|THE DRAGON IN PRINT NEWS 2007:|
|THP kicks up patrols on Dragon
By Iva Butler of The Daily Times Staff
Tennessee Highway Patrol officers wrote 142 tickets for motorcycle and car violations on the Dragon last weekend in a crackdown promised to extend through September.
The tickets, 92 for motorcycles and 50 for cars, included tickets for violations such as speeding, registration, driver’s licenses, helmet law, lane violations and riding standing up.
The Tennessee Governor’s Highway Safety Office provided $60,000 for overtime enforcement on the Dragon, where three motorcyclists have been killed in Blount County this year.
The Dragon refers to the 11.1-mile stretch of U.S. 129 which runs from Tabcat Creek to Deal’s Gap at the Tennessee and North Carolina line. Known worldwide as a premier ride for motorcyclists, the section of roadway has 318 curves.
Last Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the Highway Patrol had 11 troopers enforcing traffic safety laws on the Dragon, said Trooper John Pedigo,
Today through Sunday, THP is expected to have two or three cars working that stretch of road. Pedigo said the increased enforcement will run every weekend through the end of September. Several Dragon motorcyclists complained and called the THP blitz harassment.
Herb Handly, executive vice president for tourism of Smoky Mountain Convention and Visitors Bureau, said “apparently bikers on the Dragon have taken a dim view of having increased enforcement.”
Handly said the governor has taken a dim view of having Lifestar helicopters called so often to transport injured motorcyclists off the Dragon.
“Some people are speeding and driving recklessly, so the governor had THP go in force over the weekend,” he said.
Apparently numerous people have e-mailed the governor, correspondence that was forwarded to Tennessee Commissioner of Tourism Susan Whittaker.
“People have canceled or been threatening cancellations of travel plans to this area,” Handly said.
“We certainly understand safety issues having to deal with that area. We think safety should be a high priority. We are encouraging people to use care and caution in that area and remind them we have a variety of rides besides the Dragon that are safe and enjoyable,” Handly said.
Smoky Mountain Convention and Visitors Bureau has a brochure, called Circle the Smokies, that lists a variety of routes from Townsend that motorcyclists might want to consider, he said.
“They might want to stay away from The Dragon until this enforcement blitz is over,” Handly said.
After spill cleared, Dragon reopens
DEALS GAP, N.C. Kevin Tillinghast lifted the remains of his rearview mirror from beneath the scratched, red sport bike.
The broken metal became the Indiana man’s offering to the Dragon, a spiny section of Southern road named for its resemblance to the back of the mythical monster.
“This is my ‘Tree of Shame’ ornament,” he told three buddies as they snapped photos of the ditch crash scene on one of the more than 310 curves in the 11-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 129 that ties Tennessee to North Carolina.
Tillinghast donated the mirror to a shrine to Dragon spills a part-covered sweet gum tree at Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort in Graham County, N.C. Pieces of helmets, gloves, Big Wheels, engine parts and boots hang from its trunk and branches.
“It’s our safety reminder to folks,” said resort owner Brad Talbott. “This is a conglomeration of parts from years and years.”
The collection grows annually as tens of thousands of motorcyclists and car enthusiasts from across the globe make pilgrimages to the Dragon.
Tillinghast, a single drop of blood spilling down his mud-caked arm, was lucky. Some riders mostly from out of state begin on the Dragon and end up in the emergency room.
In the first 11 miles of Tennessee’s portion of the road, the Tennessee Highway Patrol reported at least 29 crashes by July 1 this year. Three people died within a week this month.
Hairpin turns lure many to the Dragon. Wipeouts ensure some never come back.
The Dragon's draw
The winding, green-canopied highway along the Little Tennessee River gorge has been popular among locals for decades. The Internet has broadened its appeal.
Ron Johnson, a retired firefighter from South Florida, first drove the Dragon in the mid-1970s on a family trip through the mountains.
“I’ve loved the Dragon from the first time I went over it, even in a family car,” he said.
He and his wife, Nancy Johnson, chose to retire in Graham County because they liked the area. In 2000 they bought bikes. The couple quickly noticed other riders’ interest in pins, patches and T-shirts.
The Johnsons began selling souvenirs and formed a Web site, www.tailofthedragon.com. It contains safety information, tourism suggestions and maps drawn by Ron Johnson. At first, the site received five or six hits a month, he said. Now, it is up to about 1.5 million unique hits a year.
The Johnsons’ business isn’t the only one booming.
“This was a fried bologna and cheese sandwich shop 30 years ago,” Talbott said of his motorcycle resort, which now has an eight-week waiting list for rooms.
Ben Steinberg, resort manager, said the Dragon is a worldwide destination now with groups from Brazil, Eastern Europe, North Africa and Israel.
Paige Huston, a motorcycle safety instructor from Burgin, Ky., comes to ride as many as 11 weekends a year.
She met her boyfriend, fellow sportbiker Mike “P.J.” Pijanka, on the Dragon. Their helmets feature matching Mohawks. They plan to move close to the road when Pijanka’s children finish school.
Part of the road’s appeal is the camaraderie between sport bikers and cruisers, Huston said.
“Everybody interfaces,” Talbott said. “They’ll switch out bikes in the parking lot.”
