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Accidents in the area taking toll on bikers; Eight have been killed just since mid-April

This spring has been deadly for local motorcycle operators and passengers, with eight people losing their lives in six crashes on local roads since mid-April.

Unfortunately, that heavy toll is no aberration. It has become a new springtime trend in Western New York.

Last year, at least 14 people died on motorcycles from April to mid-June -- including five in 46 hours in June.

And two years ago, at least seven motorcycle operators were killed in Western New York during the same time frame.

Experts cite several possible explanations for the rash of springtime crashes: a cabin-fever mentality following the Buffalo area's seemingly never-ending winter; an early-season rustiness among motorcycle operators and other drivers; a steady rise in the number of motorcyclists; and, perhaps, a lack of defensive driving among the mostly younger operators of sport bikes.

While experts put some of the blame on other drivers, five of the six fatal crashes this spring were one-vehicle crashes or were attributed to operator error, usually alcohol use and/or speeding.

Only one crash -- causing the death of a 52-year-old Orchard Park man struck by an oncoming SUV that pulled into the path of his motorcycle in Hamburg -- seems to have been caused by another driver.

The other deadly crashes were caused by two motorcyclists riding at upwards of 100 mph in Amherst; one operator striking a slow-moving backhoe he tried to pass in Allegany County; a Salamanca man losing control of his bike and striking a guardrail; and a City of Tonawanda man accused of driving drunk, crossing over the center line and colliding with a pickup truck in the Town of Lewiston, killing his passenger.

The latest fatal crash, early June 12 in Wales, killed two 29-year-old Alden friends, operator Christopher J. Marchewka and his passenger, Maureen A. O'Grady.

Marchewka was a U.S. Marine reservist who had served about a year in Iraq and had been credited with saving more than 100 lives by thwarting an attempted suicide bombing in 2005.

"He was a Marine," his grandmother, Dolores Files, said proudly. "He is a Marine. He's going to be laid out in his Marine suit."

Erie County sheriff's investigators have interviewed at least a dozen people who knew Marchewka and O'Grady, but they still aren't sure what caused the crash at about 4 a.m. Sunday.

Investigators found gouges and scrapes in the pavement but no sign of tire skid marks, Sgt. Daniel Dytchkowskyj said.

"Initially, it appears that he didn't hit the brakes," Dytchkowskyj said. "So we still don't know what caused him to lose control of the vehicle."

Investigators want to develop a timeline about the two friends' actions before the crash to help them pinpoint the cause.

"It will be investigated until we've turned over every stone," Chief of Patrol Scott M. Joslyn vowed. "We owe it to the families to investigate this to the end."

Anyone with any information about the crash is asked to call the sheriff's Accident Investigation Unit, 667-5211.

Why the half-dozen crashes so far this spring?

"It sounds like this year we have a high number of [crashes involving] operator error," said State Police Trooper Michael J. Niezgoda, a motorcycle trooper for the last 12 years.

"It seems that a lot of these accidents are avoidable," he added. "I think it's a lack of training. I think some of these riders need to take more classes."

Joslyn found the same culprit in crashes investigated by the Sheriff's Office and the State Police. That's operator error, whether it's speed, alcohol or unfamiliarity with the road, said Joslyn, who hinted at the slim margin for error for motorcyclists.

"It's fair to say that if you operate a motorcycle, you often don't get a second chance," he said. "There's no room for alcohol, no room for speed and no room for taking chances."

Experts also cited the high incidence of fatal motorcycle crashes in the spring, a trend that doesn't seem to continue through summer and early fall.

"I think that you become a better defensive driver the longer you're on the road," Joslyn said. "It only takes one near-miss in late May or early June, and you become more defensive."

Niezgoda, a trooper who has talked with thousands of motorcycle operators over the years, doesn't believe they lack defensive driving skills. They are well aware of larger vehicles whose drivers may cut them off, roll through stop signs or be distracted by texting or cell phones.

"I think motorcycle operators are more defensive drivers," he said. "But I think they're rusty in April, May and June, because they're used to driving cars."

The tough issue for crash investigators, especially for those who love motorcycles, involves the presence of many younger operators hitting speeds of 80, 90 and 100 mph on the faster sport bikes.

Five of the eight people killed on motorcycles this spring were in their late 20s; the other three were in their early 40s or 50s.

"I have to say that the baby boomers, the people in their 50s or 60s, are on cruiser bikes," Joslyn said. "You tend to see them in the driving lane, not the passing lane. We don't see them taking chances. The young guys on these sport bikes take more chances, with the feeling that they're invincible."

Niezgoda said he sees sport-bike riders, on average, riding at least 10 mph faster.

Niezgoda has one piece of advice for people joining those packs: Make sure you have the same skill level as the other riders in that group.

The details from the fatal crashes become cold, hard facts that obscure the human side of the loss of life.

Files, Marchewka's grandmother, talked about her grandson surviving the Iraq War, then dying in a local accident.

"I loved him dearly," she said. "He was just a wonderful guy. He was going to come up and see me and give me a picture of him in his Marine uniform. I was going to put it on a shelf by my apartment door. I wanted everyone to see that picture.

"But he never got to do it."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com