Derrell Willis bought a motorcycle and took it for a spin without bothering to get a license.
There's nothing unusual about that in Florida, where the crime is treated as lightly as driving without prescription glasses.
Illegal riders crash here at a rate of five a day, 35 a week and about 1,800 a year. Most survive. Willis didn't.
First he stalled the high-performance Yamaha R6, which he didn't know how to ride. Then he managed to drive the motorcycle to the first stoplight on John Young Parkway, less than 100 feet from Cycle Sports Center in north Orlando, where he purchased the vehicle.
The engine died again.
Finally under way, the 37-year-old Orlando sanitation worker almost lost control. He swerved onto the grassy median. Standing as he rode, he veered back into traffic.
Exactly 1.4 miles later, Willis crashed on a gentle curve on Lee Road. The bike bounced and landed nose-down. It launched itself and Willis against a concrete utility pole, chipping away a quarter-inch-thick flake. His cracked helmet rolled 60 feet farther than his body, according to interviews and Orlando police reports.
Each year, thousands of unlicensed motorcyclists like Willis ride in Florida without learning how to safely accelerate, maneuver and stop. They pose a deadly hazard to themselves, other motorists and pedestrians, according to rider-safety programs.
It is easier to ride illegally in Florida than almost anywhere else in the country because it is one of six states that do not require motorcycle insurance. In the other states, proof of insurance is needed to register a bike, and insurance companies won't insure unlicensed riders, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
Nor is a license required to receive a Florida tag for a motorcycle or car. As a result, many Floridians who ride illegally are not detected until they have done something potentially deadly.
"Those are the ones we're catching, whether it be in a crash or getting caught by a trooper at a high rate of speed, or street racing or popping wheelies," said Florida Highway Patrol spokeswoman Trooper Kim Miller. "It seems like the ones getting the licensing are following the rules and behaving."
In 2003, the most recent year with available statistics, state records show 104 illegal riders represented 37 percent of Florida's 279 motorcycling "street" deaths.
It's not just a Florida problem. Illegal-riding deaths doubled in some states during a five-year period ending in 2003, the same year U.S. motorcycles sales exceeded 1 million for the first time, according to federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data. Nationwide, illegal riders represented 26 percent of the motorcycling deaths.
Rider-safety-program officials doubt the deaths will drop soon.
"It's ugly, and it goes on and on and on," said Chad Burns, head of the Georgia Motorcycle Safety Program. "We're running 40 percent a year" in deaths of unlicensed motorcyclists, he said.
Fun, fast and dangerous
How many unlicensed motorcyclists are out there remains a guess.
At 12 percent -- Florida's average for all unlicensed motorists -- illegal riders would number about 50,000. At 35 percent -- the average for unlicensed riders in state Highway Safety and Motor Vehicle crash reports -- they would number about 135,000.
Whatever the number, a heavy concentration of young riders represents the dark side of a sales boom that makes it possible for even an unemployed teenager to finance a 180-mph superbike.
"It was incredibly easy," said Sean Veilleux, 18, of Wesley Chapel, north of Tampa, who crashed Dec. 7 -- the day he bought his bike without a job, a license or rider training. "A couple of days earlier, Circuit City turned me down for a TV. . . . The guy from Suzuki called me back a few hours later and told me, 'We'll approve you for anything. You can ride anything you want.' "
Veilleux briefly considered buying a 1,300-cubic-centimeter Suzuki Hayabusa, one of the world's fastest motorcycles. He financed a GSX-R750, just a tad slower than the Hayabusa, for $12,500.
"Nobody wants to start off on a dorky little bike, you know," said Veilleux, who ran into another unlicensed rider when he flipped and broke his arm in three places. "That's the reason you get the bike. It's cool, it's fun, and it's fast."
Statewide, illegal riders such as Veilleux account for about half of the crashes and up to 66 percent of the deaths in the 15-to-24-year-old age bracket in 2003, records show.
"At the time, I was thinking, 'I don't want to go and get my license now because I don't know how to ride, and I don't want to fail it,' " said Veilleux, who crashed two minutes into his first ride. "So I was thinking I would ride around and learn how to ride it."
Older illegal riders, such as Willis, accounted for 33 percent of crashes and 40 percent of the deaths in the 35-to-44-year-old bracket in 2003, the last year with available data.
The most common violators are riders with a valid license for a car or truck, but without a motorcycle endorsement showing they have passed a motorcycle written and road test. It's a second-degree misdemeanor, the same as driving without glasses, if required.
Illegal riders face up to $500 in fines and six months in jail but, frequently, the charge is dropped if the violator attends a rider-safety program, usually for three days, and shows up in court with a valid endorsement, according to traffic-court judges in Orange and Osceola counties.
A nationwide study of unlicensed motor-vehicle operation in 2003 by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Study recommended stricter measures. Those included impounding the vehicle, removing the tag at the scene and blocking all registrations by anyone without a valid operator's license.
Dealerships are not at fault for selling motorcycles to unlicensed riders because a license is not required by state law to buy one.
Willis went shopping for a motorcycle because he was tired of asking for rides after losing his license to drive about 10 years ago, according to interviews.
"He was like any man: He wanted a little independence," said his ex-wife, Reeda Willis. "It wasn't the best decision, but he needed transportation."
When Willis died March 5, two other unlicensed riders suffered fatal injuries the same day in Central Florida. It was the first day of Bike Week, the annual gathering that attracts up to 500,000 motorcyclists to Daytona Beach.
By week's end, a fourth unlicensed rider died, records show.
"Ultimately, it was Derrell's responsibility," the dealership's sales manager, Stan Krajewski, said of Willis' lack of a license and inability to ride. "We sell motorcycles. We can only explain the laws. We can't enforce them."
His staff twice offered to deliver the sport bike to Willis' home, he said. And the salesman who sold it was so concerned when Willis rode away that he jumped in a company truck to follow him, in case he stalled again, Krajewski said.
The dealership's lawyer, Riley Allen, said that if anyone had stopped Willis from leaving with his new bike, the person would have been guilty of false imprisonment.
"Once a customer has paid, you can't stop him," Allen said. "If you want to break the law, that's your right, unfortunately."
Despite the letter of the law, some dealers try to do what the Yamaha franchise said it couldn't do.
"If you don't have a license, the only way it's going to leave here is on a trailer," said Tony DiDonato, sales manager of BMW Motorcycles of Daytona. "That would be like putting someone in an F-14 who never flew a plane."
DiDonato advocates a stricter European style of licensing that requires testing and a separate endorsement for progressively larger motorcycles, saying it would keep novices from endangering themselves.
"We want our customers to come back," he said, explaining that first-time buyers and inexperienced riders are directed to one of many available riding courses before they are sold a motorcycle.
At Harley-Davidson of Clermont, any unlicensed buyer is offered free motorcycle school, needed to obtain a license. Many accept the offer, but some buyers still insist on riding home regardless of the law, said general manager Chip Simpson.
"We do everything we can to make sure it's safe as it possibly can be without having to be the police," Simpson said. "The average age of our purchaser is 42 years old, so I don't feel that we're having the same type of problem where your average rider is 21 years old. Obviously, people are a little smarter as they get older. They don't have the no-fear factor."
Veilleux, who flipped his bike in December, hopes to get a license and ride again.
Still undergoing physical therapy for his injuries, the teen is not sure how he will pay off about $11,000 owed on his wrecked motorcycle.
"Honestly, I was only on the bike for like two minutes, and it was just incredible. I loved it; it was such a rush," he said. "And the thing is, I didn't experience half the power on that bike."