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Motorcycle deaths unaccountably plunge after long rise

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 2010; B04

After rising steadily for nearly a dozen years to set a record in 2008, the number of people killed nationally in motorcycle accidents dropped dramatically last year, according to a report issued Thursday.

The report by the Governors Highway Safety Association found that fatal crashes declined nearly 16 percent in the first nine months of 2009, compared with the same period the year before.

There was no ready explanation for the drop, a year after the 5,290 motorcycle fatalities set a record. The speculation included that the economy was keeping motorcyclists off the road, that a 42 percent drop in new motorcycle sales last year resulted in fewer novice riders and that publicity about deaths had heightened the awareness of both motorcyclists and motorists.

The number of fatalities dropped 38 percent in the District, by 26 percent in Maryland and by 13 percent in Virginia, the report said.

"It's good news that fatalities are decreasing, but I really don't have a clue as to why," said Samir Ahmed, an Oklahoma State University expert who is leading a four-year, $3 million research project on the cause of motorcycle accidents. "I really don't see anything that would cause that, unless people are just not riding."

During the nine-month period of the comparison, the District and 38 states reported a drop in motorcycle deaths, and 12 states recorded an increase. California had 133 fewer deaths, Florida had 111 fewer and Ohio had 48 fewer. Only two states -- Hawaii and Rhode Island -- had double-digit increases. Once numbers for the final three months of 2009 are factored in, the report projects, the annual fatality decline will be 10 percent.

Ahmed cautioned against reading too much into data from a nine-month period.

"The fact that there was a blip from one year to the next won't really tell us that much," he said. "The upward trend has been going on for 12 years. Show me several years of downward, and then we have something."

Making choices

In soliciting the data in the report, the GHSA also asked state safety agencies to articulate the reasons for the decline.

Several responses pointed to the economy and underscored that a significant portion of motorcycling is for recreation rather than transportation.

"If you have a choice between paying your mortgage or your motorcycle insurance or payment, go with the mortgage," one respondent said.

Others suggested that high fuel prices and the independent image of motorcyclists had previously caused a temporary surge in ridership.

"There is a finite supply of potential motorcyclists, and many of those jumped on the bandwagon in the last five years," another respondent said. "There just aren't as many potential new riders as there were."

A third explanation: "Trend riders have been weeded out. Motorcycling is not for everyone. Some people that bought into the Harley lifestyle or the sport bike surge found this out."

Another suggested greater awareness by other drivers: "Motorcycles came to be an expected part of the daily traffic mix."

A change in profile

The first motorized bicycle, built in the United States three years after the Civil War, was powered by a steam engine.

The boom years for motorcycling, however, didn't begin until millions of men returned home from World War II. The number of motorcycles registered in the United States grew from 198,000 in 1945 to more than 10 million.

The profile of motorcyclists and the machines they are riding has changed markedly in recent decades.

The boomer generation embraced motorcycling in the 1960s until it came time to settle down and raise families, but they have returned to the bikes now that their children are grown.

"Motorcycling isn't what it was back in the 1960s, where it was a lot less mainstream and there were far less riders," said Ty van Hooydonk, communications director for the Motorcycle Industry Council. "You're seeing a huge variation in age, from young families to a lot more empty nesters and baby boomers. Also, the average motorcycle rider is a little more affluent than the average American."

In 1985, the median age of a motorcyclist was 27. By 2003, that age had risen to 41. In 1975, just 3 percent of motorcyclists killed were more than 50 years old. In 2008, they accounted for 28 percent of deaths.

And the average machine has grown more powerful. In just one five-year period, 1998 to 2003, the number of cycles with engines rated at 750cc or above increased 54 percent to almost 5 million.

A trend of increases

In the 10 years ending in 2007, federal statistics showed the number of fatalities rose from 2,116 to 5,154, and the number of injuries almost doubled, reaching 103,000.

The data released Thursday were compiled by the GHSA from the same statistical information that state agencies supply to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, the official federal chronicler of such information. They will be contained in the annual report on the previous year that NHTSA generally issues in July or August.

County-by-county motorcycle fatality rates were not available in the GHSA report, but earlier NHTSA data showed the District and the immediately surrounding counties had been in step with the rest of the nation through 2008, with all but a few jurisdictions reporting a steady increase in deaths. From 2004 to 2008, for example, the number of people in the region who died rose from 31 to 37.

The GHSA cited federal numbers from 2008 in recommending that further reduction in the number of fatal accidents could be achieved by encouraging helmet use, decreasing the number of people who ride after drinking, reducing speeding and providing additional training for motorcyclists.

Speeding or alcohol were judged a factor in one-third of the motorcycle fatalities in the District in 2008, in more than half of those in Northern Virginia and almost-three quarters of those in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

The NHTSA has reported that 41 percent of motorcyclists and 51 percent of their passengers who died in 2008 were not wearing helmets. Thirty percent of fatalities involved riders whose blood alcohol level was above the .08 legal limit, NHTSA said, and 35 percent of them were speeding.

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