Motorcycle deaths drop nationwide

After more than a decade of rising death tolls, the number of motorcycle fatalities on U.S. roads fell sharply last year in most states, including Maryland, which is expected to post one of the steepest declines, according to a report released today.

When final figures are reported by the Governors Highway Safety Association, the drop in motorcycle deaths in Maryland is forecast to be more than 20 percent.

The association said preliminary numbers show declines in motorcycle deaths in three-quarters of the states. The organization, made up of the highway safety offices from each of the states, commissioned a survey of 2009 fatalities from each state, as well as the District of Columbia. It found that through September of last year, the decline was greater than 15 percent. Based on that, it projects a nationwide decline for the full year of at least 10 percent.

"It's good news for motorcyclists in general and safety advocates in particular," said Steve Strohmier, a Dundalk biker who serves as state legislative representative for ABATE of Maryland, a motorcycle advocacy group.

Motorcycle deaths have been a stubborn exception to the prevailing trend of reduced highway fatalities in recent years, in part because of the increasing popularity of the bikes, especially among older riders. Until last year, deaths in motorcycle crashes had shown an increase in every year since 1997.

In 2008, 5,290 people died in motorcycle crashes in the United States, but for last year, the association is projecting a total of 4,762 — a drop of more than 500.

According to the group, the decline is occurring in all sections of the country — with some of the steepest decreases in the Sunbelt. California motorcycle deaths are predicted to be down 29 percent, while Florida expects to report a drop of 27 percent.

Preliminary figures show that Maryland had 63 motorcycle deaths in 2009 compared with 83 the year before. That would represent a 24 percent decrease, but the number of fatalities could increase as reports trickle in from local police agencies.

According to the association, state officials said an important factor in the decline was the recession.

"Less disposable income translates into fewer leisure riders, and we suspect that the trend of inexperienced baby boomers buying bikes may have subsided," said the association's chairman, Vernon Betkey, who also heads the safety office in Maryland's State Highway Administration.

But Betkey said there's more to the drop than economic factors. He said many states have reacted to years of increased fatalities by stepping up motorcycle safety efforts — including stronger enforcement of drunken-driving, speeding and helmet laws.

The association also said poor weather for motorcycling could have been a factor in some states.

Strohmier discounted the economy as a factor in the decrease. He said he has noted few signs of a drop in leisure riding among Maryland bikers.

"Recreational motorcycle riding is inexpensive," he said. "If you already have your bike, you've got it."

Strohmier said that in a weak economy, he's been using his bike more than he used to because it gets 40 to 50 miles per gallon.

Instead of economic factors, Strohmier pointed to stepped-up safety education efforts, campaigns to increase awareness of motorcycles and a 2008 change in Maryland law to permit accent lights on bikes for greater visibility.

Strohmier said motocrcyle safety classes offered by the state Motor Vehicle Administration have been "solidly booked" for months in advance. To get in a course for experienced riders, he said, he had to go all the way from Dundalk to Frederick.

In recent years, he said, many riders had returned to motorcycling in midlife after decades of inactivity and had crashed. But now, he said, middle-aged riders are more likely to take a refresher course.

Larry McCullough, owner of McCullough's Custom Cycles in Elkridge, said motorcycle manufacturers have been making a big push to draw their customers into motorcycle safety courses.

"The push for rider education, the push for rider safety, that is paying off," he said. "You go down to a Harley dealer and the first thing coming out of their mouths is ‘Let's sign you up for a Rider's Edge course.' "

Next door at Daniels Restaurant, a popular gathering place for motorcyclists, some were astonished at the decline in view of an influx of novice biker in recent years

"I'm surprised the numbers aren't going the other way," said Paul Nalley of Severn, who owns two Harleys and a Boss Hog but doubts that many of the new women riders can handle bigger machines.

Others said they hadn't noticed any improvement in the behavior of drivers of larger vehicles.

"They're idiots — that's to put it mildly," said Helmut Eberhart, a German native and BMW rider who now lives in Elkridge and is appalled by the level of tailgating and cell phone use on the roads.

The numbers did not point to a strong correlation between helmet laws and last year's fatality totals. Some states with large decreases, such as California and Maryland, have laws requiring riders of all ages to wear helmets. Others, such as Florida and Ohio, do not.

But McCullough said helmet improvements could be a factor in the Maryland decline. He said it's not that there are fewer crashes but that more people may be surviving them. McCullough said last year he noticed a shift in the market away from novelty-type helmets to sturdier, government-approved models.

McCullough said Maryland police began cracking down on substandard helmets last year, passing out $100-$150 tickets.

"It spreads like wildfire in the motorcycle world," he said, adding that riders are becoming less resistant to safety measures.

"They're starting to get a little older, a little wiser and see more of the repercussions," he said.

Betkey said Maryland has stepped up its efforts to remind drivers of larger vehicles to keep an eye out for motorcycles.

"We've had radio and TV ads. We've used our overhead [variable message] signs," he said.

Gary Kiser of Pasadena, director of ABATE's Anne Arundel County chapter, said he's noticed those messages.

"I would like to think they have an effect on what's going on," he said. Kiser also said he's seeing a lot more publicity among motorcyclists emphasizing such messages as responsible driving and riders watching how much they drink.

Betkey said it would take time to tell whether the decrease is more than a statistical anomaly. He noted that the United States had a 60 percent decline in the number of motorcycle fatalities from 1980 to 1996, only to see them rebound to record levels in recent years.

"We need to see four-five years of this before we can say we actually have a trend developing, but it certainly is good news," he said.

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