Visitors are almost evenly split between riders of sport bikes and cruisers, Johnson said. People come to ride the Dragon as early as March if the weather is good, he said. He sets up his souvenir stand from April to October.
At least 60 group motorcycle and car events are scheduled on the Dragon this year, according to the Deals Gap and Tail of the Dragon Web sites. In June, Honda Hoot drew more than 10,000 riders to the road on one weekend.
“It’s the best road in the country,” Huston said.
Trauma nurses at the University of Tennessee Medical Center say they prepare for the weekend by checking Dragon Web sites for big events.
Some keep buttons that say, “I survived ‘Beat the Dragon’ weekend.” Two years ago, Shelia Duncan, emergency services nurse manager at the medical center, and some co-workers made the badges after treating a number of motorcycle crash victims injured in one weekend event.
Lifestar, UT’s aeromedical service, frequently picks up riders at the ends of the Dragon. UT’s trauma unit is a destination for many victims.
Helicopters try to get patients to the trauma surgeons within a “golden hour,” said Lifestar Outreach Coordinator J.R. Gore. The drive from the Dragon takes about 45 minutes. The chopper flight is 10-12 minutes.
This year the Blount County Rescue Squad created a satellite substation at the Punkin Center Motorcycle Resort near the roadway’s Blount County end to reduce response times, said Chief Tommy Bowers.
Gore said there’s been a marked increase in motorcycle transports in the last five years.
Most victims end up on spine boards. Some are combative. Some are unconscious.
“The greatest thing we see is head injuries in our motorcycle crashes,” said Brian J. Daley, a UT trauma surgeon.
Injuries to lower extremities are also common, and many riders lose layers of skin to road rash if they aren’t wearing Kevlar or leathers, Daley said.
Treating a motorcycle victim’s broken leg costs about $50,000. That includes the airlift, treatment and hospitalization for three days, according to estimates from Daley and Rhonda McAnally, UT trauma coordinator. The figure doesn’t account for multiple injuries or a stay in intensive care.
While many motorcyclists riding expensive bikes have insurance, Daley said the hospital generally absorbs costs of caring for those without it.
Driver error is a common cause of Dragon crashes, he said. The speed limit for most of the roadway is 30 mph, which still proves difficult for some riders.
“It’s usually not the people who are from here,” McAnally said. “They (locals) realize how windy the roads are.”
Many regulars of the twisting road say they appreciate police patrols, so long as their efforts don’t turn to bullying or targeting only motorcycles.
“The presence is beneficial for the 5 percent who still think this is a racetrack,” Talbott said.
Earlier this month the state’s Governor’s Highway Safety Office granted the Tennessee Highway Patrol and the Blount County Sheriff’s Office about $60,000 each to step up patrols on the Dragon through the end of September.
“We’re not trying to keep people from riding this road. We’re trying to keep people from riding this road illegally,” said Kendell Poole, director of the safety office. “You’re talking about saving lives. There’s no price on that.”
In one of the first weeks of the new campaign, one motorcycle and two three-wheeled motorcycle riders died in two accidents on back-to-back days.
Last year, there were 124 Tennessee Highway Patrol-reported crashes and two fatalities between miles one and 11. Of those crashes, 99 involved motorcycles and 50 involved cars. Drivers were from at least 15 states and two countries.
“When you get a mix of that many motorcycles and that many cars, it’s just a recipe for disaster,” said Sgt. Randall Ailey, head of the Blount County Sheriff’s Office’s traffic safety unit.
THP Capt. Raymond Fletcher said the recent spike in crashes “is a strain to local emergency services for 11 miles of Blount County.”
While eliminating fatalities is the state’s goal, the greater challenge is reducing the high number of wrecks with serious injury, Ailey said.
Ailey wants to reduce the Dragon’s cost in terms of crashes and hospital bills, but his purpose is not to stop people from legally enjoying themselves on the road.
The Blount County officer loves the stretch of highway.
Some summer afternoons he finds himself rambling down the Dragon’s spine on a motorcycle.
Trucking magazines warn drivers about the twisting tail of the Dragon.
But some truckers unknowingly guide their rigs to the roadway before realizing that there is nowhere to turn around and no way to stay in a single lane through the curves.
Truck drivers who choose to drive the road are rarely aware of the curvy nature of U.S. Highway 129, said Ron Johnson, co-owner of www.tailofthedragon.com. An average of one or two drivers attempt to navigate the road each day.
“It’s a straight line on the maps,” he said.
Sgt. Randall Ailey, head of the Blount County Sheriff’s Office’s traffic safety unit, said he has seen tractor-trailers “come through every curve from the state line to the bottom blowing their horns.”
Though there are posted warning signs, Ailey said there could be more.
Johnson’s wife, Nancy Johnson, led one driver from Tennessee to North Carolina on the road. The driver thanked her through tears.
Ben Steinberg, manager of Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort, said he and other staffers frequently lead drivers of 18-wheelers across the mountain, slowing traffic and stopping other drivers so that the trailers can clear the curves.
Both Ailey and Tennessee Highway Patrol Capt. Raymond Fletcher said they had looked into having tractor-trailers banned from the road, but they cannot because the Dragon is part of a federal highway.