Late last month, a 64-year-old Orcutt man died after the motorcycle he was riding veered off the road and hit a pair of small trees.

Four days later an Arroyo Grande man was seriously injured when he lost control of his motorcycle while riding alongside his wife on Highway 166 west of Tepusquet Road, and within minutes of that accident, a rider from Riverside suffered brain injuries when he lost control of his bike and hit a wooden sign post.

The Arroyo Grande resident is recovering from his injuries, but the Southern California man succumbed about a week after his accident.

Even before the California Highway Patrol had wrapped up its investigation of those crashes, a Santa Maria man swerved to avoid a squirrel while entering a curve on Foxen Canyon Road and wound up breaking his shoulder.

“This is the beginning of the season where folks enjoy riding their motorcycles. We’re having more crashes because were having more motorcyclists on the road. However, we’ve had an unusually high number of motorcycle crashes in a short period of time,” said CHP   Officer Rob Wallace.

 “This is a wake-up call to anyone who rides a motorcycle to ride safely and be aware of their surroundings.”

Nationwide, motorcycle deaths dropped by 9 percent in 2010, the second consecutive annual decrease after 11 consecutive years of rising accident fatalities.

In California, fatalities dropped to 394 in 2009 from 560 in 2008, the first decrease since 1998.

The rash of local accidents punctuates the inherent danger of riding, but they haven’t diminished the increasing popularity of motorcycling. An estimated 25 million people straddled a bike and rode last year, an all-time high, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

Two of the fastest-growing segments of the motorcycling population are women and riders 55 and older. In 2008, female motorcycle ownership topped 12 percent of the total market, and riders over 50 accounted for more than 30 percent.

Kathy Hilstein of Arroyo Grande is one of those new riders. She called herself a “back seat” rider until 18 months ago, when she bought a Harley-Davidson Street Glide three-wheeled cycle.

Now, the petite and youthful 52-year-old grandmother rides daily, including shopping trips and toting her 9-year-old grandson Cruz Sumner around the area.

“It’s my way to relax. It just takes away all of the stress,” she said, admitting she was terrified of motorcycles until she and fiancee Dave Cantua rented one a Hawaiian vacation.

Now it’s her favorite pastime, and she rides alongside Cantua, venturing as far as Laughlin, Nev.

“I try to be aware of my surroundings constantly, but it doesn’t keep me from riding,” she said, adding her bike gives her a new-found freedom. “I don’t like to wait until he gets off work to go riding.”

Lyle Tisdel feels the same way. The 68-year-old Santa Maria resident wasn’t bitten by the motorcycling bug until he was 57, when he bought his first bike.

But he quickly found out that a 1998 car accident had left him without the motor skills to ride on two wheels. After a few stoplight tumbles when he couldn’t manage to stay upright, he adapted by hooking a sidecar to his Harley Sportster.

Now he rides just about everywhere, rolling up 53,000 mostly local miles since 2003.

“It’s just a fantastic feeling. It’s almost indescribable how much I like it,” he said. “But when I’m riding, it’s total focus on what I’m doing.”

“Safety first” is the mantra of everyone in the motorcycling business, from sales to safety training to law enforcement.

“Riding a motorcycle is a serious thing. If you think driving a car is a serious thing, riding a motorcycle is even more serious,” said Santa Maria Police Lt. Jesse Silva, who has been riding since he was 3 years old, and for the past seven years has been the lead trainer for the department’s motorcycle officers.

Silva said police motorcycle patrol officers are required to complete an 80-hour training course, pass an exam and take quarterly refresher safety courses in order to stay in the saddle.

While his department didn’t handle any of the recent accidents, Silva has investigated his share. He said the accidents he sees generally fall into two categories: either they were experienced riders who lost control in single-bike accidents, or they were inexperienced riders who got involved in accidents with other vehicles.

California has some of the more stringent motorcycle laws in the country. The state has had a helmet law since 1992, and it requires those under 21 years old to complete a motorcycle rider training course before they are granted an M1 (motorcycle) license.

Locally, Central Coast Motorcycle Training offers basic and experienced courses in both Paso Robles and Santa Maria. During the summer, the classes are held in San Luis Obispo.

Greg and Cheryl Johnson operate the 15-hour classes under the umbrella of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.

Like the ominous accident statistics, the increased regulations, which add cost to getting a license, haven’t dampened the intoxicating appeal of motorcycling. Sales among major brands rose 7.2 percent in the first quarter of 2011 compared to 2010, while sales of fuel efficient scooters soared 50 percent, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

Between 2003 and 2009, motorcycle sales grew 19 percent.

Martin Buchanan, general manager of Santa Maria Harley-Davidson, said the increased popularity of motorcycling is sometimes a double-edged sword for his sales efforts.

“When somebody walks in with a newly minted license, and this happens all of the time, they come in and say I want to buy a motorcycle,” Buchanan said, explaining that many of them want the biggest or fastest bike his dealership sells. “We’re fortunate we sell other brands.”

Buchanan said the sales staff sometimes have to talk inexperienced customers down from the ledge of buying the wrong bike and convince them that bigger is not always better. Many novice riders are interested in full dress touring bikes or the latest production sport bikes, Buchanan said, noting that some stock production sport bikes can reach 100 mph in first gear.

“One of the biggest problems in the industry is people taking the advice of friends who tell them they’ll outgrow a motorcycle. Your learning curve is going to be a lot steeper in a bigger, heavier bike,” Buchanan said. “I tell them, this is the first bike they’re going to buy, not the last. Confidence is everything when riding.”

Developing that confidence is difficult for people who are overmatched by their motorcycle, he added, and having the proper gear is just as important. Injuries on one of the most recent accidents — the crash on Highway 166 — were more severe because the rider was not wearing a Department of Transportation-approved helmet, according to the CHP, which investigated the crash.

“I don’t ride over to Taco Bell without my helmet, gloves and a heavy jacket,” said Buchanan.

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