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High gas prices fuel a dangerous combo

Posted: October 8, 2008 8:55 p.m.
Updated: December 10, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Tim Mendenhall, of Saugus, look over some motorcycles at the SCV MotorSport store in Newhall, Wednesday afternoon.

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While gas prices hover at $3.50 a gallon and more mortgages are going to foreclosure, soccer moms and commuting dads are buying fuel-sipping motorcycles.

Motorcycles sales aren't as brisk as they were in the spring, but interest in the money savers hasn't waned, said Al Sayani, general manager of Santa Clarita Motorsports.

"The typical question is, ‘how good is the gas mileage?'" Sayani said.

Customers often turn away from high-priced performance and touring bikes and focus on fuel-saving cycles with small engines.

"Anything under 600 ccs is still selling," he said.

His motorcycle sales peaked in May and June when gas prices sailed past $4 a gallon. Since then sales are steady, but not as strong since financing requirements tightened.

"It takes more to get people qualified," he said.
Among the best sellers are scooters.

Santa Clarita Motorsports sells Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki scooters, but customers looking for increasingly popular three-wheeled Vespa should look elsewhere

"We call them throwaway bikes," he said.

The brand sells cheap, but when it breaks the parts are nearly impossible to come by, he said.

Sayanis said new customers are often people who are rookie riders with little or no experience. The rest are older people who have not ridden in years, he said.

The combination of more bikes and new riders can be deadly, said Gail Ortiz, spokeswoman for the city of Santa Clarita.

There have been 43 motorcycle traffic collisions to date in 2008. Of those, 33 accidents left the motorcyclist injured and five died. Last year, 26 motorcyclists were involved in traffic collisions with 18 serious injuries and two deaths.

The increased fatalities are connected to increased ridership, Ortiz said. Motorcycle registration nationwide is up since 1997, she said.

"We are very concerned," Ortiz said. The City Council asked city employees to create a campaign aimed at curbing motorcycle accidents. A plan is coming together and Ortiz wants to launch the campaign in January 2009, she said.

A partnership between law enforcement, insurance companies and motorcycle retailers will try to reach inexperienced motorcycle riders with education about safe operation, Ortiz said. The educational campaign is aimed at more than motorcyclists, she said.

"In an accident between a big rig and motorcycle, the motorcyclists doesn't stand a chance," she said.

The Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station put more traffic deputies on patrol in response to a recent string of motorcycle deaths, said Sgt. Richard Cohen.

"People go too fast and try to do things beyond their capabilities," he said.

Those who are pinched between high gas prices and safety concerns have options.

Nelson Motorcycle Training Center hosts classes at College of the Canyons parking lot on weekends.

Up to 12 people can enroll in either the morning or evening sessions, said Gene Sannes, assistant manager.

"In 2007 we had a record for safety class registration in California with 68,000 students. We have already broken that record in 2008 including consecutive one-month registration records in August-September and we look to be on the way to another record month in October," said Kenneth Nelson, general manager of Nelson Motorcycle Training.

The reason is the price of gas, he said.

"Last year this time 5 to 10 percent of the people in class were learning to ride to save gas, now the numbers are at 90 percent," Sannes said.

That puts Nelson's business on the front line of bike safety.

"About 40 percent of the class is made up of people who have never sat on a motorcycle in their life," Sannes said. The students learn basic skills that prepare them for the road.

"We won't pass anyone who shouldn't ride," he said.

Visit www.msf-usa.org for more information on the classes.

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