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Caveat: Riders Risk is Increasing

Riding a motorcycle is getting riskier each day. According to preliminary estimates of the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System, deaths in 2006 increased by 5.4 percent over 2005 and are up for the ninth consecutive year. Additionally, fatalities have increased 125 percent over ten years - a period in which registrations crept above 50 percent.

The depiction is bleak even when adjusted for more bikes running more miles. While the death rate for people in vehicles dropped by about 17 percent for each mile traveled over that period, the rate for motorcycle riders more than doubled, the report continued. Those findings coincide with factors including an increasing average age of riders, more powerful engines and the repeal of state laws requiring universal helmet use. According to Ted R. Miller, a researcher at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, wearing a helmet cuts the risk of death by about 37 percent.

At the National Transportation Safety Board, the death toll reflects alarming figures. It is now bigger than the number of deaths in airplane, marine, railroad and pipeline accidents combined. Deborah A. P. Hersman, a member of the board who presided over a two-day motorcycle safety forum last September, said in an e-mail message, "This is the only mode of transportation in which the overall number of fatalities and the rate of fatalities continue to steadily rise, and yet there is no public outcry."

While it is very likely that older riders would be more experienced and less apt to take risks, other factors may lie behind their portion of the increases in fatality. "It's the baby boomers," said Barbara L. Harsha, the executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, a Washington-based group of state officials. Many riders are returning to bikes years after having given up riding, and "they don't realize how powerful the bikes are," she said.

In raw numbers at least, government statistics support the claim about older riders even if the data cannot assign blame for the fatal mishaps. Umesh Shankar, an analyst at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), said that the number of fatalities among riders 40 and over had more than tripled.

Motorcycle Helmet Laws by state, the industry said the statistics are misleading. The Motorcycle Industry Council, a trade association, said that the fatality rate, which takes into account miles traveled, has been calculated incorrectly, in part because the Transportation Department does not accurately tally the number of miles ridden. To note, government statistics said that motorcycles traveled 9.6 billion miles in 2003. Meanwhile, the industry council's research intimated they actually traveled 20.6 billion miles.

The Motorcycle Safety Foundation, which is allied with the industry council, does agree that returning riders can be a problem. Dean L. Thompson, a spokesman for the safety group, said that older riders should "not be in denial about their skills, which decline over time. Riders should know their limits."

A technology called electronic antiskid systems, which has been effective in preventing auto crashes, is not applicable to two-wheel vehicles. Compared to motorcycles, cars and trucks safety systems are drastically improving. The BMW reset tool and other auto parts are regularly enhanced to cater to modern driving needs. But traction control devices are available on many BMW motorcycles.

Lou O'Connell, protected by motorcycle air bags, is the recent survivor of an otherwise fatal accident. "It's amazing," said O'Connell, who escaped the accident with only bruises on his shins. "It was so nice, I couldn't resist, and I couldn't resist the American dream," said O'Connell, an immigrant from Ireland. "The American dream is to ride a motorcycle without a helmet."

About The Author Anthony Fontanelle is a 35-year-old automotive buff who grew up in the Windy City. He does freelance work for an automotive magazine when he is not busy customizing cars in his shop.
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