After years of going down, motorcycle deaths are on the rise. Between 1990 and 1997, fatalities dropped 34 percent, but since then they've gone back up 36 percent. There's more than a reversal of a trend going on. There's also a demographic shift — deaths are rising fastest among cyclists 40 and older, which is pushing up the average age of cyclists killed.
Motorcycles are a dim spot in the overall highway safety picture. Deaths on motorcycles have gone up while pedestrian deaths, for example, have declined and passenger vehicle deaths have remained unchanged. "Increasingly, the motorcycle riders who are getting killed are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, and fewer are in their teens and 20s," says Susan Ferguson, the Institute's senior vice president for research. "This is a big change from 10 or 20 years ago, when motorcycle deaths were at their highest and a very high proportion of the fatalities were young people."
Deaths among motorcyclists 40 and older have been steadily increasing for about a decade. They've increased more than 150 percent since 1990. But until recently this increase was offset by declining deaths among younger riders. Among those younger than 40, the number of deaths went down nearly 50 percent during 1990-97. Then deaths among people younger than 40 started to climb again, but not to the same extent as deaths among motorcyclists 40 and older.
"Over the last three years, the number of motorcycle deaths has gone up 68 percent in the 40-and-older group but only 20 percent among people younger than 40," Ferguson notes. As a result, the proportion of all fatally injured riders 40 and older stands at 40 percent, up from 14 percent in 1990. The median age of bikers killed is now about 36 years old, up from 27 in 1990.
This shift doesn't reflect the aging of the population. It reflects the changing demographics of motorcycle buyers and riders.
According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, national retail sales of new motorcycles shot up 50 percent from 1997 to 1999 (the last year for which data are available), from 356,000 units per year to 539,000. Sales have been particularly strong for American manufacturer Harley-Davidson, whose buyers typically are much older than the average motorcycle buyer. Harley became the U.S. sales leader in 1999, eclipsing Honda with a 26 percent share of the market.
The proportion of larger-engine motorcycles also has been growing steadily for a decade. This is reflected in the fatality statistics, which indicate that deaths are increasing among riders of cycles in the 1,000-1,500 cc engine size category. The under-1,000 cc category of bikes still accounts for the greatest number of deaths, but fatalities on larger motorcycles are starting to catch up.
For riders of all ages, the relative risks associated with motorcycles are extremely high. The death rate on motorcycles per registered vehicle is about 4 times the rate in passenger vehicles and 18 times higher per mile traveled.
It hasn't helped that a number of states have weakened their laws requiring all riders to wear helmets. Weaker laws are associated with an increase in deaths.
Percent change in annual deaths of motorcyclists, pedestrians,
and passenger vehicle occupants compared with deaths in 1995
Annual number of motorcycle deaths, by age of motorcyclist, 1990-2000