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Back to Archives | Back to July 2008 Contents 

Reducing Motorcycle Fatalities through Checkpoints and Education: The New York State Experience

By Major David A. Salmon, Director of Traffic Services, New York State Police, Albany, New York


otorcycle fatalities are rapidly increasing across the United States, rising from 2,116 in 1997 to 4,576 in 2005. During the same time period, passenger vehicle fatalities decreased significantly. As a percentage of all traffic fatalities, motorcycle fatalities now account for 10 percent, up from 5 percent in 1997. (For detailed statistics on motorcycle fatalities, see table 1.) Approximately one-quarter of all fatally injured motorcycle drivers were unlicensed in 2005, and an alarming 61 percent of motorcycle operators who died in single-vehicle crashes on weekend nights had blood alcohol concentrations of .08 percent or more.1



New York State is experiencing very similar increases in motorcycle crashes. Highway fatalities in New York would have remained at record lows in 2006 if not for a 13 percent increase in motorcycle fatalities, following an even higher 14 percent increase from 2004 to 2005. Coupled with these alarming statistics, brazen and reckless riding by many motorcyclists is now commonplace on the state’s highways.


Causes of Increased Fatalities


Several factors account for this growing problem. One such factor is an increase in the number of motorcycles on U.S. highways. Nationally, retail sales of new bikes increased from 356,000 in 1997 to 1,149,000 in 2005, a 223 percent increase, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. In New York State alone, motorcycle registrations increased nearly 20 percent from 2003 to 2006.

Another factor in the increase in motorcycle fatalities is an increase in the engine size and speed capabilities of motorcycles. Recent research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showed that motorcycles classified as “supersports” deliver more horsepower per pound than a typical NASCAR racing vehicle. These motorcycles have driver death rates per 10,000 registered motorcycles nearly four times higher than rates for motorcyclists who ride all other types of bikes.2

In addition, the total highway traffic volume for all vehicles has increased. Vehicle miles traveled increased 12.4 percent in New York State from 2000 to 2006.

Furthermore, the marketing of speed by vehicle manufacturers and the media is a growing problem. From television commercials to video games and motorcycle enthusiast Web sites, audiences are fed a constant message that speed is fun and normal. This is coupled with the elimination or weakening of helmet laws in some states and the proliferation of the use of novelty helmets. Recent research by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showed that novelty helmets offer virtually no protection in crashes.3

Finally, there has been an increase of older, less experienced motorcycle drivers. According to the NHTSA, fatalities for riders aged 50 and older have increased over 100 percent from 2001 to 2005. These older drivers also lack driver training. In 2006, only one-quarter of new motorcycle licensees participated in the training course offered by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles.


Addressing the Problem


The NHTSA published a comprehensive Motorcycle Safety Program Plan in 2006, which covers everything from data and research to helmets, licensing, impairment, and even international factors. In conclusion, the plan states: “The problem of motorcycle fatalities and injuries is not NHTSA’s alone to solve. To reduce the needless injuries and deaths on our Nation’s roadways, NHTSA urges States, local jurisdictions, national organizations, rider groups, manufacturers, insurers, and all individuals—riders and drivers—to take responsibility for this growing problem by doing everything in their power to ensure a safe and enjoyable ride for all motorcyclists, every trip, every time.”4

Safety professionals from around the United States are concerned with the current trend, and many groups are studying ways to address the problem. On September 11, 2007, after extensive research, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) conducted hearings on motorcycle crashes and issued recommendations, including a recommendation to all states to require all motorcycle drivers and passengers to wear Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 218–compliant helmets.

The role of the law enforcement community in addressing this problem is fairly clear: to enforce existing vehicle and traffic laws. Yet traditional enforcement methods, as they relate to stopping motorcycles for offenses such as speeding and reckless driving, are proving problematic. This is especially true for a certain segment of the motorcycling population: young males operating racing-style motorcycles. Unlawful fleeing is commonplace with this group and is compounded by the growing concern for police pursuits. Police officers are now often reluctant to pursue a fleeing motorcyclist, and supervisors are much more likely than in the past to terminate a pursuit if one begins. As a result, some motorcyclists, aware of these factors, are now more likely to flee, compounding the problem. It is also common for many of these riders to obscure their license plates to avoid identification.


New York Fights Back


High-risk and reckless operation poses a tremendous danger for motorcyclists, police, and the motoring public and contributes to the grim trend outlined in this article. The death of New York State Trooper Craig J. Todeschini is a tragic example. On April 23, 2006, Trooper Todeschini was pursuing a reckless motorcyclist on State Route 91 in Onondaga County (central New York). Trooper Todeschini lost control and crashed into a tree, later succumbing to his injuries. The motorcyclist was later apprehended, charged, and convicted of aggravated criminally negligent homicide and reckless driving. He was sentenced to seven years in state prison. The untimely death of this trooper resulted in legislation that created a new “unlawful fleeing” law in New York. Before this law was enacted, the most serious charge that could normally be lodged against a fleeing motorist (absent the death of the pursuing officer) was reckless driving, a misdemeanor, and failure to comply with a police officer, a traffic infraction. Although no law can bring Trooper Todeschini back to his loved ones, it is hoped that this new law will prevent at least some pursuits in the future.

None of this is news to the enforcement community. What is new is the approach taken by the New York State Police (NYSP) to combat this problem. On October 7, 2007, the NYSP conducted a very successful pilot motorcycle enforcement initiative on Interstate 84 in Dutchess County (in the Hudson Valley area). The purpose of this pilot program was to measure the efficacy of conducting motorcycle safety enforcement checkpoints, which are much like commercial vehicle enforcement checkpoints. An essential element of this program was the use of aircraft to assist in the apprehension of any motorcyclist who might attempt to flee.

