Tuesday, February 04, 2003

Learn to Ride Paranoid
Motorcycle fatalities are on the rise nationwide, according to NHTSA statistics.
U.S. motorcyclist deaths dropped consistently from 1980 to 1997, but now are jumping each year by the hundreds. In 1997, 2,116 motorcyclists were killed; in 2001, the number was up to 3,181, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
The story goes on to say that no one really knows why the U.S. numbers are up.
NHTSA cites many possible causes for the increased motorcycle death rate, among them that riders tend to be older - the average age of motorcyclists killed in crashes increased from 29.3 in 1990 to 36.3 in 2001.

Bigger bikes are doubtless another contributing factor, as engine size has increased by 25 percent on average from 769 cubic centimeters in 1990 to 959 cc in 2001.


But even those reasons together don't provide a full explanation, experts say.
To answer why this is happening would take an exhaustive study of motorcycle accidents and why they happen, something that the NHTSA says it won't do.

I've been thinking about this story for about a week now. I know that anecdotal evidence doesn't count for much where statistics are concerned, but I also know that statistics don't count for anything when I find myself in a dangerous situation on the motorcycle that I haven't prepared myself for.

As far as I can tell, a large portion of the spike in the stats can be blamed on new riders of all ages with little or no knowledge of how to ride (seemingly always on bikes that are way too big for them). Have you ever seen the pack of five or six guys on insanely powerful sportbikes riding around in t-shirts, shorts, and tennis shoes? Or how about the 100lb biker mamas on 600lb, 1200cc motorcycles that almost fall over at every stoplight (wearing a half helmet, jeans, and a flimsy leather vest)? I fear for the lives of these people, almost as much as I fear for my own on my daily commute.

Rider education seems to be a sure fire way to stem the escalating death toll. It's one thing to know that riding can be dangerous. It's quite another to get into the middle of a blind, decreasing radius turn at 60mph with no knowledge of counter steering or how to "look through" your turn. So where do we turn for an education?

The Ohio Department of Public safety runs Motorcycle Ohio, a program that is cautiously being credited with Ohio's lower than average motorcycle fatality rate.
Nationwide, motorcycle fatalities increased more than 50 percent from 1997 to 2001. In Ohio, they were up 14 percent during the same period, despite a 26 percent increase in the number of motorcycles registered in the state.
The MSF offers the Basic RiderCourse, a two day intro course that teaches "how to operate a motorcycle safely, with a lot of emphasis on the special skills and mental attitude necessary for dealing with traffic." I took the MSF Basic RiderCourse before I got my first motorcycle, and I credit it with saving my life on several occasions.

There are plenty of other opportunities available to riders of all skill levels. One of the local Memphis groups that I ride with is holding a motorcycle "rodeo" this spring. The focus will be on riding basics, learning new skills, and getting rid of bad motorcycling habits. Many motorcycle clubs hold similar events. Some states have their own motorcycle safety/education programs similar to the program in Ohio.

There are plenty of reasons that motorcycle fatalities are rising. Education, riding paranoid, and wearing the proper safety gear all the time are some of the things that we as riders can do to make sure we don't become one of those rising numbers.

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