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Growing number of motorcycle fundraisers raises concerns

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The line of motorcycles stretched for nearly a mile-and-a-half.

More than 200 bike enthusiasts were riding around the county as a fundraiser for Franklin teenagers involved in a dam tragedy this summer.

At the front of the line, police officers from Franklin, Edinburgh and Trafalgar guided the snaking motorcade, making sure the riders could make it through intersections safely and quickly, ride organizer Chris Snow of Time Out Bar and Grill in Franklin said. The escort helped keep the group together and keep riders safe through busy intersections on U.S. 31., State Road 252 and State Road 135.

For a major motorcycle ride benefiting a local cause, such as the Franklin Strong fundraiser last weekend, police departments try to help. Dozens of rides are being organized across the county during the summer, and police also are asked to help with rides starting in Indianapolis or Columbus that are passing through.

In recent years, motorcycle rides benefiting nonprofit groups or community causes have become so popular that police must turn down organizers more often than they can help. Long lines of motorcycles can cause safety problems at busy intersections, but police often don’t have enough officers available to shut down intersections or escort the bikers.

Franklin police are developing new rules to try to manage the high number of requests and keep riders and other motorists safe. The guidelines would include hiring off-duty officers to close intersections and not helping any ride that stops at a location serving alcohol. The department is considering requiring groups to hire off-duty officers for $30 per hour for a minimum of two hours.

Greenwood already allows groups to hire an off-duty officer for $30 or $35 per hour, but not many officers are willing to get into full uniform on the weekend to guide a motorcycles through the city for $30, assistant police chief Matt Fillenwarth said.

Wheel compassion

Local police departments are struggling to help escort motorcycle rides, which are an increasingly popular type of fundraiser. Here’s how many requests local departments get:

Johnson County Sheriff’s Office: About 15 per year

Greenwood Police Department: A couple per warm-weather month, 10 to 15 per year

Franklin Police Department: About one every other week during spring and summer. Recently had two on the same day, 15 minutes apart.

“It’s getting to be an increase. It’s almost like we’re not doing golf outings anymore and this is the most popular thing to do. We had two in the same day this summer, 15 minutes apart,” Franklin Police Chief Tim O’Sullivan said.

In the past two months, riders have driven around the county to raise money for the families involved in the swimming incident at the Edinburgh dam, shown support for the family members that survived a fatal house fire in Nineveh and raised cash to support multiple sclerosis research.

Safety issues raised

For ride organizers, getting police assistance helps keep the group together so riders aren’t getting separated by stoplights. That helps keep everyone on schedule since rides typically make a few stops at restaurants, attractions or shops.

For police, escorting a ride makes its safer for both bikers and other drivers. Police don’t want motorcycles rushing through intersections or running red lights to try to keep up with the group, especially since motorcycles are harder to see on the road than cars, O’Sullivan said.

But escorting a motorcycle ride safely requires more than one officer, and local police departments typically can’t pull multiple officers from responding to calls or patrolling neighborhoods.

The safest way to hurry a motorcycle ride through an intersection is to get an officer to park in the road and shut down traffic in all directions, O’Sullivan said. But a ride that is coming through Franklin might need officers to shut down multiple intersections, such as if the route goes down U.S. 31 or across Jefferson Street, and typically only four or five officers total are working during the day.

About two years ago, the Franklin Police Department stopped escorting motorcycle rides because police were concerned that doing so was making crossing some intersections more dangerous, Lt. Kerry Atwood said.

Police were sending one officer ahead of the ride, like they would when escorting a funeral procession. But motorcycles travel faster than vehicles following a hearse, so after an officer stops at an intersection to halt traffic, the officer needs to speed ahead to the next one to keep ahead of the ride, Atwood said.

Since the rides can stretch out for a mile a longer, the group often gets gaps in it, O’Sullivan said. If drivers waiting at a cross street see that gap, they may think all the riders have passed and then T-bone a motorcycle in the intersection, he said.

Bikers can present their own dangers if one or more riders crash since they travel in tight packs, Sheriff Doug Cox said. Last week, four motorcyclists crashed and three were injured on a 140-mile ride through southern Indiana that was hosted and led by Gov. Mike Pence.

Finding manpower

Cox will try to find an available deputy if a longer ride goes though a major intersection such as U.S. 31 and State Road 252 or is traveling down State Road 37 in the northwest corner of the county. But since most organizers call less than a week before than the event, he often must tell them he can’t make arrangements for an escort.

“If it’s a major intersection in the county, if we do have the manpower, I will do intersections,” Cox said. “I can’t say yes to everyone that comes through the door anymore.”

Finding an available officer is one of the biggest problems for local police departments, since only a few are working during a shift. Greenwood doesn’t use any on-duty officers for escorts unless it’s a city event such as a parade, Fillenwarth said. On the few occasions when a motorcycle ride does get a police escort, it’s because one of the city’s officers volunteers to do it on his or her own time, he said.

Police are more likely to find a way to escort a ride benefiting a local cause. If someone was hosting a benefit ride for the relative of a deputy who has cancer, for example, Cox would find someone to help or offer to escort the ride himself, he said. Local departments were able to band together to escort more than 200 motorcycles taking part in a ride for the Franklin Strong cause benefiting the families of the two teens who were killed in the Edinburgh dam accident and the third who remains hospitalized.

That ride went from Franklin to Edinburgh, then through Trafalgar, up State Road 135 and back to Franklin. Police from each community were willing to lead the group, which stretched for about a 1½ miles at its longest, Snow said.

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