As the number of highway fatalities overall decline, a trend has emerged in the data: Motorcycles are becoming increasingly dangerous.
The California Highway Patrol last month released preliminary data suggesting that the number of fatal motorcycle accidents has sharply increased over the past few years, roughly 124 percent since 2003.
So far numbers for 2008 show that over 500 riders were killed last year in motorcycle collisions.
In 2007, the last year for which complete data is available, there were 13,656 total motorcycle collisions reported, 463 of which resulted in a fatality of the rider involved.
Part of the reason for such a drastic increase in motorcycle collisions could be a growing population of riders.
The DMV estimates that California is home to more than 1.2 million licensed riders. Yolo County alone had 4,296 registered motorcycles and 6,268 licensed riders in 2008.
Motorcycles, which are legally defined as having two wheels and more than 150cc of power, require a special license and a skills class for riders under 21 that is offered through CHP, said Jan Mendoza, a spokesperson for DMV.
Advertised by CHP in an effort to increase rider safety and decrease the number of motorcycle accidents as a part of Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month this May, the basic course costs $250 for riders older than 21 and $150 for those under 21.
The California Office of Traffic Safety provided a $1.5 million dollar grant to fund two 30-second public service announcements to target new and returning riders.
Part of the reason for the focus on motorcycle safety is that motorcycles are the only segment of the driving population in which traffic deaths have risen over the past two years, said California OTS spokesperson Chris Cochran.
Motorcycle deaths have increased from 5 percent of all traffic-related deaths two years ago to 15 percent in 2008.
Accounting for part of the sharp rise in deaths are two specific demographics – older bikers coming back to riding and young riders buying powerful sports bikes – both of which get into trouble because of increased speed and acceleration, Cochran said.
“This is something that needs to be worked on in order to save lives,” he said. “The big message is to get riders into training, because motorcycles themselves have changed a lot in the last twenty years. Both new and older riders are finding that these machines are much more powerful than they can sometimes handle.“
The Basic RiderCourse offered at 124 training sites in California through the Motorcycle Safety Foundation trains both first time and returning riders in basic motorcycle knowledge, defensive driving and handling emergency situations in both hands-on and classroom settings.
“A lot of safety is simply handling the bike, knowing what you’re doing and what other people are doing out there on the road,” Cochran said.
With an ever-increasing number of students enrolled in the course – 70,469 last year, or an 11 percent increase from 2007 – the CHP is optimistic about seeing a corresponding decrease in accidents in the coming years, said Jaime Coffee, a spokesperson for CHP.
Yet safe driving is more than just knowing the rules and earning a license.
More dangerous than blind spots, drunk driving and lane splitting is traveling at unsafe speeds, Coffee said.
In 2007, nearly 30 percent of motorcycle collisions – 4,266 out of 13,656 – came as a result of traveling at unsafe speeds.
And ultimately, creating a safer highway environment is a shared responsibility for both drivers and motorcyclists, she said.
“California is a great place to ride, and more people are out doing it now because of the great weather,” Coffee said. “But there’s not a whole lot of protection when you’re on the bike. We really want people to get licensed, and even before that to go take a riding class. Even if it’s not your first time on a bike, but haven’t been on it for a few years, you may be a bit rusty.“
AARON BRUNER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.