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Motorcycle Deaths Spiked in 2012, According to GHSA's Preliminary Numbers

April 24, 2013

In a report released April 24, the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) projects that motorcyclist deaths increased approximately 9% in 2012. That amounted to more than 5,000 lives lost.

This is greater than the overall traffic fatality increase projected by the federal government and would be the 14th out of the last 15 years in which motorcyclist deaths increased, the association said.

Notably, this level of deaths closes in on an all-time high, and motorcyclists remain one of the few roadway user groups in which no progress can be shown over the past decade.

The new report -- the first state-by-state look at motorcyclist fatalities occurring in 2012 -- was authored by Dr. James Hedlund of Highway Safety North. Dr. Hedlund is a former senior official with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Most states have reasonably complete fatality counts for at least the first nine months of 2012, enabling GHSA to confidently project the full year. Dr. Hedlund completed similar projections for GHSA for 2009, 2010 and 2011, all of which mirrored the final fatality numbers, the association said.

Comparing the first nine months of 2011 to 2012, motorcyclist fatalities increased in 34 states, decreased in 16 states and remained the same in the District of Columbia. Increases occurred in every region and were quite significant in many cases.

For example, motorcyclist fatalities jumped 32% and 29% in Oregon and Indiana, respectively, while Pennsylvania experienced a more modest 8% uptick.

The report notes that the economy influences motorcycle travel in several ways. With the economy improving in 2012 and further strengthening in 2013, more people have disposable income for purchasing and riding motorcycles. At the same time, high gas prices may cause more individuals to choose fuel-efficient vehicles like motorcycles as their preferred mode of transportation.

For his work on behalf of GHSA, Dr. Hedlund compared gas prices, motorcycle registrations, and motorcyclist fatality trends since 1976. He found that for the entire period, fatalities closely track registrations -- with significant similarities from 1990 to 2008. As gas prices increased, motorcycle registrations and fatalities also rose.

"In my state, an improving economy and a longer window of nice weather meant there were more riders and riding days," said Troy Costales, GHSA's immediate past chairman and head of Oregon's highway safety program. "The fatality increase is disheartening. Every motorcyclist deserves to arrive at their destination safely. These numbers represent real people -- they are family, friends and neighbors."

Another disturbing trend is the decrease in states with universal helmet laws. A helmet law is the only motorcycle safety strategy with a five-star effectiveness rating in the federal government's highly regarded publication, Countermeasures That Work. Only 19 states currently require all riders to wear helmets, down from 26 in 1997. There is a strong push in many states to repeal these laws, and no state has enacted a universal helmet law since Louisiana reinstated its requirement in 2004.

"All of the trends with motorcyclist deaths are really going in the wrong direction," said GHSA Chairman Kendell Poole, who serves as director of Tennessee's highway safety program. "This report is an urgent reminder that we must do more to address a problem that will only get worse with increased ridership. We are talking about 5,000 tragedies a year with no sign of progress."

Poole added: "The good news is that we know how to prevent crashes and the resulting injuries and fatalities involving motorcycle riders and their passengers. There are effective strategies that, when implemented, can make a difference."

Specifically, the report recommends states address six issues:

Increase helmet use: Helmets are proven to be 37% effective at preventing fatal injuries to motorcycle operators and 41% effective for passengers. NHTSA estimates that 706 of the unhelmeted motorcyclists who died in crashes in 2010 would have lived had they worn helmets.

Reduce alcohol impairment: In 2010, 29% of fatally injured riders had a blood alcohol concentration at or above the legal limit of .08, the highest of all motorists.

Reduce speeding: According to the most recent data, 35% of motorcycle riders involved in fatal crashes were speeding, and almost half of these crashes did not involve another vehicle.

Provide motorcycle operator training to all who need or seek it: While all states currently offer training, some courses may not be provided at locations and times convenient for riders.

Ensure motorcyclists are properly licensed: NHTSA data reveals that in 2010, 22% of motorcycle riders involved in fatal crashes did not have a valid motorcycle license. This compares with 12% of passenger vehicle drivers in fatal crashes. The motorcycle license test prompts many riders to complete a training course. By encouraging licensing, states encourage training.

Encourage all drivers to share the road with motorcyclists: According to NHTSA, when motorcycles crash with other vehicles, the latter usually violates the motorcyclist's right of way. Many states conduct "share the road" campaigns to increase awareness of motorcyclists.

In late 2012, the U.S. Senate requested the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a review of motorcyclist crashes and countermeasures. The GAO report recommended that states implement this broad approach to address motorcyclist deaths. States partially fund their motorcycle safety efforts with federal money from NHTSA. Currently, Congress only allows states to use this funding to address motorcyclist training and programs that encourage drivers to share the rode with motorcyclists.

GHSA said that states should be permitted to fund effective approaches such as programs that increase helmet use and reduce drunk driving among motorcyclists.

All data in the report are preliminary, GHSA stressed. The report presents data through September 2012.

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