WASHINGTON — Col. Dana Morel knows the dangers of motorcycle riding as well as anyone.
A biker herself, Morel was a lieutenant at Mather Air Force Base, Calif., in 1986 when a young airman she knew with the base honor guard took off speeding one night. Distraught over the end of a romance, he missed a turn and crashed his motorcycle into a telephone pole, and died at the scene.
As traumatic as that was, nothing could prepare Morel for a crash that happened last July that took the life of her good friend and fellow biker, Tyler Cowherd, and left his wife, Carolyn, and a friend who was riding with them permanently disabled.
The Cowherds on one Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and their friend on another, were traveling westbound on a Springfield, Va., road on the evening of July 17 when an eastbound car turned in front of them, causing both bikes to crash into the side of it. The motorcycles could not have stopped in time to avoid the collision, and the driver of the car was charged with failing to yield, according to the police report.
Morel says she has struggled to accept the fatal crash â€œthat was so avoidable.â€ She now speaks out about the need for â€œcagedâ€ drivers — those protected by a car or truck chassis — to be more aware of motorcycles and their vulnerabilities and to slow down and not be distracted drivers.
â€œI like to think that most motorcyclists are safe [drivers],â€ Morel said. â€œBut, youâ€™re completely vulnerable, completely exposed. When you get in a car, you donâ€™t think that much about it.â€
While motorcycle courses teach about road conditions and situations hazardous to bikers, regular driving classes rarely mention motorcycles, Morel said. Before she gets onto her Harley-Davidson, she added, she has checked out road and weather conditions and shared any potential hazards with other bikers.
â€œWeâ€™re always watching out for that,â€ she said.
Morel commutes by Metro bus each day to the Pentagon where she is a deputy division chief in an Air Force acquisitions office. She says she has been dismayed by the various things people do while driving.
â€œPeople are so distracted,â€ she said. â€œI see text messaging [by drivers] every single day when Iâ€™m on the bus. Theyâ€™re taking their eyes off the road for things that have absolutely nothing to do with driving.â€ Morel said sheâ€™s observed drivers texting, talking, tuning the radio, eating and putting on makeup.
Morel said she is encouraged that the Defense Department promotes Motorcycle Safety Foundation standards, which have stricter requirements than statesâ€™ motor vehicle departments.
â€œThe MSF is the gold standard,â€ she said. â€œIf you can pass it, youâ€™re good to go.â€
There are many motorcycle clubs, Morel said, that stress safety for their riders and do charitable work for veterans, military families, and community needs. Patriot Guard Riders, American Veterans Motorcycle Riders Association, and Desert Storm Riders are just a few, she said.
Morel has come full circle with motorcycles: her 20-year-old son, who is in a Marine Corps ROTC program, recently told her he is shopping for a motorcycle. At first, Morel was nervous about it.
â€œBut after spending time with him, I realized he is making good choices.â€ she.
Morelâ€™s son convinced her he will be a safe driver, and she said he looks forward to riding with her.
â€œI donâ€™t know if that scares me as much as him going into the Marine Corps, or vice versa,â€ she said. â€œBut a mom is like that about anything with her kids. Youâ€™re going to be afraid of whatever they do.â€
Morel said she knows she canâ€™t stop him, especially when she also rides. â€œWhat I can do is support him in being safe,â€ she said.
Last week, Morel rode her Harley nine hours down to the annual Bike Week at Myrtle Beach, S.C. When she returned, she learned of another motorcycle tragedy very much like the one that took her friendâ€™s life last summer: a 25-year-old volunteer firefighter from Culpepper, Va., died after slamming into a car that had turned in front of him.