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A safety nightmare, as motorcycle accidents take heavy toll in WNY

Frederick Garrasi was on his way to the dentist in early May when his Yamaha motorcycle collided with a car that cut in front of him on Lake Shore Road in Hamburg. Garrasi, an Evans off-duty police officer, was thrown into the path of an oncoming vehicle and killed.

Patrick Conway was heading to school on his high-performance motorcycle in Clarence when police pulled him over for having no license plate. Conway fled the scene at speeds of up to 100 mph, according to witnesses, and crashed head-on into a BMW. The 18-year-old was killed instantly, just weeks before his high school graduation.

At least 13 men and women, ranging in age from 18 to 70, have been killed on motorcycles since May, according to reports compiled by law enforcement agencies throughout Western New York.

The reports indicate:

• In four fatal accidents, motorcyclists were found to be speeding. In two of the cases, police suspect that the motorcyclists who died were street racing.

• Five of the accidents were attributed to the inability of the motorcyclist to negotiate a turn or curve. Two of those occurred on highway on/off ramps.

• Two motorcyclists collided with a vehicle driven by a motorist who was cited for unsafe lane change or illegal U-turn.

“When motor vehicles are a factor, many times motorists are not paying attention,” said Trooper Michael J. Niezgoda Jr. of the State Police Motorcycle Unit.

“Motorcycles are smaller, but they are well-lit these days. It’s state law, you have to have a headlight on. Motorists are turning left in front of them, or they’re turning right on red and not fully stopping, which is causing the motorcyclist to perform evasive action.”

In one accident, the motorcyclist was driving without an operator’s license.

“We’re finding a lot of this,” Niezgoda said. “A lot of people will get their permit and go out on the road, but they will fail to have a licensed operator with them.”

A State Police motorcycle checkpoint – one of a half-dozen conducted at various locations throughout the riding season – examined 450 motorcycles May 19 in Orchard Park. Ninety-four traffic summonses were issued, including 55 for illegal helmets, two for having no license and one for driving while intoxicated, according to Niezgoda.

In 2011, the state Department of Motor Vehicles recorded 168 fatal accidents out of 5,336 total motorcycle accidents. Of the 171 people killed, 162 were motorcycle drivers, six were passengers, and three were pedestrians.

The numbers are slightly down from 2010, when 5,570 motorcycle accidents resulted in the deaths of 180 people, the DMV reported.

“There is rarely, if ever, a single cause for a motorcycle accident,” said Rick Palmer, an instructor with the Motorcycle Safety School in West Seneca and Angola.

“One contributing factor is improper cornering. That’s a technique you learn. Speed is a contributing factor. Alcohol definitely. Inexperience to some degree.”

‘They become invisible’

A motorist triggered the swift chain of events that killed Garrasi shortly after noon May 3, according to Capt. Kevin A. Trask of the Hamburg Police Department. Lorraine P. Pelc, 65, of Lake View, was cited for unsafe lane change and failing to yield the right of way when making a right on red.

“She changes lanes in front of the motorcycle, which strikes the driver’s side of her car,” Trask said. “He’s driven into the opposing lane and is struck by another car. She didn’t even know she hit him.”

Garrasi’s mother, Renee, vividly recalled the day her only son died. He was headed to a noon dental appointment for a root canal after working an overnight shift at the Evans Police Department.

“I got him up at 11; I said goodbye to him, and that was it. I never saw him again,” she said. “The Evans police chief and secretary came here to tell me, but I didn’t put it together right away.

“I invited them in, and by the time I got to my dining room table, the light bulb clicked. I never let the chief really say what happened. He never said that Freddy had passed. If he said the words, it was actually true. Then I started screaming.”

Trask pointed to high speed and alcohol as factors in many of the motorcycle accidents he has investigated. Neither played a role in the accident that killed Garrasi.

“It’s the 2,000-pound metal machines that surrounded him,” Trask said. “That’s what we see. How do you remedy that? It takes a split second, and then it’s all over, because there is no protection on a motorcycle.”

