Margit Showalter's son lost his life in a motorcycle accident. He wasn't a young kid out being reckless; he was a 41-year-old construction worker riding on a suburban Florida street on a sunny day in January.
Michael Showalter's age made him part of a deadly trend on U.S. highways, with over-40 riders accounting for a significant increase in motorcycle fatalities nationwide.
Living Dangerously Motorcycle deaths are rising at a time when fewer states require all riders to wear helmets.
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More than 3,900 people died on motorcycles in the United States in 2004, up 7.3 percent from the year before, according to preliminary highway safety numbers released yesterday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That's the seventh straight year of increases in motorcycle deaths on U.S. roadways, for an 85 percent overall rise since 1997.
The majority of the increase in motorcycle deaths -- 60 percent -- involved riders over age 40, the agency said.
More Americans are riding motorcycles than ever as aging, affluent baby boomers recapture the "Easy Rider" dreams of their youth. In 2003, the median age of all motorcyclists in the United States was 41, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. In 1985, the median age was 27.
Total ridership hit 8.8 million in 2003, up from 6.57 million just six years before. The trend has led to the rebirth of the classic American cycle builder Harley-Davidson and spawned a host of imitators out to grab a share of the middle-aged market for full-throated, big-tired cruising bikes. But along with that surge has come an increase in motorcycle casualties among older riders.
Tom Lindsay, spokesman for the American Motorcyclist Association, said the increase in the number of older riders overall could explain the increase in the number of fatalities, but that not enough is known about what lies behind the statistics.
"Certainly that's a concern to anyone that cares about motorcycling, but what we have here are numbers, data, we don't have research," he said. "What we need to find out is why the crashes are taking place."
He added that his group is lobbying Congress to appropriate $3 million for a comprehensive nationwide study of motorcycle crash data.
"It has always been a presumption that young people are the ones most over-involved in motorcycle crashes," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, which advocates safety laws. "A lot of states passed laws saying you have to wear a helmet if you're 18 or younger, assuming that if you're over 18 you'll have good judgment and of course you'll wear a helmet. Well, people don't."