Nova Scotia

Nostalgia for open road can be dangerous for aging bikers

Nova Scotia RCMP traffic statistics show that most motorcycle fatalities involve riders between 40 and 69 years of age.

'In Nova Scotia, you go for a weekend basically and they give you a bike licence, which is wrong'

Halifax regional councillor Matt Whitman must use a wheelchair to get around while he recovers from a motorcycle crash that occurred last month. (Bikers Down Society photo)

At the age of 47, Halifax regional councillor Matt Whitman found himself in a rapidly growing demographic group — one he would have preferred not to join.

The veteran motorcyclist was badly injured five weeks ago when he was struck by a car while riding his scooter on the Hammonds Plains Road.

While the crash was not his fault — the car was making a left turn and failed to yield, according to Whitman — Nova Scotia traffic statistics show that most motorcycle fatalities involve riders between 40 and 69 years of age.

That figure surprised Whitman and contradicts a perception that bikers who get hurt are young daredevils.

"That definitely surprises me. I fit in that demographic and I am surprised that people my age are the fatalities."

Whitman's scooter following the Aug. 14 crash. (Matt Whitman/Twitter)

Nova Scotia RCMP records show that between 2009 and 2018, there were 64 motorcycle fatalities in the province. Those numbers represent incidents in areas served by the force.

The highest number, 22, involved people between 50 and 59; 13 fatalities occurred in riders 40-49 and nine were 60-69. One death was in the group 70-79.

The gender of the riders was overwhelmingly male. The top locations of the fatalities were Halifax, Colchester and Pictou counties.

Whitman, who has been riding a motorcycle since he was 16, said he spent 12 days in the hospital and underwent three surgeries following his crash. He's currently in a wheelchair because of a smashed left leg and right shoulder injury, making it impossible to use crutches. But he said he's lucky to be alive.

"I just wish that none of this had ever happened, it cost me half my summer and most of the my autumn and winter recovering, and perhaps my marathoning career, my motorcycle, bicycling career."

Jim Swinamer fears there could be even more motorcycle fatalities this season. The number is up drastically from previous years. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

There have been 12 fatal crashes across Nova Scotia involving motorcycles so far in 2018, including four in August alone — a big increase over previous years, says Jim Swinamer, who heads the Nova Scotia chapter of the Bikers Down Society. A dozen more accidents this year left people with serious injuries.

"This year, we've lost 12 bikers, and we're not done yet, our season isn't over," he said.

Three motorcyclists were killed in 2017 and four in 2016, RCMP records show.

Bikers Down, which receives donations and gives financial assistance to those injured while riding their motorcycles, promotes road safety for all users, Swinamer said in an interview.

The former police officer wants to see better training for motorcyclists as well as more awareness on the part of motor vehicle drivers.

"In Nova Scotia, you go for a weekend basically and they give you a bike licence, which is wrong. There is no way anyone fully understands how to ride a motorcycle in three days."

'You've got to up your game'

He is aware of the rising numbers of older bikers who are being injured and killed.

"Men, aged 55 and older up to the age of 64 [are] dying. They used to have a motorcycle licence but the bikes we were riding back in the '70s were very small ccs, there was less traffic and all of that," Swinamer said.

"Now all of the sudden you've got a disposable income, you've got a licence and there's nothing stopping you. You go and buy the biggest bike you can buy. What we can do is point it out to people what is happening, and what you need to do is this: You've got to up your game and get those skills because you don't have them. You might have the money, but the money can kill you."

Swinamer and other members of Bikers Down have long lobbied government for better ways of improving awareness on the province's roads, an integrated program that includes pedestrian, motor vehicle, bicycle and motorcycles.

'I think I have it out of my system'

Whitman said in his experience, car drivers don't look out for bikers.

"It's the car drivers that really need to know what motorcycle riders are going through. If they're informed, I think it will be better for everyone. I think people are in a rush, maybe they are distracted."

But older drivers may mistakenly believe they are better qualified to take to the road on their bikes because of motor vehicle driving experience, he said.

"But I would say if you retired at 55 and all of a sudden you got a motorcycle, you wouldn't have the experience that you'd have if you had ridden a motorcycle your whole life," Whitman said.

He's of two minds whether he'll ride a motorcycle again after he recovers from his injuries.

"Someone asked me today if I would be riding again and I said I don't think so. It hurts too much to get hit like that. I don't ever want to go through that pain again, so I think I have it out of my system after 40 years. But who knows? Perhaps after I retired, I'll get tempted like these other riders are."

Read more articles at CBC Nova Scotia

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