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Bikers playing fast and loose

Times Staff Writer

A distraught husband, three daughters, dozens of friends and hundreds of students are trying to come to grips with the death of Elisa Gigliotti.

A Suzuki racing bike screaming at 80 mph in a 25-mph zone slammed into Gigliotti on Oct. 4 as she was leaving her job at Long Beach City College, igniting a fireball inside her Ford Escort.

Gigliotti, a professor who taught Spanish and Italian at three local community colleges, was pulled from the burning wreckage in front of the college by two fellow instructors. But she was already covered with second- and third-degree burns on her face, chest, arms and legs -- more than half her body. After 30 days, she died at the burn unit of the Torrance Memorial Medical Center.

“It is not uncommon to see these kinds of accidents with motorcycles, particularly high-powered super bikes,” said Raymond Dennison, the Long Beach detective who investigated the crash. “The whole function is to go as fast as they can.”

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In the last seven years, motorcycle fatalities have more than doubled nationwide. In 2005 alone, fatalities were up another 13%. The carnage only partly reflects the increasing popularity and growing registration of motorcycles.

In the Long Beach crash, the Suzuki GSX-R 1000 bike was operated by Raj Boren, a 21-year-old student at the college, who died instantly.

According to eye witnesses, Boren accelerated with an open throttle from an intersection near the crash site. Dennison said his estimate of 80 mph at the time of impact was conservative. Boren possibly was exceeding 100 mph. The accident report puts the primary blame on Boren’s speed.

The force of the collision lifted Gigliotti’s car off the pavement, moved it 15 feet and rotated it 90 degrees. The point of impact was the passenger door, which was pushed in past the centerline of the vehicle. During the crash, the motorcycle’s gas tank ruptured, filling the car with atomized fuel that exploded.

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“I don’t understand how something that unsafe can be on the road,” said Lorenzo Gigliotti, who married the Italian-born Elisa 32 years ago when both were teenagers. “I look at how they market these things. That is a racing bike. It doesn’t have any purpose to be on the street. It is a land torpedo.”

Elisa Gigliotti was a well-liked optimist, full of energy. “We are taking it one day at a time,” said her husband, a web designer who since the crash has created www.ourlisa.com. “Nothing is the same.”

The GSX-R 1000 is one of Suzuki’s premier racing bikes, the top of the GSX line widely used in the racing circuit. Long Beach police estimate it has a top speed of 180 mph, about 100 mph faster than the fastest posted speed limit on any highway in the nation. Suzuki does not publicize the bike’s top speed.

With a suggested retail price of $11,400, it is much more affordable than any high performance racing car. Therefore, those who like speed, or want the challenge of controlling such power -- or have a death wish -- can get them.

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But the risk is shared with the rest of the public.

“I have seen my fair share of accidents where the motorcycle hits so hard it kills everybody in a car,” Dennison said.

According to a recent report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 4,553 fatalities in motorcycle accidents in 2005. Those deaths include only the operators and passengers on the bikes. Agency officials could not say how many pedestrians or people in other vehicles died in these crashes, though statisticians are trying to get the data at The Times’ request.

The National Transportation Safety Board, the federal government’s leading accident investigation agency, is looking into another grim motorcycle crash this year in Pennsylvania, in which four people inside a car died, said agency board member Deborah Hersman, who has taken an interest in motorcycle safety.

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“People think that the people on the bikes are the only vulnerable ones,” Hersman said.

Every motorcycle death and injury, even when limited to the operator, costs society plenty -- both in the direct cost of the accident and in the loss of human potential.

“Many times, the crash doesn’t kill the motorcyclist,” said Jim Champagne, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Assn. and head of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission. “It leaves them as convalescents of the state.”

On average, motorcyclists are 34 times more likely to die per mile traveled than occupants of cars, and it’s getting worse. Over the last decade, the fatality rate per motorcycle mile has jumped 76%. That reflects an emerging motorcycle culture that embraces every possible danger factor: extreme speed, reckless behavior, alcohol impairment and many older riders past their prime, says Champagne.

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Suzuki spokesman Glenn Hansen disputed that, saying motorcyclists do not embrace speeding or alcohol any more than operators of other vehicles. The company encourages safe behavior, he said. As for the sharp increase in deaths, Hansen said, “I can’t say how these accidents happen, why they happen or what the causes are.”

But motorcycle culture and even the news media often explicitly sanction the violation of public safety laws.

Take, for example, this recent upbeat review: “As I rocketed toward Angeles Crest Highway on California State Route 2 ... I clicked into second, and cracked 100.” The speed limit on that highway is 45 mph and lower in some places.

If the current trends persist, it seems reasonable to look for answers. It would be possible to limit the horsepower of motorcycles, but not politically feasible. After all, operators can take their bikes to off-road tracks and legally test their top speeds. So, the focus should be on stopping extreme speeding on public roads.

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My suggestion: Instead of fines of a few hundred dollars, how about a $5,000 fine or vehicle forfeiture for exceeding the speed limit by more than 50 mph with any vehicle? It could take such penalties to get the message across that people like Elisa Gigliotti should still be alive.

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com


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