Oregon Motorcycle Fatalities Rise with Aging Riders

October 26, 2007

The motorcycle fatality rate in Oregon is climbing along with the size of bikes’ engines and the age of riders.

The number of riders who are killed, as measured by deaths per 10,000 registered motorcycles and per million vehicle miles traveled, has steadily climbed while the overall motor vehicle fatality rate has fallen.

Nationally, the number of registered motorcycles rose 61 percent from 1995 to 2005, from 3.8 million to 6.1 million. The number increased 83 percent in Oregon during the same period, from 59,468 to 108,958.

Motorcycle deaths hit a low of 18 in 1999. But last year, there were 43 motorcycle deaths in the state, The Oregonian reported.

Nationally, the number of motorcycle deaths also dropped during the mid-1990s, reaching a low of 2,116 in 1997. But the death toll has increased every year since then; there were a record 4,810 motorcycle deaths in 2006.

Experts say there are no easy explanations for why the motorcycle death toll has continued to increase.

But in a 2006 analysis of the accident data, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said two trends are evident: Today’s motorcyclists are older than in the past, and they are driving bigger, more powerful bikes.

In 1990, motorcyclists 50 and older accounted for 10 percent of all bike owners. By 2003, the 50-and-older crowd represented 25 percent of motorcycle owners. During the same time, the average age of motorcycle owners rose from 33 to just older than 40.

Michael Durbin, the owner of Paradise Harley-Davidson in Tigard, said sales have increased every year during the four years he has owned the dealership.

He said his typical customers range in age from 40 into their 60s. Some first-time buyers are fulfilling a lifelong dream.

“I’ve had people say, ‘I wanted one all my life and I finally made my kid’s last tuition payment,'” Durbin said.

He noted that most of the bikes in the showroom today are equipped with larger engines than earlier-generation models. Durbin said that during the past two years, Harley-Davidson increased the engine size on most of its models from 1,450 cubic centimeters to 1,584 cc.

It is not just Harleys that have gotten burlier. According to data compiled by Motorcycle Industry Council, bikes with engines of at least 750 cc made up 40 percent of the U.S. market in 1990 but now account for more than three-quarters of the motorcycles on U.S. roads.

But Durbin and other veteran riders say they doubt that the size of the engines or the graying of the riders can fully explain the rising motorcycle death toll.

“It’s the motorcyclist,” said Steve Garets, a nationally recognized expert in motorcycle safety. “It is absolutely not the motorcycle.”

Garets is the director of Team Oregon, a partnership between the Oregon Department of Transportation and Oregon State University that provides motorcycle safety training in the state.

“It’s the boomers that are fueling this,” Garets said of the growing popularity of motorcycling.

Troy Costales, administrator of ODOT’S Traffic Safety Division, said there are about three motorcycle fatalities in rural Oregon for every one in an urban setting. The No. 1 cause, he said, was excessive speed going into corners.

“First and foremost, it is riders killing themselves,” he said.

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