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Status Report, Vol. 41, No. 9 | November 21, 2006 Subscribe

Motorcyclist fatalities push total crash deaths up

More people died in motor vehicle crashes on U.S. roads last year than in any year since 1990 — 43,443 people in 39,189 crashes during 2005. Much of the increase can be pinned on motorcycles. Deaths of cyclists have skyrocketed during the past decade while deaths have decreased among passenger vehicle occupants and pedestrians.

People in passenger vehicles represented 72 percent of motor vehicle deaths in 2005, down from 77 percent in 1997 but up from 69 percent in 1975, when the federal government started what's now the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, an annual census of motor vehicle deaths plus information on fatal crash types, vehicle and road types, driver characteristics, and other factors.

Motorcyclist deaths have more than doubled since 1997 and in 2005 accounted for 10 percent of all motor vehicle crash deaths, up from 5 percent in 1997, based on analysis of the federal data. In 2005 a total of 4,439 motorcyclists died in crashes, up 14 percent from the 3,904 toll in 2004.

Deaths among older motorcyclists have been rising for more than a decade (see Status Report special issue: motorcycle deaths, Jan. 12, 2002). Last year 47 percent of cyclists killed were 40 and older, up from 46 percent in 2004 and 15 percent in 1991. Now deaths in this group are almost 5 times higher than in 1990. The increase was offset during 1990-97 by a decline of about 50 percent in deaths among younger motorcycle riders. Then fatalities among riders younger than 40 started to climb, although not to the same extent as deaths among older motorcyclists.

The median age of bikers killed in crashes is 38 years old, up from 27 in 1990. The shift reflects the changing demographics of motorcyclists as older, more affluent buyers take up riding. The typical rider is 41 years old, according to the latest survey of owners conducted by the Motorcycle Industry Council, a nonprofit trade group based in Irvine, Calif. This is up from 2002, when the typical rider was 38, and a leap from the typical 24-year-old rider in the 1980s. Nearly 10 percent of riders now are women, the council says.

U.S. motorcycle sales topped 1.1 million last year, according to the council. The record was 1973, when Americans bought more than 1.5 million cycles. Sales cooled in the 1980s before starting to climb again in 1993. Why the surge? The council says it's partly because bikes have become more specialized and stylish. More than 300 models appeal to a broader range of potential riders.

Sales are strong among baby boomers, who are taking up cycling as a hobby or returning to riding after breaks to raise families, industry representatives say. Higher fuel prices are another reason.

Motorcyclist deaths are increasing in part because cycle sales are up. Another reason is that helmet use is down, even in states with laws covering all riders. Last year 79 percent of cyclists observed in states with universal laws were wearing helmets. This compares with 90 percent in 2002, according to a federal study. In states without helmet laws or with laws that apply only to younger riders, helmet use fell to 46 percent in 2005 from 53 percent in 2002.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring cyclists of all ages to wear helmets. Twenty-six states have laws requiring some cyclists to wear helmets. Since 1997, five states have narrowed their helmet laws to cover only young riders. The result is a surge in deaths. For example, helmet use in Florida plummeted to 53 percent from virtually 100 percent after the helmet law was weakened in 2000. The motorcyclist death rate increased about 25 percent (see "More deaths follow weakening of Florida's motorcycle helmet law," Sept. 28, 2005).

Riders who aren't wearing helmets are three times as likely as people with helmets to suffer brain injuries. These often are deadly or so debilitating that there's little chance a rider can resume the same lifestyle as before the crash.

"This is why state helmet laws should cover all motorcycle riders, not just the youngest ones," says Anne McCartt, Institute vice president for research. "There's no question that helmets save lives, whether they're worn by 20-year-old riders or 50 year-olds. Laws that cover only the youngest motorcyclists are largely ignored and difficult to enforce. Riders of all ages think they're less likely to get tickets, so they're less likely to wear helmets. Better enforcement of existing laws would help reverse the general decline in helmet use."

No progress is being made against DWI

Driving while impaired by alcohol remains a problem, despite progress achieved during the 1980s and most of the 1990s. Since 1997 about a third of all fatally injured passenger vehicle drivers have had blood alcohol concentrations of 0.08 percent or higher (see "Focusing too much on hardcore drinking drivers is counterproductive," Sept. 7, 2006). It's illegal in all states and the District of Columbia to drive with blood alcohol concentrations of 0.08 percent or more.

"Especially worrisome is that progress has stalled among the youngest drivers," says Susan Ferguson, Institute senior vice president for research. From about 1982 to 1995, the percentage of fatally injured drivers 16-20 years old who were impaired by alcohol declined by more than half. But since then the proportion has hovered around 25 percent. People 21-30 years old remain problems. In 2005 half of all fatally injured drivers in this age group had blood alcohol concentrations at or above 0.08 percent.

"We haven't been able to make a real dent in the problem since the mid-1990s," Ferguson adds. "We need to break the logjam, and one way to do this is to conduct frequent and well-publicized sobriety checkpoints to enforce DUI and DWI laws. In the longer term, innovative technologies might help to prevent impaired drivers from starting their vehicles" (see Status Report special issue: alcohol-impaired driving, April 2, 2005).

Teen deaths decline

A bright spot in the 2005 statistics is teenagers. Here there's headway in reducing crash deaths, thanks in large measure to the success of graduated licensing, which phases in full driving privileges among beginners. Deaths of 16 and 17 year-olds in passenger vehicles fell 8 percent in 2005, to 1,631 from 1,773 the year before. Among 13-19 year-olds, deaths fell 6 percent and have declined about 40 percent since 1975.

The death rate per population of teens is the lowest on record. Still, in 2005 teens accounted for 12 percent of motor vehicle deaths and only 10 percent of the U.S. population.

Fatal crashes involving young drivers typically involve a single vehicle plus driver error and/or speeding. The crashes often occur when other young people are in vehicles driven by teens, so teenagers are disproportionately involved as passengers as well as drivers. Of the 4,440 teenagers killed in passenger vehicle crashes last year, 45 percent were passengers. Sixty-one percent of these deaths occurred in crashes in which another teenager was driving.

"The best graduated licensing systems limit teen passengers to zero or one. Some states need to toughen their laws to restrict passengers," Ferguson points out.

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