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Motorcycle crashes driving highway death toll; Az near top for fatal wrecks
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Motorcycle crashes driving highway death toll; Az near top for fatal wrecks

  •  A fatal motorcycle accident in San Diego County on Jan. 30, 2011.
    CAL FIRE San Diego A fatal motorcycle accident in San Diego County on Jan. 30, 2011.

Last year was a bad one for motorcyclists, with a new estimate showing that 5,010 bikers were killed in crashes nationwide — the worst death toll in seven years.

The apparent 10 percent increase in motorcycle fatalities, based on an analysis by the Governors Highway Safety Association, coincided with a projected rise of about 8 percent in traffic deaths overall in 2015. Preliminary figures from the National Safety Council put the traffic deaths total at 38,300, also the highest level since 2008.

Motorcycle-related deaths remained flat across Arizona, at 130 in both 2014 and 2015. But the state was in the top 10 for the percentage of roadway fatalities that involve cycles: 17 percent of traffic deaths wewe motorcyclists. Arizona was in the top dozen states for the number of bikers who died in 2015.

In Pima County, there were four fatal motorcycle crashes in 2015, with one so far in 2016. In the city of Tucson, there were three deadly cycle crashes in 2015, with five already this year.

The rise in biker fatalities, as FairWarning has reported, follows years of advocacy by motorcycle rider groups to prevent regulators from promoting or enforcing tough requirements for safe helmets, the most effective way known to save bikers’ lives.

Analysts say lower gas prices and a stronger economy, by encouraging more driving, are a big part of the explanation for the higher death tolls. But the refusal by many motorcycle riders to wear safe helmets, along with higher numbers of motorcycles on the road, also played a role.

“These sobering findings provide a stark reminder of how susceptible motorcyclists are to fatal and life-threatening injuries,” said Richard Retting, co-author of the report from the governors’ safety group. “Concerted efforts are needed to reduce this tragic loss of life.”

Per mile driven, the fatality rate for motorcycles is 26 times higher than that for cars and trucks, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. At the same time, the federal agency estimates that motorcycle helmets cut the risk of dying in a crash by 37 percent.

NHTSA has estimated that, in 2013 alone, 1,630 lives were saved by motorcycle helmets and more than 700 fatalities would have been prevented if all motorcyclists had worn helmets.

States back away from helmet mandates

by rider groups and “personal freedom” advocates overcame efforts by safety advocates to maintain that status quo. By 2012, after Michigan revoked its longstanding requirement for all riders to wear helmets, only 19 states still had such laws. In Michigan, the law was eased to allow people 21 and older to ride without helmets if they purchased at least $20,000 in medical insurance.

The Governors Highway Safety Association report determined that the biggest jump in motorcycle fatalities last year came in Florida, where the death toll was estimated at 550, up from 450 in 2014. The association said Florida repealed its universal helmet law in 2000, making helmets voluntary for motorcyclists 21 and older with at least $10,000 in medical coverage for motorcycle-related injuries.

Retting, the co-author of the association’s report, said a mandatory helmet use is not a “cure-all,” but it “is probably the simplest and arguably the most logical change in which you could save 700 lives a year.”

“But it’s very complicated because of the politics,” he added. “Motorcyclists are a very active and vocal lobby.”

The American Motorcyclist Association — whose business members include Harley-Davidson and the American divisions of BMW, Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha — says it encourages the use of properly fitted helmets. But the lobbying group “believes that adults should have the right to voluntarily decide when to wear a helmet,” said the AMA’s vice president for government relations, Wayne Allard, in a prepared statement.

The group does not oppose laws mandating helmets for minors on motorcycles, he added. Allard declined to offer an explanation for the rise in the death toll, saying, “We prefer not to speculate on the GHSA’s estimated numbers.”

Three other groups representing riders — the Motorcycle Riders Foundation, the Motorcycle Industry Council and the Motorcycle Safety Foundation – did not respond to requests for comment.

The governors’ association said 2015 is expected to be the third-worst on record for motorcyclist deaths. Only twice before has the annual toll exceeded 5,000. In 2008, there were 5,312 motorcyclist deaths across the nation, and in 2007 the total was 5,174.

An additional factor behind many of the motorcycle deaths, the governors association said, was drug and alcohol use. In addition, as FairWarning has reported (here and here), consumers have bought tens of thousands of cheap so-called novelty helmets that don’t comply with federal safety standards.

To curb motorcycle-related deaths, the governors’ association suggests that riders wear helmets meeting federal standards along with bright clothing so that they can be easily seen by other motorists. It also recommends that motorcyclists avoid drinking or taking drugs and consider getting vehicles equipped with antilock brakes. Researchers said antilock brakes bolster a motorcycle’s stability.

TucsonSentinel.com’s Dylan Smith contributed to this report.


FairWarning is a nonprofit news organization based in Southern California that focuses on public health, consumer, labor and environmental issues.

Motorcyclists as percentage of traffic deaths, 2015

Hawaii 26%
Connecticut 22%
Nevada 22%
Colorado 19%
Rhode Island 19%
Florida 19%
New Hampshire 18%
Utah 18%
California 17%
Arizona 17%
Indiana 17%

Number of motorcyclist deaths per state, 2015

Florida 550
California 489
Texas 455
North Carolina 185
South Carolina 184
Pennsylvania 179
Ohio 162
New York 156
Illinois 146
Michigan 138
Georgia 131
Arizona 130

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motorcycles, nhtsa, pima county

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