Motorcycle deaths soar
Numbers prompt advice to drivers, riders on safety
By Bill Gallo, www.rockymountainnews.com
Motorcyclists are dying in greater numbers across the nation and in Colorado, setting off alarms about rider safety and prompting an array of government and private countermeasures.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters, a longtime rider, appears in some of that department's new TV commercials, offering a familiar warning: "We could save more than 700 lives each year if everyone put on a helmet every time they got on a bike."
Nationwide, motorcycle-related deaths have risen from about 2,100 in 1997 to more than 4,800 last year. The Colorado Department of Transportation counted 37 fatalities in 1997 and 71 in 2006. Through the first nine months of this year, Colorado had 64 motorcycle-related deaths.
The simplest explanation for the increase is that more bikes are on the road. Colorado is typical: Ten years ago, 97,500 motorcycles were registered here; in 2007, there were 139,264.
Observers inside and outside the industry point to other causes: maddening traffic congestion, poorly trained riders and drivers of four-wheel vehicles who don't watch out for motorcyclists. Advocates charge that motorists are increasingly distracted - especially when talking on cell phones.
"The primary cause of serious accidents involving motorcycles is motorists' failure to yield the right of way," says Ari Levenbaum , spokesman for the Law Tigers, a Phoenix-based, eight- state network of lawyers specializing in motorcycle-crash claims.
"The second-most prevalent is the car that cuts off a cyclist riding behind it," Levenbaum said. "Cycles are rarely involved in single-vehicle accidents."
Colorado State Patrol officers agree.
"(Four-wheel) drivers need to be extra-vigilant around motorcycles," CSP spokesman Sgt. John Hahn said. "Especially at those times of year when there are many bikes on the road - in spring and summer. Drivers are at fault in the majority of these crashes."
Since 1973, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, funded by 12 motorcycle manufacturers, has set guidelines for bikers - including stiff warnings against drinking and riding - and developed rider-education courses. Almost 400,000 U.S. riders got their MSF diplomas in 2007.
But that's not enough.
"Fewer than half of all riders take any kind of formal training course," MSF President Tim Buche says. In 2003, a Motorcycle Industry Council report said only 38 percent of U.S. riders had been to school.
In June, the MSF launched the $2.8 million Motorcycle Crash Causation Study at Oklahoma State University, the first such research project in more than 30 years. The findings won't be released until 2013, MSF spokesman Dean Thompson says.
But seeing blood on asphalt has already led the MSF, based in horsepower-crazy Southern California, to several conclusions.
"Rider training is essential," Thompson says. "We need more involvement from government in our safety mission. It would be good if road-builders paid attention, too. Motorcycles react differently from cars."
On the hot-button helmet issue, the Law Tigers are ambiguous. "Safety studies make good cases for and against helmet use," Levenbaum said. Helmets restrict peripheral vision and reduce the ability to hear, many riders say.
But the MSF is unequivocally pro-helmet. "One of our mottos is 'All the Gear, All the Time,' " Thompson said, "and we believe wholeheartedly that you should wear a helmet - a full-face helmet - always. Pavement is an unforgiving surface."
Twenty U.S. states mandate helmets for all cyclists, but Colorado law requires them only for riders under 18. The state patrol reports that 87 people were killed in motorcycle crashes in 2005. In more than 76 percent of the cases, helmets weren't used.
The Colorado State Patrol has no official position on helmets, Hahn said, "but we're certainly in favor of anything that increases safety."
Even in states where headgear is required, transportation chief Peters says, only 58 percent of riders actually wear it, a 13 percent decrease over the last four years.
In March, CDOT will launch its own $100,000 motorcycle-safety campaign with public service announcements, fliers and posters. TV spots would be too expensive, says CDOT safety spokeswoman Heather Halpipe.
In general, she sees the same accident causes as other experts: oblivious motorists who don't check their mirrors for motorcyclists and inadequate rider training.
Of the 71 Colorado motorcycle-crash fatalities in 2006, 34 involved alcohol use by a motorist or rider, according to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System. A fourth of 2007's 64 deaths fell into that category.
Veteran biker Van Emmerich, who's ridden big Harleys since 1971, has his own view from behind the handlebars.
"It can be a dangerous world out there," the Aurora native says. "Especially when some (expletive) driving an SUV the size of my house, talking on the phone, eating Krispy Kreme doughnuts and combing his hair, all at the same time, decides that I don't exist and runs me off the road.
"But that's the chance you take for the freedom you get."