HAM LAKE, Minn. – Minnesota has seen eight deadly motorcycle crashes in 2016, a number that’s already mirroring a record number of motorcycle fatalities last year in Minnesota.
State data shows experienced motorcyclists are the most likely group to die in motorcycle crashes. KARE 11 set out to understand why, while a Ham Lake couple shares what spared their lives after surviving a motorcycle crash last year.
“Next thing I heard was a thud"
Last July, after a career as a police officer, Gary King of Ham Lake, took his upcoming retirement for a test drive when he planned a weekend motorcycle trip.
King, 53, and his wife Kathi, 49, met relatives for a several-day ride through Illinois and Iowa and made their way home to Ham Lake, Minn. The couple began riding after their kids went to college and enjoy the time together on the road.
“My mantra has always been low and slow. I don't mind 40 to 50 miles per hour, floating down the road,” said Gary King.
“I am in my happy place on the back of his bike, always. I love, love riding. Love it,” said Kathi King.
When the Kings approached the town of Fountain, Minn. at the intersection of Highway 52 and County Road 8, life threw a curve.
“All of the sudden there is a pickup truck in front of me. My first instinct reaction was to try to pull the handlebars hard and swerve around,” said Gary King. “Next thing I heard was thud. Moments later I was laying on the ground. Felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. Next thing I know there is somebody holding my head saying, 'Don’t move.'”
King swerved but still crashed into the rear end of the maroon pickup. As the pickup driver attempted to make a left turn the couple approached on their motorcycle. What he didn’t realize, paramedics happened to be right behind the couple, returning from a firefighter funeral and were on the scene within seconds of the crash.
They found Kathi King remarkably sitting on a curb after impact.
“I almost remember just feeling the weight of the truck in me, an enormous heaviness, and the next second, I felt nothing,” said King. “I just knew at that moment, the Lord had allowed it to happen. I knew He was going to take care of us and I had a great peace and calm overtake me and overwhelm me.”
Paramedics determined both Gary and Kathi King had hit their heads during the crash, based on deep scratches in their helmets, and the couple was rushed to Mayo Clinic, where Gary King was hospitalized for almost two weeks for a severely crushed right leg.
Minnesota motorcycle safety training
“If you ride long enough, you really have a pretty fair chance of being in a crash. I don’t know many motorcyclists who have been riding a long time who haven’t been in a crash,” said Bill Shaffer, Motorcycle Safety Coordinator for the Minnesota Motorcycle Safety program.
That risk is the heart of why May is National Motorcycle Awareness Month and why this summer, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety is asking experienced riders to go back to the basics, taking motorcycle rider training courses to refresh and retool their skills and judgment in a season when motorcycle accidents rise.
Minnesota has 415,000 licensed and endorsed riders, with 238,000 registered motorcycles in the state.
Instructors encourage the thrill of safety to all riders who may get rusty or complacent, but the goal is to reach riders at any level, from beginner to expert.
The push for awareness comes after an increase in motorcycle fatalities in 2015. Shaffer points to striking statistics with 61 motorcycle fatalities in 2015, up from 46 motorcycle fatalities in 2014.
State data shows more than half of the victims – 33 riders – died when they crashed on their motorcycle when they were riding alone. The majority of those who died were also no strangers to the road.
“Two-thirds of those crashes, or actually more than that, were riders riding off the road on curves, failing to negotiate a curve and the hard thing was, a lot of those riders were experienced riders. People in their 50s. That was the biggest group of riders killed. Also people in their 40s,” said Shaffer. “All of these people had somebody who cared about them. A lot of them had kids.”
To avoid this startling pattern, the Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Center is offering rider training courses through September across Minnesota.
Shaffer calls it the “flu shot for crashes” teaching skills that make crashes avoidable, and takes courses himself even after riding 35 years.
In a basic rider course, for instance, riders learn what it takes to negotiate curves.
• Maintain smooth, controlled operation
• Slow with both brakes prior to entering the curve
• Keep head and eyes up, and look through the path of travel
• Press on the grip in the direction you want to go.
• Roll on the throttle through the turn.
• Maintain a safety margin
License to begin again
Almost a year after their accident, Kathi King suffered a badly injured ankle and recently underwent ankle surgery. Gary King still struggles to walk after multiple surgeries, uses a cane, and is recovering from a recent surgery at Mayo Clinic.
Doctors discovered his femur had somehow broke again during the healing process. The setback pushed back his plans to get back on a motorcycle this summer.
“It’s the cop side of me, trying to figure out what happened? Where did I hit? How did I hit?” said Gary King. "But because I did have driving skills training, we would have probably been in a much worse place.”
“There have been really hard days, especially with him and the pain he has endured. He was an avid runner,” said Kathi King. “But, we have absolutely nothing to complain about. We are alive, God’s grace. I think I said to Gary every single day for 60 days, I think you saved our lives. I honestly believe had he not turned the handlebars, had he just gone straight into that truck, I don’t think he would be here,” said Kathi King.
The couple copes by holding onto their strong faith and believes their survival was no accident.
“If you are going to be afraid of everything, you are not really living life to its fullest,” said Gary King, pointing to his new motorcycle, adorned with a new license plate that reads, “Live to Ride.”
Remembering those words to inspire, the Kings hope more experienced riders like them, find the license to be better, or begin again.
“It is a new chapter. I’m looking forward to it. I’ll let my leg get a little bit better, get healed and start riding again,” said Gary King.