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Biker Fatalities Skyrocket Among the 40-and-Over Set

Rate jumped 68% in only three years, study says

THURSDAY, Jan. 10, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- If you're an older motorcycle rider, try to take it easy. Crash deaths among people 40 and over have soared in the last decade, according to a new report from an insurance industry group.

The report, from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says deaths among riders in that age bracket jumped 150 percent since 1990, and 68 percent just between 1997 and 2000. Older bikers accounted for 40 percent of the 2,800 motorcycle fatalities in the United States in 2000; a decade earlier, older bikers accounted for only 14 percent of bike deaths. The median age of riders killed in wrecks has climbed from 27 in 1990 to 36 in 2000, largely because of a powerful shift in who buys bikes.

"The people who are buying the motorcycles now are not Hell's Angels. They wear button-down shirts during the week, but then cut loose and ride their [bike] on the weekend," says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the insurance industry group.

And indeed, Harley-Davidson, the American company that specializes in large, powerful cycles, has had a remarkable turnaround in the last decade, culminating in record sales in 2001. Figures on the company's Web site show that the median age of a Harley owner has risen from about 35 in 1987 to over 45 in 2000.

Motorcycle ridership surged at the end of the last decade, with sales of new machines rising 50 percent, from 356,000 to 539,000 between 1997 and 1999, the report says. And after a long period of decline, motorcycle deaths have been on the rise, too.

Rader calls that trend "the one dim spot in an otherwise improving traffic safety picture."

The risk of death on a cycle is 18 times greater per mile traveled than it is in a passenger vehicle, according to the report, which is based on data collected by the federal government.

The reason for the U-turn: 30 states have either weakened or repealed their helmet laws since 1975, Rader says, and only 20 states and the District of Columbia require all motorcyclists to wear a helmet while riding. In the absence of a helmet law, only about half the bikers wear the protective devices, while states with such rules get essentially complete compliance, the report says.

Another factor is that riders today covet more powerful bikes, and the cycle industry has indulged them. Although motorcycles with smaller engines account for the most fatalities in this country, deadly crashes involving machines with bigger engines are catching up, the report says.

Steve Kohler, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol, says part of the problem stems from first-time riders mounting cycles in middle age.

"If you've been doing it since you were 18 or 19, you have skills that someone who's 45 is never going to have," Kohler says. Kohler also notes that California requires anyone under 21 who applies for a motorcycle license to take a special rider training course, but he says that law doesn't apply to those over 21.

In California, fatal motorcycle wrecks climbed from 232 in 1996 to 275 in 2000. But while deaths among riders age 15 to 24 are down over the period, those among riders 25 and older are up, state statistics show.

Large increases occurred among riders age 45 to 54, with deaths rising from 33 in 1996 to 55 in 2000, an increase of 67 percent. Among those 55 to 64, the death rate doubled during the period. Fatal crashes also rose sharply for riders age 65 to 74, among whom there were no fatalities in 1996 but 11 in 2000, figures show.

Tom Lindsay, a spokesman for the American Motorcyclist Association, says his group admits the recent rise in deaths is "a matter of concern." However, Lindsay adds, forcing riders to wear helmets isn't necessarily going to reverse that trend.

"We still maintain the position that it should be an adult motorcyclist's choice as to whether or not to wear a helmet," he says.

What To Do

To find out more on the motorcycle death report, visit the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

For more on motorcycling, try the American Motorcylist Association or the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.

SOURCES: Interviews with Russ Rader, spokesman, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Arlington, Va.; Steve Kohler, spokesman, California Highway Patrol, Sacramento; Tom Lindsay, spokesman, American Motorcyclist Association, Pickerington, Ohio; Harley-Davidson; Insurance Institute for Highway Safety report, Jan. 10, 2001; Insurance Institute for Highway Safety photo
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