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Back to Archives | Back to July 2009 Contents 

Highway Safety Initiatives

The Rising Tide of Motorcycle Deaths

By Richard J. Ashton, Chief of Police (Retired), Frederick, Maryland; and Grant Technical Management Manager, IACP

he pleasant weather that summer supplies, the desire to shed everyday responsibilities for the allure the open air offers, and the need for a more economical means of travel in these fiscally challenging times entice individuals to ride motorcycles. These are very valid reasons for riding, but they also could prove deadly.

Motorcyclists represented 13 percent of 2007’s total traffic fatalities1 and were the sole category of fatalities to rise,2 even though motorcycles accounted for barely 3 percent of all registered U.S. vehicles in 2006 and 0.4 percent of all vehicle miles traveled. Seven percent more motorcyclists were killed in 2007 than in 2006—5,154 lives lost compared with 4,837—and were about 35 times more likely than passenger vehicle occupants to die in traffic crashes. Over the last 10 years, 90 percent of the motorcyclists killed were men, and 77 percent were Caucasian.3 A pattern from a decade of increases emerges from an examination of NHTSA figures: older Caucasian males not wearing helmets, riding larger bikes on weekends, using alcohol, speeding, and holding improper driver’s licenses are more likely to be involved in fatal motorcycle crashes.

Fatalities among motorcyclists 40 years and older increased a whopping 263 percent between 1997 and 2007, and deaths of motorcyclists riding cycles with 1,001 to 1,500 cc (cubic centimeter) engines increased 151 percent between 1997 and 2007.

While 28 percent of all fatally injured motorcycle riders in 2007 had blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) of .08 grams per deciliter (g/dL) or higher, two age groups—45–49 and 40–44—accounted for the highest percentage of fatally injured motorcycle riders with BACs of .08 g/dL or higher: 41 percent and 37 percent, respectively. Additionally, 65 percent of motorcycle riders killed in single-vehicle crashes on weekend nights had BACs of .08 g/dL or higher.

Forty-one percent of all motorcycle riders killed in 2006 and 2007—and 55 percent of those with BACs of .08 g/dL or higher—were not wearing helmets, even though unhelmeted motorcyclists are 40 percent more likely to suffer fatal head injuries than helmeted ones.4

The Highway Safety Act of 1966 generated in 1967 a motorcycle safety standard that included a requirement that states adopt universal helmet use laws or lose a portion of their federal aid highway construction funds. This standard caused 47 states and the District of Columbia to enact such laws by 1975, when Congress unfortunately chose to eliminate that requirement, as well as the withholding of those funds. Universal helmet use statutes significantly increase helmet use and are easily enforceable because of riders’ high visibility: they either are or are not wearing helmets.5 The only real question about those wearing helmets is whether the headgear meets the minimum performance requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 218. Sadly, by 2007, the number of universal helmet use laws had eroded to 20 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.6 There are even three states that do not require helmet use by anyone.7

For example, on July 1, 2000, Florida repealed its universal helmet use law and exempted from helmet wear in its new statute those riders over 21 years old covered by an insurance policy providing for at least $10,000 in medical benefits for injuries incurred as a result of a crash while operating or riding on a motorcycle. Fatalities rose from 164 in 1999 to 241 in 2000 and to 358 in 2003.8 Notably, deaths of unhelmeted riders under 21 years, to whom the law still was applicable, soared 188 percent.9 Total gross costs charged to hospital-admitted motorcyclists with head, brain, or skull injuries more than doubled in the 30 months before and after the law change.

Finally, one in four motorcycle riders involved in fatal crashes in 2007 lacked a driver’s license appropriate for motorcycle operation. Notably, this fact identified a significant underlying issue: riders without proper driver’s licenses have arguably never completed formal basic or refresher motorcycle rider training courses or learned the skills required to ride safely. In 2008, only three states—Florida, Maine, and Rhode Island—required rider education prior to licensing; 18 states required such education for subsets of riders, for example, those under 18 or 21 years old; and 29 states and the District of Columbia required absolutely no rider education prior to licensing.10

Clearly, motorcyclist deaths are a serious national problem that presents myriad opportunities to correct, such as impounding motorcycles whose riders are not properly licensed, linking motorcycle purchases to owners’ driver’s license statuses, mandating the completion of rider education prior to licensing, and requiring the universal wearing of helmets. The IACP Executive Committee has recognized motorcycle safety as one of the most important legislative priorities for the 111th U.S. Congress.11 Let’s continue to partner, share strategies, and save lives. ■


1Unless otherwise noted, statistics in this column were derived from the U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) National Center for Statistics and Analysis, Traffic Safety Facts: 2007 Data Motorcycles, NHTSA publication no. DOTHS 810 990, October 2008, (accessed May 14, 2009).
2NHTSA National Center for Statistics and Analysis, Traffic Safety Facts: 2007 Traffic Safety Annual Assessment—Highlights, NHTSA publication no. DOTHS 811 017, August 2008, (accessed May 14, 2009).
3U.S. Department of Transportation, Action Plan to Reduce Motorcycle Fatalities, DOT publication no. DOTHS 810 855, October 2007, (accessed May 29, 2009).
4NHTSA National Center for Statistics and Analysis, Traffic Safety Facts: Motorcycle Helmet Use Laws, NHTSA publication no. DOT HS 810 887W, January 2008, (accessed May 21, 2009).
5NHTSA, Evaluation of the Repeal of Motorcycle Helmet Laws in Kentucky and Louisiana, NHTSA publication no. DOT HS 809 530, October 2003, (accessed May 13, 2009).
6NHTSA, Traffic Safety Facts: Motorcycle Helmet Use Laws.
8Linda Cosgrove, “Historical Perspective of Motorcycle Helmet Laws,” presented at SAE Conference, May 14, 2007, (accessed May 27, 2009).
9NHTSA, Traffic Safety Facts: Motorcycle Helmet Use Laws.
10Motorcycle Safety Foundation, Cycle Safety Information, March 26, 2009, (accessed May 13, 2009).
11IACP Legislative Agenda for the 111th Congress, March 13, 2009, 19, (accessed May 14, 2009).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 8, July 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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