Motorcycle deaths in the U.S. climb as overall traffic fatalities drop

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A new report estimates that motorcyclist deaths in the U.S. rose by 9 percent in 2012, continuing a trend that has seen increases in 14 of the last 15 years, even while overall traffic fatalities have declined.

Using data from the first nine months of 2012, the Governors Highway Safety Association, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., said more than 5,000 motorcycle fatalities occurred last year, only the third time that has happened.

Pennsylvania had 210 motorcycle fatalities last year, a 5.5 percent increase from 2011 but fewer than the record of 236 reported in 2008. Fatality totals have fluctuated in the state in recent years.

The association renewed its call for Pennsylvania and other states to reimpose universal helmet laws. Pennsylvania's mandatory helmet law was repealed in 2003 and the state now requires them only for riders younger than 21 and for older riders in the first two years of having a license, unless they complete a safety course.

"The single most effective thing to do about motorcycle deaths is to have a universal helmet law," said association spokesman Jonathan Adkins.

PG graphic: Pa. motorcycle deaths, before after law change
(Click image for larger version)

But an official at one of the state's leading motorcycle advocacy groups, the Alliance of Bikers Aimed Toward Education, which opposes helmet mandates, said fatality levels are influenced by several other factors, including an increase in motorcycle riding, alcohol impairment and road deterioration.

Charles Umbenhauer, ABATE's lobbyist, cited statistics showing that motorcycle registrations in the state increased from 286,531 in the first full year of repeal to 404,409 last year. The fatality rate in the last full year of the state helmet mandate was 5.5 per 10,000 registrations, and 5.2 per 10,000 last year.

"It's common sense. If you put more motorcycles on the highway, you're going to have more accidents and more fatalities," he said.

Mr. Umbenhauer noted that the spring weather across the state last year was warmer than normal, causing an increase in riding. Rising gasoline prices also cause an uptick and motorcycle ownership and use.

"In Pennsylvania, we have one of the worst infrastructures in the country," he said. "We hit a pothole and it could be fatal. If you hit the same pothole in your four-wheel-drive, you might need a front-end alignment."

He said the real problem for motorcycle riders is alcohol -- 29 percent of crashes involved impaired riders. "There's too many people drinking and riding. It's the most serious problem we face," he said.

The governors association report, to be released today, acknowledges the influence of other factors on fatality levels, and calls upon riders to stay sober and not speed. More than a third of fatal crashes involved speeding, and in half of those, no other vehicle was involved in the crash.

The organization also called for increased availability of training; stricter enforcement of license laws; and for drivers of other vehicles to share the road with motorcycles.

But it said no measure would be more effective than mandatory helmet laws. In states that have them, about 84 percent of riders comply; when there is no law, about half of riders wear helmets.

The report noted that motorcycle fatalities more than doubled from 2,116 in 1997 to 4,612 in 2011 during a time when overall traffic fatalities fell by 23 percent.

The association is losing ground in its campaign for helmet laws. It said only 19 states require them of all riders, down from 26 states that did so in 1997. Campaigns to repeal the laws are underway in some of the remaining states, and no state has enacted a universal helmet requirement since Louisiana did so in 2004.

Motorcycle riding "is dangerous no matter what you do," Mr. Adkins said. "Wearing a helmet reduces that risk. It's cool to ride a motorcycle. We just want to make it safe."

"We're not opposed to helmets," Mr. Umbenhauer said. "If you're an adult that's 21 years of age or you have training, you're able to make that decision for yourself."

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Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic.


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