After a decade of steady increases, motorcyclist deaths nose-dived last year, possibly due to bikers watching their budgets in a sour economy.
The study, set for release Thursday, indicates a 16 percent drop in U.S. motorcycle fatalities through the first nine months of 2009 compared to the same period in the previous year. It projects at least a 10 percent decline in fatalities over the entire year, or about 530 fewer deaths.
The 5,290 motorcyclist deaths in 2008 was the highest ever.
The study — authored by safety consultant James Hedlund, a former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration official — is drawn from preliminary fatality data from all 50 states, although data from some states was incomplete. The study was sponsored by the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state traffic safety agencies,
There is nothing in the data to indicate the cause of the sudden decline, but it is most likely due in part to a cutback in recreational driving by motorcyclists, Hedlund said in an interview.
"Much motorcycle riding is recreational, not transportation," Hedlund said. "What gets cut in bad economic times is money you spend on recreation, not money you spend on the necessities of life like getting back and forth."
According to the report, several state safety officials said they have seen a decline in motorcycle use and sales in their states.
States have issued about 7.5 million special motorcycle operator licenses, which require motorcycle safety training; There are about 3 million other bikers on the road who do not have special licenses, according to the Motorcycle Riders Foundation.
Jeff Hennie, a foundation vice president, said the study is "great news," but he disagreed that motorcycle use overall is down.
While sales of large bikes are lagging, sales of smaller bikes and scooters — which qualify as motorcycles if they have an engine of at least 50 cubic centimeters — have burgeoned due to higher gas prices, Hennie said.
"Motorcycles are affordable, they get great gas mileage, and people are saying, 'Maybe I'll leave the F250 (a Ford pickup truck) in the driveway and take the motorcycle,'" Hennie said.
Other reasons cited in the study for the decline: Fewer beginning motorcyclists, an increase in priority given to state motorcycle safety programs, an increased awareness of motorcycles by other drivers and colder, wetter weather in some states during the riding season.
It doesn't appear helmet laws played a significant role in the decline. Hennie said there were 20 states last year with laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear helmets, about the same as the previous year.
Motorcyclists also tend to be older now than in past decades. In 1980, the average age was 24. Today, motorcyclists are nearly as likely to be in their 40s as in their 20s, Hennie said.
The popularity of motorcycles has surged in the past decade, particularly among middle-aged men. More women are also riding motorcycles.
The economic recession has translated "into fewer leisure riders," said Vernon Betkey, chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association, "and we suspect that the trend of inexperienced baby boomers buying bikes may have subsided."
On the Net:
Governors Highway Safety Association http://www.ghsa.org/
The Motorcycle Riders Foundation http://www.mrf.org/
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