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Ready to Rumble, With Care
U.S. Officials Seek Mandatory Helmet, Training Rules as Biker Deaths Rise

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.

"You're not wrapped in a cocoon of metal," said Dean Thompson, spokesman for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, which develops the curriculum standards for virtually all motorcycle rider classes. "You don't have a seat belt. It's just different."

As a Fairfax County police motorcycle patrolman, Jesse Bowman has seen his share of crashes, including people with severed limbs -- and worse -- after bouncing and sliding on the road. One man lost control of his Harley on a curve with his wife aboard. She flew over the guardrail and down a steep hill but somehow survived. His leg was impaled on the guardrail and had to be amputated.

That crash cemented what Bowman had long known: Too many people aren't skilled in the finer points of riding -- when to brake, how to handle a turn -- and it persuaded him to do something about it. Bowman founded a motorcycle school, Motorcycle Riding Concepts, with other officers.

"Many, many motorcyclists never have any formal training of any kind," Bowman said. "So how are they taught? Big brother, dad, the kid down the street. Or they pick the motorcycle up and teach themselves. . . . Then when they get into a jam, they don't have the skill sets."

Motorcycle crashes killed 224 bikers in Maryland and Virginia last year, according to the traffic safety administration. In the more urban District, there were three.

Yesterday, a 24-year-old Charles County man died after he lost control of his Suzuki motorcycle in Hughesville and hit a guardrail. Police think that speeding was to blame.

One of the problems, Bowman said, is "it doesn't take much to get a motorcycle license." As in the District and Maryland, Virginia applicants must pass a vision and written test, get a learner's permit and then pass a skills test. Although they encourage riders to complete a basic motorcycle safety course before hitting the road, none requires it for all applicants. Maryland requires additional training only for those under 18.

"The bar on training definitely needs to be raised," Bowman said.

But crashes aren't always caused by bikers, who many times are run off the road or hit by inattentive drivers. Half of all motorcycle crashes involve other vehicles, according to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. To better protect motorcyclists, the Maryland General Assembly this year passed a law that sharply increases fines for motorists who fail to yield the right of way. And area police departments say they are ramping up enforcement of helmet and safety regulations.

At a recent motorcycle checkpoint conducted on the George Washington Memorial Parkway by Arlington County police and U.S. Park Police, authorities gave citations to nearly a third of the 76 people they pulled over. Eight had no motorcycle license and one had his license revoked because of a prior DUI , said Arlington police Lt. Robert Medairos.

The increase in crashes isn't fueled only by young thrill seekers riding sports bikes known as "crotch rockets" that can hit speeds of nearly 200 mph, authorities say. Many are older riders who have never been on a motorcycle before or haven't ridden in years.

They are people who, like Peters, the transportation secretary, "rode when we were younger, stopped and raised a family, and go buy a big, full-size motorcycle with the larger engine," she said. "And we're not quite as spry as we were. Our reflexes aren't as good, our vision isn't as good . . . and don't always go to the training schools as we should."

Another problem, officials say, is that only 21 states require all riders to wear a helmet. Although a recent survey found that helmet use was up this year from last year, only 63 percent of riders wear helmets that are certified as safe by the Transportation Department. And about a quarter of all riders wear no helmet at all.

Woody Kees of Springfield decided to learn to ride in his retirement at age 65, even though while astride a Honda Rebel at a recent motorcycle training course he admitted, "I've always been afraid of these." The closest he had ever gotten to riding a motorcycle was the moped he rode in Bermuda more than 20 years ago.

But he'd like to get out and see what the countryside looks like from a motorcycle. And even though he struggled to shift gears, stalled out and at times wobbled through an obstacle course, once almost tipping over, he stuck with it, slowly getting better. By the second day of the course, he felt "100 percent better," he said. He passed a written exam, with a 94, and a three-part skills test. The following Monday, he marched down to the motor vehicles department with a certificate that made him eligible for a driver's license that allows him to drive a motorcycle.

Not that he feels ready yet to get out and ride in traffic. It's too dangerous, he said, and he still needs more practice.

Staff writer Elissa Silverman contributed to this report.

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