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About two weeks ago, a 5th Air Force airman at Yokota Air Base with a year’s experience on his Suzuki 250cc motorcycle came around a bend off base when he had a momentary lapse of concentration. His bike ran into a curb and he flew off, hitting a stone wall with his head.

The airman’s battered helmet bears the scar of one pointy piece of stone protruding from the wall, said 35th Fighter Wing Chief Master Sgt. Tom Missel, from Misawa Air Base.

“He managed to hit a really sharp point on that wall with his head,” Missel said. “Clearly, had he not been wearing a good helmet, the impact of the wall would have killed him.”

The airman escaped with a broken thumb.

After the accident, U.S. Forces Japan commander Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright asked Missel, one of the most senior motorcycle riders in the 5th Air Force, to investigate.

He found that speed, weather, alcohol or another motorist — the usual suspects in road accidents — weren’t to blame. All it took was a split second of inattention.

Each of the past five years has seen at least one fatality and about 11 injuries within 5th Air Force, Missel said.

“We need to reverse that trend,” he said.

Toward that end, Missel this week is taking his findings on the road for a safety tour at Wright’s request, using the crash as an example that, on two wheels, anything can go wrong.

“The thrust of all this is to present safety awareness in a new light,” Missel said. “This is a recent incident. It’s a co-worker, one of our very own. [It] reminds folks, frankly, that you can die at 20 mph.”

Missel will visit the three 5th Air Force bases — Yokota and Misawa in mainland Japan and Kadena on Okinawa — as part of annual safety briefings for motorcyclists. He plans to remind people that focus, training and good protective gear can mean the difference between life and death.

“Some people say that the helmet is the most important thing,” he said. “I think that what’s inside the helmet is what’s important.”

During the motorcycle briefings, base safety officials also will introduce a new mentorship program across 5th Air Force to team seasoned riders with less experienced ones.

Each month, the motorcyclists at each command will meet with their mentor to discuss such riding safety topics as crosswinds, intersection escape routes and proper protective equipment.

“They’re not sophomoric topics,” said Lt. Col. Thad Hunkins, chief of safety for the 374th Airlift Wing at Yokota.

“I’ve been riding since I was 18 years old and I learned some new things.”

The Motorcycle Rider Mentorship Program has been successful at air bases, including Kadena, where it’s been tested, Hunkins said.

Tech. Sgt. Mario Dacosta volunteered to be the 374th Airlift Wing mentor at Yokota and created a Web site — — with discussion boards and outlines of safety topics, Hunkins said.

The overall attention to motorcycle safety is not an attempt to crack down on riders or make it more difficult to ride, Missel and Hunkins agree.

The goal, they said, is to remind cyclists that although riding is fun, it entails inherent risks that must be minded.

If You Go

The motorcycle safety briefings will be held at 5th Air Force bases this week. The roughly half-hour program is mandatory for active-duty Air Force personnel and recommended for all others on base.


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