Taming motorcycling's hazards

The death of Agha Dilawar Khan of Arbutus last week may not have made front page headlines, but it deserves the public’s attention. He was just 18 years old. He died in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon on Washington Boulevard in Halethorpe. He had been riding a motorcycle and was struck by a large SUV, the driver of which was not even injured.

The teen’s death was no novelty. Dozens of motorcyclists are killed in crashes every year in Maryland. Summer is the peak season. Between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. are the peak hours. Young men are among the most common victims. Just in the past two weeks, Baltimore County has seen at least two other motorcyclists die in crashes.

It should come as no surprise that riding on a motorcycle is the most dangerous way to travel on the road. More people may die each year in car and truck collisions, but that number is misleading given how those vehicles greatly outnumber motorcycles and thus have far more opportunities to be involved in accidents. Drive an equivalent distance by motorcycle instead of by car and you are in the order of 30 times more likely to die in a crash.

Safety experts have long observed that there are steps that government can take to reduce the frequency and severity of motorcycle crashes. Requiring drivers and passengers to wear helmets of proper crash-worthiness, offering safety training to aspiring motorcyclists, educating the general public and enforcing the laws (particularly in regard to sobriety and licensing) are chief among them. By these standards, Maryland has done well (requiring helmets for all motorcyclists regardless of age since 1992, for instance) — and yet those fatalities persist.

Since 1975, motorcycle deaths have gone from 7 percent of the overall vehicle crash deaths to double that percentage by 2008 where it’s more or less hovered since then. In 2016, for example, there were 4,976 motorcycle deaths nationally compared to 37,461 motor vehicle deaths overall. In Maryland, there were 83 fatal motorcycle crashes last year, according to the Motor Vehicle Administration. That was well above the five-year average of 69.

What should be done? To their credit, state officials have been exploring their options. In one especially innovative program, they’ve provided to several bars popular with bikers portable motorcycle storage units so that if a patron gets intoxicated, he or she can leave their bike behind under lock and key. Under the pilot program, the units have been available this summer at Cancun Cantina in Hanover, Daniels Restaurant in Elkridge and Full Moon Pub & Grill in Westminster. Hopefully, they’ve had a positive impact.

There are other challenges to address. For example, motorcyclists are far more likely than other drivers not to be licensed. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, more than one-quarter of the motorcyclists who died in fatal crashes lacked a valid license. In passenger vehicle fatalities, the percentage is between 14 and 16 percent. One response has been for the MVA to make motorcycle licensing more convenient. Then there’s the problem of basic physics: The average engine size of a motorcycle involved in a crash has gone up — meaning the vehicles are likely faster-accelerating. Should police pursue such drivers, or does that worsen the chances of a crash?

Might heightened enforcement address the fatality rate? Quite possibly. Might expanding driver education? That seems less likely if it actually deters people from taking the safety course. Improving the quality of roads (hit a pot hole in a motorcycle and the effects are far more dire, for example) could help, too. But there’s another front where state officials might do better — in instructing drivers of other vehicles how to look out for motorcyclists. Safety advocates suggest as many as two-thirds of motorcycle-involved crashes are caused by the driver of a vehicle who violated the cyclist’s right-of-way. As much as motorcyclists may put themselves at risk, attention must be paid to their safety by everyone on the road.

So allow us to join that particular public awareness campaign: All motorists should be aware of the motorcycles around them and the unique challenges they pose. There are more motorcyclists on the road then ever before, and many are likely to be inexperienced. Checking one’s blind spot, being careful not to blow past a motorcycle, giving them more leeway at night or in bad weather, signaling and being particularly careful when turning is often advised. Motorcycles are at a disadvantage; riders will never have the kind of protection provided passengers in other types of vehicles. That leaves it largely to drivers of all kinds to make a difference.

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