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Back to Archives | Back to January 2007 Contents 

Highway Safety Initiatives

Motorcycle Fatalities Increase—Again

By Joel Bolton, Lieutenant, Lake Charles, Louisiana, Police Department

mid the bright spots in the 2005 national crash data reports, two areas stood out as continuing injury and fatality problems: motorcycles and pedestrians. The data, compiled from police crash reports, show education and enforcement is needed in these two areas as we continue to work on the priorities of alcohol, safety belts, and speed.

Here’s a quick overview of the reported Fatality Analysis Reporting System data: More than 6 million reported crashes in 2005 killed 43,443 people, a small increase from the 2004 figure of 42,836.

Traffic crashes continued to be the leading cause of death for Americans from the age of 3 through 33. On average 119 people die each day. Looked at another way, one person is killed in a traffic crash every 12 minutes.

Alcohol was a factor in 39 percent of the fatalities. In 30 percent of the deaths, one of the involved drivers had blood alcohol content above .08. The 2005 numbers haven’t been released, but we made more than 1.4 million arrests for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs in 2004.

Unrestrained occupants accounted for more than half of the 2005 fatalities. Unrestrained drivers and passengers were ejected from their vehicles in the crash 27 percent of the time. Speed continued to be a major contributing factor in deaths and injuries on our streets and highways, with police reports indicating speed involvement in 30 percent of all fatal crashes.

There were signs of progress in the report regarding injury totals, young drivers, and child passengers. Although total fatalities increased, injuries from crashes were down 3.2 percent. Twenty-three states recorded fewer fatalities in 2005.

Fatalities among children were fewer in all age groups, with the largest decline of 12 percent recorded in the 8–15 age group. There was an 8.3 percent decrease for children under the age of four, and 6 percent fewer died in the 4–7 age group.

The number of young drivers (ages 16–20) killed was down 4.6 percent, and young drivers were involved in 6.3 percent fewer crashes than in 2004.

There is cause for concern, however, for operators of motorcycles and their passengers. Motorcycle fatalities increased 13 percent from 2004 to 2005, the eighth consecutive year that number has risen and the largest increase since 1977. At 4,533 deaths, an increase of 525 from 2004, motorcycle riders accounted for 10 percent of the fatalities in 2005. 87,000 riders were injured.

The largest increases in deaths from 2004 to 2005 were in the months of September, October, and November. When viewed by age of those killed, the largest percentage increase was among riders over the age of 50.

The facts are clear: helmeted, sober, and trained operators are essential to bringing these numbers down. In states without a helmet law, 65 percent of the riders killed were not wearing a helmet. In states with helmet laws, 14 percent were not wearing helmets at the time of the crash.

Those who analyze these things estimate that helmet use saved 1,546 lives in 2005, and that another 728 would be alive today if all riders were helmeted. National observational surveys show that helmet use is 23 percent lower now than five years ago. Twenty states in 2005 required helmet use by all riders.

Research has shown that injured motorcyclists not wearing a helmet at the time of their crash are three times as likely to suffer brain injury. Officers should be educated on how to recognize helmets that do not comply with the requirements of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. Law enforcement public education programs can help riders understand the importance of a properly worn helmet and other protective equipment and clothing. Alcohol continued to be a factor in motorcycle fatalities, peaking on weekend nights when 61 percent of those killed in single-vehicle motorcycle crashes were over the legal limit. The number of riders killed in alcohol-related crashes increased 10 percent in 2005.

Balance and coordination are important for operators of motorcycles, and both are affected by alcohol. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sponsored research on this topic and developed cues for officers to look for that indicate an impaired motorcyclist. Check the NHTSA Web site for training information for your officers (, or call or write your state highway safety office.

The right training is essential for safe operation of a motorcycle. In addition to the basic skills of a handling the bike, riders need to be aware of certain safety tips such as how to make themselves more visible to other motorists. Law enforcement agencies can play a role in sponsoring or promoting local training programs.

We can also work to educate other motorists on how to safely share the road with motorcycles. In many crashes, other drivers have entered a roadway after underestimating how close a motorcycle is or how fast it is traveling due to the smaller size of the motorcycle. Road debris and other conditions can require riders to take sudden evasive action that can cause a collision if other drivers are crowding the motorcyclist.

A new year offers new opportunities to work to make our roadways safer. From motorcycles to large trucks, law enforcement has a critical role to play. Evaluating your local crash problems will help you find those areas that need your education and enforcement attention in 2007.


From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 1, January 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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