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Motorcycle deaths drop, but trend is worrisome

Posted April 21, 2011, at 6:31 p.m.
Last modified April 22, 2011, at 9:35 a.m.

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WASHINGTON — Motorcycle deaths nationwide dropped 2 percent in the first nine months of last year, but the report by state transportation officials may signal just a blip, not a lasting improvement in safety.

There were 80 fewer motorcycle deaths from January through September 2010 than in the same time frame the previous year, said the report, released earlier this week by the Governors Highway Safety Association.

But fatalities had started to climb back up during the last three of those nine months. That has safety advocates worried.

“The drop is all in the front half of the year,” said report author Jim Hedlund, a safety consultant. “It looks very much as if we’ve hit bottom and may be starting back up again.”

Fatalities were down 25 percent during the first three months of last year, and still down 1 percent in the next three months after that. Then they went up 3 percent in the third quarter of the year, the report said.

In Maine, motorcycle fatalities rose from 16 to 23 between 1999 and 2007, according to the most recent data available from the state Bureau of Highway Safety. But motorcycle registrations during the same time rose much more steeply, from 26,415 in 1999 to 46,493 in 2007. The number of Mainers licensed to operate a motorcycle actually decreased during that period, from 104,598 in 1999 to 96,998 in 2007.

Data from 2009 show 49,051 motorcycles registered in Maine, with 102,763 people licensed to drive them.

Annual motorcycle fatalities in the United States have more than doubled since the late 1990s, peaking in 2008 at 5,312 deaths. But they plunged 16 percent in 2009 as the economy tanked. What caused the drop is a matter of debate.

Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the safety group that issued the report, said recreational motorcycle riding appears to have declined while the recession was at its worst, and that may explain why the number of deaths went down.

Now that the economy is showing signs of recovery, Adkins said he’s concerned a rebound in recreational riding will lead to more deaths.

But Jeff Hennie, vice president of the Motorcycle Riders Foundation, disagrees. He said the economy — especially the recent rise in gas prices — appears to have increased, not decreased, motorcycle use.

“If I have a choice between driving a pickup or my motorcycle, I’m taking the motorcycle that gets 50 mpg,” Hennie said. “It’s not sport; it’s transportation.”

A related data trend is also worrisome. The number of motorcyclists wearing federally approved, impact-absorbing helmets dropped 13 percent in the first nine months of 2010. At the same time, motorcyclists wearing so called “novelty” helmets — which are lightweight and offer little protection — rose 9 percent.

A helmet that meets federal standards reduces the wearer’s chances of being killed in an accident by about 40 percent, Hedlund said. The only reason for wearing a novelty helmet is to avoid getting ticketed for not wearing a helmet, he added.

Twenty states require all motorcycle riders to wear helmets, but only 13 states specify that the helmets must meet federal standards, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The board has urged states to require all riders to wear helmets that meet federal standards.

In Maine, federally approved helmets are required for all riders and operators under 18 years old and those who have been licensed for less than one year. While some states also require protective eyewear for operators, Maine does not.

Lobbying by motorcyclist groups has led some states to repeal mandatory helmet laws.

Meanwhile, BMW Motorrad USA said it will offer anti-lock brakes as standard equipment on its 2012 model year motorcycles, the first manufacturer to take that step. Improper braking has been identified as a factor in many motorcycle crashes. BMW said its sales account for less than 3 percent of the U.S. market.

BDN writer Meg Haskell contributed to this report.

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