More than 300 curves in 11 miles along the "Tail of the Dragon" on U.S. 129 attract tens of thousands of motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts to Blount County every year.
The unpredictable curves also attract wrecks. A slew of recent crashes drove the Blount County Sheriff's Office to saturate the Dragon with two-wheeling officers Friday.
"We're up here on the motorcycles due to
the high number of wrecks and the number of fatalities we've had
recently," said BCSO Lt. Randy Ailey. "Two people have died on this road this year and we've had a lot of serious injuries where people had to be flown to the hospital on helicopters."
Ailey has grown to expect fatalities on the Dragon during his 15 years with the Blount County Sheriff's Office, but he hopes to put the brakes to the deadly annual tradition.
"Since 2002, we have had 27 deaths on this stretch of highway. That's just ridiculous," said Ailey. "We have five officers up here today to cover all of U.S. 129 to the state line. We'll be out here most of the evening and try to run radar in areas where we've had a lot of crashes."
The speed limit along the Dragon is 30 miles per hour, but some curves require even less speed.
"The radius on the curves changes mid-curve and that can throw a lot of inexperienced riders off. The two main things up here that lead to wrecks are speed and inexperience," said Ailey. "People will go out and buy a new bike and immediately come to the Dragon. That's a
mistake. A lot of people are killed or seriously injured because of
Ailey stood beside his motorcycle and clocked several vehicles near one of the scenic overlooks. He said officers use their discretion to determine whether someone is driving dangerously.
"I just clocked someone going 39, which coming downhill on a straightaway is not something I'm going to say much about. But 39 somewhere else could be a very different situation. It's up to the officer," said Ailey. "One of the big problems we have up here is people racing. People time themselves from the state line to different points on the Dragon. A lot of them like to film themselves doing it and then they'll post it on YouTube to brag."
Ailey said the culprits are not always people riding sport bikes. The speed demons along the dragon include all types of two, three, and four-wheeled vehicles.
"I've clocked a pickup truck going more than 80 miles an hour. I clocked a Corvette going 87 near the state line," said Ailey. "It is incredibly dangerous and a lot of these drivers are not staying in their lanes and cause head-on collisions."
Crashes along U.S. 129 also have a tendency to become more serious due to the remoteness of the road.
"It takes a long time for emergency responders to drive up here. There is also no cell phone service up here. If you get into a wreck, you cannot call for help. You have to wait for someone to see you and then they have to drive to a point where they can get service to call. All of that happens before the emergency response even begins. You're talking about at least an hour and a half before you're at the hospital. Late last night (Thursday night) we were told someone wrecked up here and it took an hour before anyone saw him."
BCSO does not have the resources to maintain Friday's level of enforcement. The hope is a stint of saturation will help raise overall awareness among riders.
"If you're up here riding, enjoy yourself," said Ailey. "But please keep it slow. We're here to try to reduce the number of people being killed."