "I know how I am — I have to go fast, you know, and pop wheelies," he says. "I have family and kids. It's not worth it."

Lloyd still acknowledges the lure of the racing bike. And he says that if he sells 60 of the bikes in a month, he knows that 10 to 15 of those will be involved in a crash, with the owners coming in to his business for repairs — or worse, with new widows or other bereaved family members wanting to sell the ill-fated bikes for parts. "You're buying that bike for that reason — somebody's not coming in and buying a sports bike to go putt around town," he says. But if the bikers won't rein themselves in, Florida lawmakers may eventually be forced to.