COLUMBIA – Missouri had just lost a football game, and coach Gary Pinkel was, it turns out, too distracted to drive.
But he took his motorcycle out anyway and lost control of the bike on a country road.
"I was going around a curve, and I was going too fast," Pinkel said. "I wasn't there, mentally."
He was lucky enough to remember some advice a friend gave him and just let the bike fall, though he tumbled about 25 feet in the grass. He suffered no major injuries. His Harley needed $300 in repairs.
"I learned a great lesson, something I'll always remember," Pinkel said of his accident.
That was seven years ago.
This summer, Pinkel will become the poster child for motorcycle safety — literally. He will appear in a series of ads created by the Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety as part of its "Share the Road" campaign.
The ads show Pinkel seated on his bike; the billboard shows him wearing a helmet and dressed in a leather jacket, gloves and sturdy shoes. He got in the habit of dressing for safe riding over the years that he's been a motorcycle enthusiast.
Pinkel said he started riding motorcycles against the wishes of first, his mother and then his wife, Vicki.
"In high school, my mom wouldn't let me have a motorcycle, but I always found ways to ride with my friends," he said. "Thank God I never got hurt, and she never really found out."
He bought his first bike in 2003, when he finally "got clearing" from his wife. Now he rides his 2007 Harley-Davidson FLTR Road Glide as often as he can, though he said it's "not nearly enough."
"I always wear my helmet, appropriate clothes and shoes," Pinkel said. "Some people 'leather up,' but in the summer I usually stick to jeans and a T-shirt. Sometimes I wear my leather chaps."
Deaths on the decline
The goal of the roadway coalition campaign that Pinkel is part of is to sustain the trend of decreasing motorcycle fatalities, which fell in 2009 after having increased for years.
"Motorcycle fatalities have been generally on the rise for the past decade," said Melissa Black, outreach coordinator in the Missouri Department of Transportation. "We have made motorcycle safety a priority in Missouri, and it's good to now be seeing some positive results."
In 2009, there were 85 motorcycle fatalities in Missouri, a 21 percent decrease from the 107 fatalities in 2008, according to an April 30 release from the coalition. The decline is part of a nationwide trend: Motorcycle deaths decreased in 2009 by at least 10 percent in the U.S., according to the release.
Black cited the efforts of the coalition, which includes MoDOT and 29 other groups, as a major force behind the decrease in Missouri.
The coalition, created in 2004, coordinates the efforts of various roadway safety advocates and focuses on education, engineering solutions, emergency medical services and law enforcement.
Although the coalition has been successful in helping reduce overall traffic fatalities in Missouri, deadly motorcycle accidents have been more difficult to address, Black said.
This could be because of the ever-growing number of licensed motorcyclists — nearly 350,000 — in the state. Black added that fatal motorcycle accidents often involve bikers riding without a valid license.
As the number of motorcyclists on the road increases, the coalition's emphasis on safety and awareness becomes even more important, Black said.
"This is a message we need to promote not just to motorcycle riders, but also to other motorists," she said. "Everyone needs to be more aware."
A recognizable example
The coalition approached Pinkel about the campaign two or three years ago, Black said.
"We were looking for someone with a little more recognition in the area, someone people might actually listen to," Black said. "Plus, he's a very avid motorcyclist. It was a good fit."
Pinkel said he was initially uncomfortable with the idea of appearing in the ads.
"I like to be involved in the community, but I try to stay out of that kind of thing," he said. "I don't want to be so visible."
Now that he's been cast as the coalition's poster child, Pinkel said he's become the object of a few jokes. "I've taken a lot of hits from my friends," he said with a laugh.
Pinkel said he decided to participate in the campaign because it's something he believes in.
"You have to be so remarkably focused (on a motorcycle)," he said. "And you have to be so smart about riding your bike."