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IIHS News | July 30, 2002Subscribe

Motorcycle rally next week points to problem of increasing rider deaths, especially older riders

ARLINGTON, Va. — Pedestrian and other kinds of deaths in motor vehicle crashes are generally declining, but deaths of motorcyclists have been increasing since 1997. In recent years, the age mix of fatally injured motorcyclists has changed. More of the riders who get killed are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, and fewer are in their teens and 20s. As a result, the proportion of all fatally injured riders 40 and older was 40 percent in 2000, up from 14 percent in 1990.

Motorcycle deaths in South Dakota, 1995-2000 by month
January 0
February 0
March 0
April 6
May 4
June 7
July 8
August 36
September 4
October 4
November 0
December 0

A major event that attracts older riders is the annual motorcycle Rally and Races, which gets underway in Sturgis, South Dakota, next week. It's a popular event — about 400,000 people participated in 2001 — but the downside is the toll of cyclist deaths:

  1. Sixty-nine motorcyclist deaths occurred in South Dakota during 1995-2000. Thirty-five of the 69 who died were 40 and older.
  2. Thirty-six of South Dakota's 69 motorcyclist deaths during 1995-2000 occurred in August, the month of the rally. Twenty-three of the 36 August deaths were cyclists 40 and older.
  3. Of the 36 cyclist deaths in August 1995-2000, 23 occurred in the four counties (Custer, Lawrence, Meade, and Pennington) in and around Sturgis.
  4. Fifty-four of the 69 riders who died in South Dakota during 1995-2000 — and 28 of the 36 who died during August of those years — weren't wearing helmets. In South Dakota and most other states, only cyclists younger than 18 have to wear helmets.

Nationwide, deaths of motorcyclists 40 and older jumped dramatically from 1997 to 2000, the latest year for which statistics are available. The increase during the last three years exceeds 65 percent, and the overall increase in deaths among older motorcyclists since 1990 exceeds 150 percent. Until 1997, the increase in deaths among older riders was more than offset by declining deaths among younger riders. But since then deaths among younger motorcyclists have been increasing.

The median age of motorcyclists killed nationwide is 36 years old, up from 27 in 1990. This shift isn't because of the aging of the population. It reflects the changing demographics of motorcycle riders. Surveys show cycle owners aren't as young anymore. Increasingly they're older, affluent professionals. According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, the typical U.S. bike owner now is about 38 years old compared with 24 years old in 1980.

Annual number of deaths by age of motorcyclist, 1990-2000
  Age <30 30-39 40+ Total
1990 1,885 805 438 3,128
1991 1,580 711 410 2,701
1992 1,242 638 411 2,291
1993 1,229 647 469 2,345
1994 1,121 584 509 2,214
1995 1,057 562 519 2,138
1996 932 541 604 2,077
1997 837 547 672 2,056
1998 897 599 730 2,226
1999 878 601 940 2,419
2000 975 687 1,127 2,789

The repeal of helmet use laws in some states and weakening of the laws in other states are contributing to the increases in motorcyclist deaths. In the early 1970s, virtually all states had laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear helmets, but by 1980 most states had abandoned or substantially limited their laws (usually by restricting coverage to riders younger than 18). Such efforts haven't stopped — this year alone, at least 10 states have considered legislation to weaken or repeal motorcycle helmet laws.

Now only 20 states and the District of Columbia have mandatory helmet use laws covering all riders. Colorado, Illinois, and Iowa have no helmet laws at all, and the other 27 states have limited laws applying to younger riders.

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