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Status Report, Vol. 45, No. 3 | March 31, 2010 Subscribe

Riding is risky fun: Motorcyclist deaths increase

Eight out of 10 motorcycle crashes result in injury or death compared with 2 out of 10 car crashes. More people are taking up riding, and more are dying in crashes. The upswing in motorcyclist deaths comes amid record lows for fatalities in car crashes, prompting the Institute and others to look harder for measures to stem the deaths among bikers.

One answer might be to equip more motorcycles with antilock brakes. Insurance claims analyses by the Highway Loss Data Institute, an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, underscore the real-world benefits of helmet laws that apply to all riders and raise questions about the safety benefits of state-mandated training for young riders.

First up, though, are the results of a new Institute survey that puts a fresh face on who's riding today. Rider deaths topped 5,000 in 2008. This is more than in any year since the federal government began collecting fatal crash data in 1975. In contrast, fewer passenger vehicle occupants died in 2008 crashes than in any year since 1975 (national counts for 2009 aren't available yet). Motorcycle registrations increased to 7.7 million in 2008, up from 4.3 million in 2000, according to data provided by R. L. Polk and Company.

"It's a troubling trend," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research. "No one wants to begrudge motorcyclists the opportunity to ride for fun or to get around town on a bike. As the number of new riders continues to increase, though, it's becoming more important than ever to lower the crash risk."

The Institute surveyed 1,818 riders by phone in 2009 to get a picture of nationwide trends in motorcycling, including respondents views of helmets, helmet laws, and antilock brakes. Researchers also asked about travel patterns.

Helmet use

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 67 percent of motorcyclists in 2009 wore helmets that comply with federal safety standards. Seventy-three percent of riders the Institute surveyed said they always wear a helmet, and 9 percent said they often wear one. Five percent said they never do.

Riders of sport, supersport, and sport touring bikes were most likely to say they always wear a helmet. Riders 18-29 and those 50 and older were more likely to say they always ride helmeted, compared with motorcyclists in their 30s and 40s.

What would encourage more bikers to don helmets? Laws mandating them. Fifty-seven percent of respondents who don't always wear helmets said this would convince them.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia require helmets for all motorcyclists, 27 target helmet laws at younger riders, and 3 states (Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire) have no helmet laws at all.

About half of the motorcyclists surveyed said they don't favor universal helmet laws, mainly because they want to choose for themselves. Still, 76 percent said helmets make riders safer. Those 18-29 years old were most likely to say they'd support universal laws, with 54 percent in this group favoring the mandate. Riders 18-29 also agreed very strongly that helmets enhance safety.

Universal helmet laws aren't popular, but they're effective. Nearly all motorcyclists always wear helmets in states where the laws apply to all riders, but only about half do in states with no laws or laws that apply to some riders, usually younger ones.

"It's encouraging that the youngest riders in our survey were the most likely to recognize the benefits of helmets and express support for universal laws because these riders typically are the biggest risk takers," McCartt points out. "Baby boomers appear to be the hardest to reach, which is worrisome because they're the biggest group of riders today."

Baby boomers outnumbered Gen Y motorcycle owners 2 to 1 in 2008, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council, a nonprofit trade group based in Irvine, Calif. The typical motorcycle owner is 43 years old, older than in 1998 when the age was 38 and a leap from the typical 24-year-old owner in the 1980s. As a result, the average age of fatally injured motorcycle riders climbed to 40 in 2008 from 37 in 2000 and 30 in 1990.

Antilock brakes

More than half of riders the Institute surveyed said they believe antilocks on motorcycles enhance braking safety, compared with conventional brakes. Fifty-four percent of respondents said they'd get antilocks on their next bikes.

When it comes to crashes, 43 percent said they'd been in at least one. Among riders who'd taken a spill, about half reported it to police, and just under half said they notified their insurer. Sixty-four percent said they didn't require medical treatment. Nearly all riders said their bikes are registered and insured.

Often motorcycle crashes are blamed on other vehicles, not riders, so its noteworthy that almost two-thirds of the reported crashes involved a single vehicle, and it was the motorcycle.

Patterns of motorcycle riding

Recreation is the top reason people cite for riding, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. However, this group says many riders now use motorcycles for everyday transportation, not just weekend fun.

"This may be because of high fuel costs, environmental concerns, convenience, or a combination of factors," McCartt says.

The Institute's survey noted the same trends. On average, 55 percent of riding is on weekends. Twenty-three percent of respondents said a motorcycle is the vehicle they drive the most. Fifty-seven percent said they often or sometimes ride motorcycles to work or school. The percentage is higher among 18-29 year-olds, and these riders were more likely than older motorcyclists to say they ride after dark. On the other hand, a higher proportion of older riders than younger ones said they take more overnight trips. Older riders also reported driving more total miles.

Looking at travel patterns by bike type, the survey found that sport touring riders are the most likely to ride for basic transportation. Touring and sport touring riders more often take long trips, possibly because these motorcycles are built for comfort and cruising long distances. Riders of touring, sport, and supersport bikes said they frequently ride after dark, and it's worth noting that the supersports are about average in terms of miles driven even though they have very high fatal crash rates.

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