Motorcycle Deaths On Rise

Motorcycle Deaths On Rise

By John Yaukey and Robert Benincasa, Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON — Death rates from motorcycle crashes have risen steadily since states began weakening helmet laws about a decade ago, according to a Gannett News Service analysis of federal accident reports.
As deaths have increased, so has the proportion of older riders killed. Dying on a motorcycle could soon become a predominantly middle-aged phenomenon, the analysis shows.

Most states once required all motorcycle riders to wear helmets. A trend in the other direction began accelerating after 1995, during the same period the federal government decided to stop withholding highway money from states without helmet laws.

As states weakened or repealed the laws, the percentage of riders who wore helmets began dropping. And fatality rates increased.

In 1996, 5.6 motorcyclists were killed for every 10,000 registered motorcycles, according to Department of Transportation (DOT) statistics. By 2006, the most recent data available, the rate had risen to 7.3, the analysis shows.

In raw numbers, the annual death toll rose from 2,160 to 4,810 over that same period.

Meanwhile, fatality rates for all other passenger vehicles have been falling, DOT officials say.

“The data are pretty compelling,” said Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, herself an avid motorcyclist who survived a crash thanks to a helmet she displays in somewhat battered condition in her office. “It’s discouraging to see the (fatality) numbers going up. But at least people are talking about it now.”

Two decades ago, 47 states required helmets for all riders. Today, 20 do. Twenty-seven states require helmets only for younger riders. Three — Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire — don’t require helmets at all.

The analysis of data from the government’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System of motorcycle deaths between 2002 and 2006 also found:

  • About 42% of riders killed were not wearing helmets.
  • Half of those killed lost control and crashed without colliding with another vehicle. Motorcyclists account for about 2% of vehicles on the road but 10% of all traffic fatalities, according to federal statistics
  • Southeastern states had some of the highest fatality rates in 2006. Some of these states require all riders to wear helmets, but they also have long riding seasons that expose bikers to more risk over time.

Federal statistics show that in states that weaken or repeal helmet laws, helmet use drops. In 1994, when the U.S. government still penalized states without helmet laws, 63% of riders wore helmets. By 2006, that percentage had dropped to 51%.