In the Town of Le Roy, Joshua J. Lowery, of Brockport, was killed by a Florida motorist shortly after 6:30 a.m. Aug. 23, reported Chief Gordon L. Dibble of the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office. Lowery, who was driving a 1998 Suzuki, was westbound on North Road when he collided with a car driven by Jeffrey J. Simek, of New Smyrna Beach, Fla.

Simek, 55, was cited for making an improper U-turn, Dibble said.

Danger of ‘ape hangers’

Palmer, the motorcycle instructor, has been riding for 40 years. He advises his students to stay in the left-third of their lane.

“That allows us to see up the road, and it puts our headlight in the side-view mirror of the car in front of us,” Palmer said. “Nobody sees us. As soon as someone gets on a motorcycle, they become invisible.”

Charles “Crazy Charlie” Seiler, a member of the Kingsmen Motorcycle Club, had an infectious smile, according to friends who signed his online bereavement book. He was always willing to help friends and strangers alike, they noted.

On Sunday, May 5, the day he died, Seiler was transporting a Harley-Davidson motorcycle for a friend. His wife, Donna, was following him in a van, according to Town of Tonawanda Police Lt. Paul A. Yacono, senior accident investigator. But as Seiler, 44, drove the motorcycle on a curved ramp that connected the Niagara Thruway with the Youngmann Highway in the town, the experienced cyclist lost control.

“For whatever reason, he went straight through the grassy ditch and out into traffic instead of turning,” Yacono said. “He drove into a minivan. What’s perplexing is why he didn’t dump the bike. There was a lot of grass there, and he had experience driving.”

The handlebars, called “ape hangers,” on the motorcycle Seiler was driving extended 16 inches upward, Yacono said. The handlebars conformed to state motorcycle law, which says they must not be higher than the driver’s shoulders.

“We asked three people who were the same height as Seiler to sit on the bike and test the legality of the handlebars,” Yacono said. “For anyone shorter than 6 feet, the handlebars would have been illegal. Once those are above your shoulders, your ability to turn is reduced.”

‘As fast as you can go’

Ape hangers absolutely contribute to accidents, Palmer said.

“They are too high and don’t offer the proper control,” he said. “It’s definitely way more difficult to maneuver when your hands are above your head. It’s uncomfortable.”

The “novelty helmet” Seiler wore was not legal, Yacono said. The “skull” or “beanie” helmets do not conform to federal Department of Transportation safety specifications, he said. Nationally, use of DOT-approved motorcycle helmets increased significantly to 66 percent in 2011, up from 54 percent in 2010, based on the National Occupant Protection Use Survey.

Unsafe speed, according to the DMV summary of motorcycle crashes for 2011, was a factor in 16.5 percent of total accidents, second only to failure to yield the right of way, at 16.7 percent.

“If you’re crazy enough to get on a motorcycle and go as fast as you can possibly go, you’re asking for an accident,” Palmer said. “Right now, one of the biggest problems we have is kids on sports bikes. They drive too fast, weave in and out of traffic, pop wheelies, do all this crazy stuff you should not do on a motorcycle.”

Eric Fontaine, 21, is suspected of racing another motorcyclist May 17 before he pulled into the center lane on Transit Road in Depew at a high rate of speed and collided with a car. Fontaine, who had just returned from basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, died at the scene.

“You’re on Transit Road, where there are high volumes of traffic. People can come out of any driveway, and you’re going double or triple the speed limit and you expect your skill and attentiveness and the equipment on the motorcycle to be able to react,” Niezgoda said. “Those factors, to me, are operating beyond your skill level.”

Motorcyclists who want to brush up their skills have at least two choices locally:

• The New York State Motorcycle Safety Program ( offers a 15-hour training program, including classroom and on-motorcycle instruction. The course is designed for beginner and re-entry riders and allows them to learn or review basic riding skills. Approximately one-quarter of all new motorcycle licenses issued in 2008 were earned by completing the Basic Rider Course.

• Motorcycle Safety School (, headquartered in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, has eight locations in the state, including recently opened sites in Angola and West Seneca. It also provides the Basic Rider Course for road test waiver benefits.