Dragon’s toll: 17 in 6 years
By Joel Davis | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
They had names.
Call up the Tennessee Department of Safety, and they’ll tell you that 17 motorcycle fatalities have occurred on “The Dragon,” the storied stretch of U.S. 129 from Tabcat Creek to the North Carolina state line, during the past six years. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. They were people, after all. They had faces. They had friends. They are missed.
Dwight R. Woodard, Michael Andrew Mercer, Tamara Fuller, Albert Green, Carlos Suarez, Kevin Austin Crigger, Kelly Brown, Stevie Ferrell are a few of those who drove willingly into The Dragon’s maw and never went home again.
Woodard, a 45-year-old Christiana man, was the latest casualty. On Aug. 3, the veteran rider was traveling The Dragon southbound. Unbeknownst to him, a northbound tractor-trailer had crossed into his lane as it negotiated the curve. He struck the left side of the empty flatbed trailer being pulled behind it. Lifestar was called to fly the severely injured man to University of Tennessee Medical Center, but Woodard did not survive.
Touring the highways and byways on his Triumph Triple Speed motorcycle meant a great deal to Woodard, who had been looking forward to the August trip to Deal’s Gap for months. In a video posted to YouTube in February, he talked about planning the trip for his motorcycle club. “It’s an awesome ride experience. You can’t get much better roads anywhere in the country than right there. It’s very beautiful. The touring is good. The scenery is nice, and the people, too.”
Woodard died a year and a day after his friend, Michael J. “AmBush” Cupp, was killed in a single motorcycle accident at Deal’s Gap on Aug. 2, 2010. The day before his death, Woodard and his friends held a memorial ride for Cupp.
Timothy Moore, a member of Woodard’s motorcycle club, said that “Ike,” as Woodard’s friends called him, was something special. “Ike was one of those people that once you came in contact with him, you knew that you’d never forget him,” Moore said. “... He was just one of those people, if there were more out there like him, you know the world would be the better.”
A loving father, Woodward was also a very caring man, Moore said. “He was very compassionate. He was just one of those all-around good people who never did anything bad to anybody. He was always soft-spoken and had great demeanor.”
As soon as the story detailing Woodard’s death hit The Daily Times website, expressions of grief and condolences began pouring in from friends and fellow riders. “You will never be forgotten, Dwight ‘Ike’ Woodard,” wrote Ashleigh Hill-Owen of Nashville in Facebook comments. “You touched so many lives and we will continue to carry those memories of happiness with us each and everyday. You were taken from us too soon and will be missed. One love! And our hearts go out to your family.”
Single truck fatality
Although this has been the only motorcycle fatality involving a tractor-trailer in the past six years, the circumstances of Woodard’s death have inspired a drive to ban commercial vehicles from The Dragon. It’s a change that other members of the motorcycle community, such as Ron and Nancy Johnson, owners and webmasters of http://Tailofthedragon.com , have been pushing for years.
“Since we stared in 2000, we’ve been pushing to get trucks off,” Ron Johnson said. “... You don’t have much time to react when you see a truck on a curve. It’s pretty hairy if you’re caught just at the right moment.”
With its 318 curves in only 11.1 miles, The Dragon does not offer the most hospitable environment for a tractor-trailer. It physically impossible for them to travel The Dragon without crossing the lines on just about every single curve, said Lt. Randy Ailey of the Blount County Sheriff’s Office.
“There is no way to keep semi-trucks off of the road because of its federal designation, but we can write them (truck drivers) a ticket every time they cross the yellow line.”
Veteran motorcyclist Harold “Monk” Hood, 71, who has ridden The Dragon at least 100 times, said that the curves simply aren’t designed to accommodate vehicles that large. “By rights, the cops could stay at one end of The Dragon and then give the trucks 318 tickets,” he said.
Under the circumstances, Woodward would not have had any real opportunity to avoid the accident, Ron Johnson said. “I went out and looked at where it happened. That motorcycle rider didn’t have much of a chance. He saw the truck way too late and tried to put on the brakes and lay it down, but didn’t get it done.”
Other roads worse
While the Tennessee Department of Transportation has the authority to bar commercial traffic from that stretch of roadway, TDOT Chief Engineer Paul Degges said that an analysis of traffic accidents on The Dragon does not justify taking that step. “While any one fatality is bad, the data does not show that.”
Despite the publicity surrounding the various motorcycle fatalities that have occurred on The Dragon over the years, it remains far safer than the numbers might indicate, Johnson said. “There are more motorcyclists killed on other roads in Blount County than on The Dragon. Motorcycling is not a super safe way to get around. For the hundreds of thousands of motorcycles that ride it, I think we have a pretty good safety record.”