Report: More older riders in motorcycle crashes
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Victims of motorcycle crashes are increasingly likely to be older people riding large motorcycles on rural roads, according to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The findings came as a surprise, NHTSA officials said. "It exploded some of the myths of where the problems lie in motorcycles," said Rae Tyson of the NHTSA. "The trends emerging made us aware and give an implication on how to address the problem."
Preliminary statistics for 2000 showed motorcycle crashes have steadily increased over the past three years. In the year 2000 alone, deaths on motorcycles increased 8 percent, to 2,680 fatalities.
One reason cited was the increase in the number of motorcycles on the road -- sales increased by 51 percent between 1997 and 1999 -- but the report found other possible factors as well.
The coming report combined government statistics, census numbers and motorcycle industry data to reveal what officials called an "alarming new trend."
CNN was briefed on raw data that will be used in the agency's final report.
The numbers "suggest a new challenge is emerging in reducing injury and fatalities," Tyson said. "The demographics are changing. There are changing implications in safety for the industry and the rider."
Baby boomers are making up a greater portion of motorcycle riders, as well as a greater proportion of fatalities, according to the report. In 1998, when 43.7 percent of owners were over 40 and the average age was 38, older riders for the first time made up the majority of those killed in motorcycle crashes.
Since 1990, deaths for the 29-and-under age group have been steadily declining. In 1999 the average age of a person killed on a motorcycle was 36.5 years.
Older riders tend to do almost everything by the book, the report found. They get licensed, wear their helmets and even take rider training courses. In fact, more motorcyclists are getting valid licenses -- the report found that in 1999, 70 percent of the motorcycle riders killed had valid licenses compared with only 54 percent in 1990.
But while speed and inexperience are often faulted for deaths of younger riders, alcohol is the biggest single factor in single-vehicle crashes of older riders, according to the report. The highest alcohol use among riders killed was in the 30-39 age group, in which almost half were legally drunk.
"We're not saying that motorcycle riders use alcohol more than vehicle drivers. But we need to understand the consequence of alcohol use is greater when on a motorcycle," Tyson said.
In some government tests, researchers have found that ability to handle a motorcycle can begin to be impaired for riders with blood alcohol levels as low as .03 percent. Most drunken driving laws set limits of .08 percent or .10 percent.
There also is evidence that larger bikes, which aren't necessarily faster but are more difficult to handle, might be contributing to the increase in fatalities.
People older than 29 who are killed generally are riding bikes with engines larger than 1000cc, and the 1001-1500cc category is the only group in which motorcycle fatalities increased between 1990 and 1999.
Dick Schriner, an instructor in a motorcycle training program in Glen Bernie, Maryland, thinks his students "have an overinflated idea of their abilities, of what they can handle and cannot handle, and... of what they can deal with in traffic."
"Sometimes people buy motorcycles that they really shouldn't be on," he said. "They need gradual steps. They have to recognize what their limitations are."
The figures also show a switch in where fatal motorcycle accidents occur. In 1998-1999, more than half of rider fatalities were in rural areas, reversing the seven-year trend of most motorcycle fatalities occurring in multi-vehicle city crashes.
Researchers speculate the strong economy of the late 1990s sent more baby boomers to stores to buy motorcycles for leisurely weekend rides on rural roads. Older riders, they say, use motorcycle rides as daylong social events.
The NHTSA will use the results of the study to plan public awareness campaigns aimed at both high-risk riders and riders in general.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
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