A deadly roulette wheel was spinning in Steve Shearer’s mind.
The news was reporting another motorcyclist dead — this time on a Yamaha sportbike slamming with “excessive speed” Friday into a left-turning Jeep on U.S. 40 just four miles from Shearer’s Independence home.
“I could think of three or four people I knew right off,” Shearer said, seeing the faces of familiar high-speed riders. “I was pondering it could be one of them.”
His daughter’s friend, Jesse Swire of Raytown, was just killed May 5, dead at 37 on a notorious racing site on Kansas City’s Coal Mine Road. Another deadly crash, which would kill 21-year-old Alec Haith in Overland Park late Sunday night, was still to come.
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“You know, death comes in threes.”
In truth, death comes by the thousands among motorcycle riders, and the Institute for Highway Safety reports that riders on super sportbikes die at a rate nearly four times higher than riders of other types of motorcycles.
The riders know they are playing dangerously. Police say they are often helpless to stop them. And the toll of deaths in the Kansas City area this spring is leaving family and friends of riders absorbing grief that they knew very well could happen.
The roulette ball dropped. The word came to Shearer and his wife Sunday morning that their close neighbor, Peter Slusarczyk of Independence, 37, was the rider killed.
Shearer was a rider for years, once swerving into a ditch in Raytown years ago, splitting his helmet in half on a utility pole, he said. He still cares for bikers, with a hand-painted black and silver sign in his front yard saying, “Watch for motorcycles.”
But an exhausted sadness overwhelmed him and his wife when they heard that “Petey” had died. They’d known him since he was a child, playing with their own son. This man, who worked with his father at his garage door business, who was an artist, a free spirit, had died on his over-muscled bike.
“My wife said, ‘That’s all those damn things are good for,’ ” Shearer said.
‘I had a weird feeling’
The Kansas City police had already been out on Coal Mine Road running all the bikers off before Jesse Swire went up there the night he died in May.
Julie Taylor was at home in Raytown with their 3-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter. The last she heard from her boyfriend was that he was going to come home from a restaurant where biking friends were gathered.
Besides, younger bikers were out, and he thought they were too much trouble, Taylor said. They don’t take it seriously enough, she said.
Swire had only gotten his red and white Yamaha R600 two weeks before. His tax refund came in, and he cashed it in on the high-powered bike he’d been talking about for a long time, Taylor said.
Taylor had been a passenger several times with friends on their bikes, hanging on when they kicked into high speeds. It’s hard to explain, she said, how something so breathtaking could feel “so relaxing” at the same time.
She was happy for her boyfriend when he got the bike he wanted, she said.
“But I had a weird feeling,” she said. “You get those feelings.”
Swire earned most of his money as a plumber, but his passion came as a disc jockey, leading dance music at parties and events, Taylor said. Maybe if he’d been able to do more of that work, he’d not have needed motorcycle speed.
Maybe he’d not have left her a single parent, having to move out of their house, throwing together a yard sale to help fund whatever comes next.
She stopped her thoughts at a sound. Most ears would not notice it, but she did — the distant whine of a powerful bike. Sometimes she’ll lie awake in the morning and tremble when she hears an engine swell, she said. For a while after Swire died, she would cover her ears and even scream to drown it out.
Another rider dead
Sunday night added to the toll.
In Overland Park, Haith, a Leawood rider, was rushing at an excessive speed on a BMW sport motorcycle and lost control on wide and winding Switzer Road at 131st Street, police said.
The morning after, red spray paint marked the path that investigators studied, the bike jumping the curb, scarring and gouging the grass over several hundred feet before battering between a utility pole and a stand of pine trees.
Every city in the metro area grapples with how to curb sport riders.
“It’s really a tough problem,” said Sgt. Bill Mahoney with the Kansas City Police traffic unit.
The speed riders are hard to stop, and even when some gather in spots with the potential for racing, there’s little police can do, he said.
The riders scatter and regather using social media.
“In the past when we tried to devote enough officers (to curb a dangerous riding group), honestly all we did was displace the problem,” Mahoney said.
Public safety organizations try to ward them away from danger with statistics:
In 2015, the latest national data available, 4,976 people died in motorcycle crashes. That was an 8.3 percent increase from 4,594 in 2014, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported.
Motorcyclists, the data show, are 29 times more likely than occupants in cars to die in a crash and five times more likely to be injured. And that’s for all motorcycle riders.
Broken down, motorcycle deaths are severely weighted toward more powerful bikes. Standard bikes and cruisers registered a driver death rate of 5.7 per 10,000 vehicles, the Institute for Highway Safety reported, compared with a rate of 10.7 deaths per 10,000 sport models.
But among “super sport” models that can reach speeds over 150 mph, the death rate was 22.5 per 10,000 vehicles.
For friends mourning Haith on their Facebook pages, the statistics have become personal.
“I was shocked and heartbroken to hear the news of Alec Haith passing (Sunday) night,” Marissa Christine Smith wrote. “The first time I met Alec he was raving around on a razor scooter. … He was a great friend with an even greater heart. We will all feel the loss without you buddy.”
Haith was “always in such a good mood, such a happy dude,” wrote Nathanael Willey. “Was always excited to see me. Ride in (peace) brotha. I’ll miss you…”
And then there are the pleas from Shearer and Taylor. They hope riders will listen.
“Whether you’re driving a car, a motorcycle, (or you are a ) pedestrian, or operating machinery, you’ve got to be aware of what’s going on around you,” Shearer said.
“I want everyone to realize these bikes aren’t toys,” Taylor said. “Take more precaution on these bikes.”