Ready to Rumble, With Care

Reed Graham teaches new motorcyclists how to ride at a George Mason University parking lot.Video by Christian Davenport/Washington Post
By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 7, 2008

One motorcyclist slammed into a pole at 27th and K streets in Northwest Washington. Another was ejected into a bean field on Maryland's Eastern Shore. A sport-utility vehicle struck a biker in Virginia Beach, and a woman careered off the road, smashing her motorcycle into a guardrail in Southwest Virginia.

In an eight-hour span over the Labor Day weekend, motorcycle crashes in the region left four people dead, underscoring a trend that has become what the country's top transportation official calls "our nation's greatest traffic highway safety challenge."

Only 2 percent of all vehicles on the nation's roads last year were motorcycles, yet they were involved in 11 percent of all traffic accidents, leaving slightly more than 5,100 riders dead and 103,000 injured, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Fatalities have more than doubled over a decade as more motorcycles have hit the road.

At the same time, as cars have become safer and gasoline prices have reduced the number of miles driven, overall traffic fatalities dropped last year to their lowest level since 1994.

The steady rise in motorcycle crashes has become a top concern of the U.S. Department of Transportation, said Secretary Mary Peters, who broke her collarbone a few years ago when she crashed her Harley-Davidson Road King at 40 mph. A helmet saved her life, she said.

To address the problem, the Transportation Department is developing national standards for entry-level riders and has launched an educational campaign on the importance of wearing helmets and other safety gear. Congress has also become involved, authorizing $2 million for a study of crashes' causes.

One of the main reasons behind the increase, experts and industry officials say, is a no-brainer: There are simply more motorcycles on the road. The number of registered bikes is nearly 7 million. Sales of new motorcycles rose every year between 1992 and 2006 and now tops more than a million annually.

"I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out that more bikes out there is going to mean more crashes," said Dave Hepburn, an instructor at Apex Cycle Education, a motorcycle safety school in Northern Virginia.

But lack of proper training and the easing of helmet laws in recent years by several states, including Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas, might also be contributing to the statistics, officials said.

Once symbols of freedom and escape, motorcycles now have a far more practical allure: fuel efficiency. Also, motorcycles are easier to park and are exempt from HOV restrictions in many jurisdictions. As a result, more are being used for commuting to work, and many of those commuters are riding scooters. New sales of scooters have jumped from 12,000 a year in 1997 to 157,000 last year, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

"Motorcycling has become mainstream," said Mike Mount, a spokesman for the council. "There used to be a stereotypical biker, but now the average motorcycle owner is your next-door neighbor."

New riders on the road have fueled a shift in a culture once dominated by those who viewed motorcycles as much of a way of life as a mode of transportation. But many beginning riders are finding out the hard way that switching from four wheels to two can be difficult -- and dangerous.

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