State troopers, along with officers from the Dutchess County Sheriff’s Office and the East Fishkill and Kent Police Departments, conducted a motorcycle checkpoint at a rest area 17 miles west of the Connecticut state line. The checkpoint was conducted concurrently with an annual motorcycle event held approximately 25 miles to the east in Connecticut. This ensured a sufficient volume of motorcycle traffic to justify the substantial number of resources involved. Also participating in the checkpoint were investigators from the State Police Special Investigations Unit (SP-SIU) and the Department of Motor Vehicles Division of Field Investigations Unit (DMV-FIU), both of which specialize in stolen motorcycles.

All motorcyclists were directed by three portable variable message signs (VMSs) to exit the Interstate into the rest area. Once in the rest area, riders were directed to a coned-off area, where they were inspected by members of the State Police Motorcycle Unit, SP-SIU, and DMV-FIU. Traffic tickets were subsequently written by troopers and other law enforcement officers. Safety violations, such as illegal helmets and unlicensed operation, were the primary focus of officers, although riders were cited for other violations as well, including illegal exhaust systems, for example. Investigators inspected selected bikes for suspected vehicle identification number (VIN) issues. Public information and educational materials were distributed to all riders and passengers. In fact, the safety and education aspect was stressed at a preoperation briefing, where all aspects of the detail were discussed.

The NYSP took great care to plan for fleeing motorcyclists and in fact fully expected flights to happen. In an effort to apprehend any such fleeing riders, an NYSP Chevrolet Camaro (a designated chase car) was positioned near the entrance to the rest area. Another patrol vehicle with a license plate reader unit was also positioned near the entrance. At the first exit down the road from the motorcycle checkpoint, the NYSP set up a seat belt checkpoint both to apprehend any fleeing bikers who attempted to jump off at the next available exit and to make use of the personnel waiting for them at that site. Finally, an aerial speed enforcement detail was conducted approximately five miles down the road from the motorcycle checkpoint, both to have aircraft already in the air in the event of a pursuit and to use the aircraft for additional speed enforcement.

Briefings were conducted both before and after the checkpoint event at the East Fishkill barracks nearby. These briefings were important for a number of reasons. Since this was a new concept for all involved, the first briefing provided an opportunity to present an overview of the program and explain all operational aspects, including officer safety, communications, and motorcyclist safety information and education. The NYSP emphasized its desire to avoid pursuits, consistent with existing policy. The use of aircraft as part of this operation was expected almost certainly to eliminate the need for pursuits. The postevent briefing provided an opportunity for feedback and lessons learned. A media release that again emphasized motorcycle safety provided relevant information to the public. Numerous newspaper and radio outlets reported positively on the event.

By most measures, this operation was a success. Most importantly, it was conducted safely, for the police officers involved and the motoring public, and no motorcyclist attempted to flee. Eleven motorcyclists did pass the entrance to the rest area without stopping, but once the marked patrol vehicle pulled out behind them, all of them stopped and were inspected (all claimed not to have seen the VMS messages). Approximately 280 bikes passed through the inspection zone, of which 225 were inspected. To avoid backups during heavy-volume periods, 55 riders were waved through the checkpoint. Of the 104 traffic tickets issued, the most common violation was for operating with an unapproved helmet (41 tickets issued), while the second most common violation was for illegal exhaust (7 citations issued). Three motorcycles were referred for further investigation for nonconforming VINs.


Next Steps


The winter months following the pilot project were used to evaluate the project further and to gather intelligence on which events would be most effective to target in 2008. With support from the NHTSA through a grant from the New York State Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee, the agency plans to conduct approximately 15 enforcement details across the state in the 2008 riding season.

In addition to conducting these enforcement checkpoints, the state police will assign troopers from its Motorcycle Unit to conduct public information and education activities at motorcycle events across the state, such as Americade, one of the country’s largest annual motorcycle events. Americade brings together 25,000 bikers for a full week each summer in Lake George, New York. NYSP outreach activities at such events will include conducting courtesy inspections, with incentives provided. Essentially, troopers will be selling a safety message by interacting with motorcycle enthusiasts and distributing educational materials.

At the time of writing, six checkpoints have been conducted in four State Police Troops across New York. Early indications point to a successful strategy. The most common violation noted at these checkpoints is the use of illegal helmets. Inclement weather has been a complicating factor at some of the checkpoints, which resulted in significantly reduced motorcycle volume. To date, no pursuits have occurred, and media coverage has been widespread and positive.

In recent years, law enforcement agencies have made significant progress in highway safety in curtailing impaired driving, improving occupant protection, and reducing overall fatalities. Unfortunately, the exact opposite trend is taking place with motorcycles. The NYSP is hopeful that this first step toward a concerted statewide effort will help to reverse this trend in New York State.

For further information about the New York State Police motorcycle safety and enforcement program, readers may contact the author.

This article is dedicated to the memory of New York State Trooper Craig J. Todeschini.

Notes:

1National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “Motorcycles,” Traffic Safety Facts, 2006 Data, DOT HS 810 806, March 2008, http://www.nhtsa.com/portal/nhtsa_static_file_downloader.jsp?file=/staticfiles/DOT/NHTSA/NCSA/Content/TSF/2006/810806.pdf (accessed June 3, 2008).
2Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Status Report 42, no. 9 (September 2007), http://www.iihs.org/sr/pdfs/sr4209.pdf (accessed May 23, 2008).
3Ibid., 5.
4National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2006 Motorcycle Safety Program Plan, DOT HS 810 615, June 2006, http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/pedbimot/motorcycle/MotorcycleSafety.pdf (accessed May 23, 2008), 31.


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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 7, July 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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