Biker deaths continue to climb - KOTA Territory News

Biker deaths continue to climb

GAO points to helmets as a cheap way to save biker lives.  (photo by Jack Siebold) GAO points to helmets as a cheap way to save biker lives. (photo by Jack Siebold)
Beginning rider classes are full, adding to the number of motorcyclists on the road.  (photo by Jack Siebold) Beginning rider classes are full, adding to the number of motorcyclists on the road. (photo by Jack Siebold)

by Jack Siebold, MyTown editor

You would think one thing leads to another … more people getting motorcycle training than ever before should help cut road deaths.  Yet, for some unexplained reason, more motorcyclists are dying on our streets and highways.

About 5,000 motorcyclists were killed on U.S. roads in 2012, an increase of 9 percent from the previous year, according to a report by the Governors Highway Safety Association.  Last year's number of motorcyclist deaths is near an all-time high, and bike riders remain one of the few roadway user groups where no progress has been seen over the past decade. 

Renee Arnio, safety officer for the Black Hills Harley Owners Group, and an avid rider herself, can't quite put a finger on it but she does see some obvious problems.  "What I witness on the road I perceive to be inexperienced riders, people who haven't taken a safety class," Arnio said. 

To drive this point home, try this fact:  motorcycle crash deaths have increased in 14 of the last 15 years.  In South Dakota, 25 bikers died on the road last year compared to just 14 the year before.  That's the third highest death toll since 1992.  Do keep in mind that 2011 was an anomaly in crash deaths.  The year before, 2010, there were 27 biker deaths in South Dakota. Go to the Department of Public Safety website to compare data year-to-year.

Ask most bikers "Why?" and they'll say car drivers just aren't paying attention when they pull into the path of a motorcycle.  That's only partly true.  In 2010, 45 percent of bike crashes did not involve another vehicle.  "There are some circumstances where a crash is not the rider's fault at all.  But there are times when the rider isn't paying attention," Arnio explained. 

Right now, almost all the reasons given for more crash deaths are anecdotal at best.  Yes, there are more motorcycles registered than ever before and with people squeezed by higher gas prices, more miles are being ridden.

But here is a sobering fact -- bikers killed in crashes are more apt to have been drinking and speeding than car drivers.  According to the Governors report, in 2010, 29 percent of motorcycle riders who died in crashes had a blood alcohol concentration higher than the .08 limit. 

"At .08 you might be able to drive a car, but a motorcycle is different, Ted Erlewine said.  Erlewine, West River coordinator for the South Dakota Motorcycle Rider Education Program, says bikers shouldn't drink at all if they plan on lifting a leg over a bike.  "In reality, the motorcycle alcohol level should be nothing.  You should be at least an hour away from having a drink," he said.

Speed is another possible cause for a hike in biker deaths.  Also in 2010, 35 percent of the bikers killed were speeding, compared to 23 percent for car drivers.  "You have to look at the rider's personality.  Are they impulsive in general?  Do they make bad decisions?  Are they poor riders?" Arnio asks. 

Granted, bikes are inherently more dangerous than cars.  According to the NHTSA, motorcyclists are 30 times more likely to be killed in a crash than a car driver.  Even a crash that would be considered a "fender bender" if cars were involved can cause serious injuries.  That means bikers need to be more aware.  "You can't ride aggressively," Arnio said.  "You have to ride defensively.  You're vulnerable on a bike.  Right away or not, you need to protect yourself.  That's how life is."

A drop in the number of states with laws that require all riders to wear helmets is also pointed to by various government and insurance company studies.  That number is currently 19, down from 26 in 1997.  While helmets are not part of any cause of a crash, the lack of them in some instances is a contributing factor in deaths and serious injuries.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration claims that 706 motorcyclists not wearing helmets who died in 2010 crashes would have lived if they had worn them.

Not only is the death toll too high, so is -- according to the Government Accountability Office -- the economic costs.  The GAO estimated that the total direct measurable costs of motorcycle crashes-- costs that directly result from a crash and that can and have been measured-- were approximately $16 billion in 2010.  That doesn't include the long-term care costs for injured bikers, much of it paid for by society (government funds, private insurance, families).

Getting some initial training before hitting the hills is extremely important according to Erlewine.  "Most accidents are going to happen early on in a rider's career or when they change motorcycles or ride a motorcycle they're not used to," he explained.

In South Dakota's beginners class, riders are taught that several factors can contribute to a crash … not only other drivers on the road, but the weather, road condition, rider fatigue and yes, even age.  "Age, we might not to admit it, is also a factor," Erlewine said.  "As we get a little older our reflexes are not quite as good, our strength isn't as good, our vision is not as good, our night vision is surely not as good."

The Governors Highway Safety Association report outlined a number of ways to reduce motorcyclist deaths.  These include:

  • increasing helmet use
  • reducing speeding and impaired riding
  • providing rider training to all who need or want it
  • ensuring proper licensing of riders
  • encouraging all drivers to share the road with motorcyclists

Tips for the road

From the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

  • Use turn signals at all times
  • Signal intentions by using hand signals as well as turn and brake signals
  • Wear brightly colored protective gear and use reflective tape
  • Position yourself in the lane so you are more visible to other drivers

And from Arnio, HOG safety officer, put some safety features on your bike:

  • LED lights
  • Flashing brake lights
  • Loud horn
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