Infrastructure & Environment

Motorcycle Deaths Decline in 2013

Cooler weather contributed to the rare dip, but safety experts say universal helmet laws are the best way to save lives in the long run.
by | May 6, 2014
The scene of a fatal accident involving multiple motorcycles and a trash truck on the highway in Phoenix, Arizona.
The scene of a fatal accident involving multiple motorcycles and a trash truck on the highway in Phoenix, Arizona. AP/Matt York

Fewer U.S. motorcyclists died last year than in 2012, according to preliminary data. If the numbers hold up, 2013 would be only the second year since 1997 to see a decline in motorcycle deaths.

The Governors Highway Safety Association, a group of state traffic safety agencies, estimated that 4,610 motorcyclists died last year, a 7 percent decrease from the year before.

The group’s assessment was based on data from the first nine months of the year and adjustments using mathematical models.

GHSA attributes much of the declines to weather. Unusually warm and dry conditions in 2012 led to greater motorcycle use and a higher deaths count. But the weather in 2013 was cooler and wetter, and the death count returned to about the same level as 2011, the group says.

“We feel that 2012 was not only an anomaly for Indiana, but for much of the country as well,” Indiana safety officials told the group.

Researchers also say a slowdown in the national economy in 2013 and even the aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy could have contributed to the drop.

Wayne Allard, the vice president for governmental affairs of the American Motorcyclist Association, says the drop was “encouraging news.”

“But the (GHSA) report is short on hard data regarding the factors contributing to the decline,” he says. That is why, he says, the motorcyclist group and the federal government paid for a study into the causes of motorcycle accidents scheduled to be released next year.

In the newly published tally, two thirds of states reported declines in their initial numbers. California had the greatest decrease in number of deaths, with a drop of 46. Nebraska had the largest percentage decline at 45 percent, as its fatalities dropped from 22 to 12.

Texas’ motorcycle deaths climbed by 22 in the first three quarters of last year. Rhode Island, where the number of fatalities rose from seven to nine, had the highest percentage increase at 29 percent.

Still, the safety group says the one year of good news should not overshadow a trend of rising motorcycle fatalities since 1997. The only other year in which the number of deaths dropped since then was in 2009.

The group points out that, measured in fatalities per registered vehicle, cars and other passenger vehicles are twice as safe as they were in 1997. But motorcycle safety has not improved.

“Long-term gains in motorcyclist safety won’t occur because riders are deterred by bad weather, but from consistent use of proven countermeasures,” says Kendell Poole, the group’s chairman and director of the Tennessee Office of Highway Safety.

The most effective of those countermeasures, the group says, are mandatory state helmet laws. Roughly as many people live in states with universal helmet laws as states without them, according to the federal government, but 10 times as many unhelmeted motorcyclists died in 2012 in states without universal helmet laws than in states with them.

But states have been largely repealing, rather than passing, universal helmet laws. Michigan, for example, weakened its helmet law two years ago, so it now applies only to riders younger than 21. Michigan is now one of 31 states without a universal helmet law.

The share of motorcyclists who wear helmets has not changed much during that time, the association points out. In fact, helmet usage dropped from 64 percent in 1996 to 60 percent in 2012.

The group also recommended that states crack down on drunken driving, speeding and driving without a license. Deadly motorcycle crashes involved those factors more frequently than crashes with other passenger vehicles do.

GHSA also encouraged states to offer more training for motorcyclists and public awareness campaigns for the public at large to encourage drivers to share the road with motorcyclists.

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