Motorcyclist Death Rates Appear to Have Plateaued
By TANYA MOHN
Governors Highway Safety Association
Motorcyclist fatalities for the first nine months of 2011 declined just 1.7 percent from their levels over the same period in 2010, a frustrating result, the report’s authors said.
A notable decrease in motorcyclist deaths that began in 2009 has not sustained itself, according to a new study released Tuesday by the Governors Highway Safety Association.
The report, based on analysis of preliminary data for the first nine months of 2011 from the 50 states and Washington, D.C., found that motorcyclist fatalities decreased in 23 states from their levels in 2010, but 26 states and Washington reported increases. Fatalities in Louisiana were unchanged.
Motorcyclist fatalities remain a stubborn area of highway safety efforts. The lack of progress was particularly notable because earlier this month the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration projected that total motor vehicle fatalities declined 1.7 percent in 2011, reaching the lowest level since record-keeping began in 1949.
“The big message is we still have a problem with motorcycle fatalities,” said James Hedlund of Highway Safety North, a consulting firm that prepared the report for the association. “I had hoped that the decrease in motorcycle fatalities two years ago was the beginning of a turnaround and the decline would continue, but it hasn’t.”
From 1996 to 2008, during a period in which ridership more than doubled, motorcycle fatalities rose nearly at the same pace. In 2009, however, there was a 16 percent drop in motorcycle deaths. The decline followed 11 straight years of steady increases, Dr. Hedlund noted. In 2010, fatalities decreased in the first half of the year, giving researchers hope that a sustained reversal was in effect, but increased in the second half. Over all, the death toll increased slightly in 2010 when compared with fatalities in 2009. The number of motorcyclist fatalities is projected to remain about 4,500 in 2011, the same as in 2010, the report noted.
Dr. Hedlund, who previously was the associate administrator for traffic safety programs at the N.H.T.S.A., said it was the third year such analyses were completed.
The strengthening economy and high gas prices are thought to have contributed to the uptick through the first nine months of 2011. In a strengthened economy, sales of motorcycles increase. High gas prices may also encourage motorcycle adoption, and the association noted that motorcycle travel might consequently become more widespread, which would typically lead to a corresponding increase in fatalities.
The study’s authors also attributed the stubbornness of the death rate with the repeal of universal helmet laws. Despite being an effective tool to reduce motorcyclist deaths, laws in only 19 states and Washington require riders to wear helmets, down from 26 states in 1997. In 1975, all but three states had universal helmet laws, but by 1978, half of those states had repealed them, Dr. Hedlund said. Earlier this year, Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan signed a bill to repeal the state’s universal helmet law. Similar legislation has been introduced in five other states, the report noted. Louisiana reinstated its universal helmet law in 2004, but since then no state has enacted a requirement.
“Every time a state repeals its helmet laws, fatalities have gone up,” Dr. Hedlund said.
In addition to increased use of helmets, other strategies cited by the association to be effective in reducing the death toll included better enforcement as well as strengthened rider training and public awareness campaigns addressing issues like alcohol impairment and speeding.
The report noted that 29 percent of fatally injured riders in 2010 had a blood-alcohol concentration at or above the legal limit, and 35 percent of motorcycle riders involved in fatal crashes were speeding. Dr. Hedlund said that all motorists shared responsibility for improved training and education, as passenger car drivers often violate a motorcyclist’s right of way, resulting in a fatal crash for the rider.
“All drivers need to be responsible,” he said.