Stunters' give cops headaches
By William M. Welch, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES — Sgt. John Lago is cruising the Hollywood Freeway when his radio carries the call of another California Highway Patrol officer who has tried to pull over a motorcyclist, only to see him race off at high speed.
Both troopers give chase, skillfully picking their way through 10 p.m. weeknight traffic at 120 mph. They radio for a helicopter backup, but the aircraft is too far away. In only minutes, tonight's outcome is clear: The rider of the agile, 600cc Honda sportbike has outrun them.
"Bummer," Lago says. "I hate it when we lose a chase because you know the guy's going (to go) on MySpace and brag he outran the cops. It's just going to encourage more knuckleheads."
While the CHP officers often apprehend their targets, tonight's disappointment is all too common for this team. In squad cars and on powerful BMW motorcycles of their own, these officers go after what they regard as a growing problem on the nation's highways — riders of high-performance motorcycles who use public roads for triple-digit speeds or perilous stunts such as riding while standing or on one wheel.
"We're not going to tolerate their behavior," says Lago, himself a motorcycle rider. "They're ruining it for everyone else."
Across the USA, reckless motorcycle "stunters," as the riders like to call themselves, are being targeted as a hazard to themselves and others.
Motorcycle deaths climbed from 3,034 in 2002 to 4,493 in 2006, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The largest 10-year age group of rider fatalities is 20- to 29-year-olds. Though most are not stunters, many states have reported problems with stunters and are proposing laws to deter them.
Florida this month passed legislation to make it illegal for a motorcyclist to lift a wheel off the ground, called a wheelie, or to place license plates on a hinged frame that violators use to flip their tag out of sight and avoid identification. Florida state Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami, pushed for the law in response to complaints about bikes speeding at 136 mph, popping wheelies and hiding tags.
In Kansas City, police from several agencies in the region met in June to discuss what to do.
"It's getting worse," Capt. Dek Kruger of the Kansas Highway Patrol told The Kansas City Star. "Aggressive motorcycle driving is an issue throughout the metro area. We're seeing 'em popping wheelies on the interstates and performing stunts on the street."
In Oregon, state police arrested a motorcyclist after a chase in which the biker hit 164 mph — as recorded by a video camera that the motorcyclist had pointed at his own speedometer.
The American Motorcyclist Association, a national organization based in Ohio, has opposed new penalties against reckless motorcyclists because it says such penalties should apply to reckless automobile drivers, too. AMA lobbyist Imre Szauter said similar efforts to crack down on motorcyclists fell short this year in California and Missouri.
"We will not defend public reckless operation," Szauter says. "That kind of riding needs to be done on the track."
While the image of Harley-Davidson-riding gangs of outlaw motorcyclists dies hard, it is the modern super-capable sportbikes, most imported from Japan or Europe, that are the focus of law enforcement's attention, Lago said.
One reason is the performance. For $10,000 a buyer can get a sportbike capable of 180 mph even before any hot-rodding work.
The Internet is a factor as well. On websites and forums riders post photos and videos of their exploits. Lago says he and other law officers regularly read Los Angeles sportbike websites to gain intelligence on when and where bikers plan get-togethers.
At a recent late-night gathering in a parking lot in Hollywood, several hundred riders showed off their bikes and club names such as "Fearless Stunters," "Law Breakerz" and "Suicide Tribe." One cycle was equipped with multiple video screens and cameras, allowing the rider to both show stunt videos and record his own.
At another lot in Calabasas in the San Fernando Valley, rider Thad Wiltz, 56, of Van Nuys, demonstrated that the riders are not all kids.
He displayed his Suzuki Hayabusa, a 1340cc superbike that he had hopped up with a turbocharger, giving it, he says, 380 horsepower. "I go to the drag strip with it," he says. "It can do 178 mph in the quarter mile."
Ryan Suchanek, 27, of Milton, Wis., has made stunting his profession. With his crew called "VerticalMischief," he performs all over the world and sells DVDs of his stunts. He lost his left leg when he collided with a car in October. He still performs, wearing shorts to show off his metal prosthetic limb.
"I'm not going to lie. I started (stunt) riding on the street. As long as you're doing it safe and not affecting other people, I don't see a huge problem with it — as long as it is controlled," he says.
"As long as they make bikes that can pop wheelies, we're going to be popping wheelies."
That's not what Lago likes to hear. In California, he says, sportbikers have shut down entire freeways with hundreds of riders slowing traffic and clearing lanes for stunters. In 2006, the CHP arrested 11 leaders of a group that hired its own helicopter to videotape just such a stunt, he said.
On another recent night, Lago and his team found themselves surrounded by more than 100 sportbikers who prevented officers from arresting speeding riders.
"It's like a swarm of bees — they surround you," he says. "It was so out of control I couldn't believe it."