Motorcycle deaths unaccountably plunge after long rise

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

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.

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