Motorcycle fatalities in Florida drop since 2009

Apr 22, 2011

The following article was published in the Tampa Tribune on April 22, 2011:

Motorcycle Fatalities in Florida drop since 2009

By Keith Morelli

Chris Councilor hops on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle every chance he gets. He’s been riding for 15 years and now leads a Wesley Chapel group that rumbles out on trips of 150 miles or so every other weekend.

Bikers nowadays are safer than when he started out two-wheeling it, he said. That may explain the down tick in the number of fatalities involving motorcyclists over the first nine months of last year after years or increases in biker deaths. There were 80 fewer over that period than the previous year. In Florida, there were seven fewer motorcycle fatalities during that time.

Councilor, who organizes rides with the 87-member Wesley Chapel Cruisers, said that bikers these days are more aware of their surroundings.

They are constantly watching for distracted drivers, he said, and motorists are more aware of motorcycles on the roads mainly because there are a lot more out there.

The dangers to bikers mostly are vehicle drivers on phones, either talking or texting, or motorists just not paying attention when they switch lanes or make turns, he said.

“They don’t look for you,” he said, “and as a biker, you develop a sixth sense, you anticipate people’s actions. You are hyper-aware.

“The groups we ride with are more safety focused,” he said. “We use hand and foot signals. Plus in groups, bikers are easier to see.”

Motorcycle deaths dropped 2 percent over the first nine months of last year.

The report issued by the Governors Highway Safety Association said that over the first nine months of 2009, 3,359 bikers were killed, compared to 3,279 over the first three quarters last year.

In Florida, 293 bikers died in wrecks over the first nine months of 2009, compared to 286 over the same time frame last year, seven fewer. Florida was second in the number of fatalities behind Texas, which had 311. California’s overall 2010 figures were unavailable, though there were 166 biker fatalities through June. Vermont posted the fewest number of motorcycle deaths over the first nine months of 2010, with two.

“Seven is a good number,” said Ann Howard, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, referring to the drop in Florida fatalities. She said the state’s requirement that bikers seeking a motorcycle endorsement on their license take a safety training course is a big reason for the dip.

Figures for the fourth quarter were not yet available. Howard said they would be released in June.

The overall decline comes on the heels of a dramatic 16 percent drop in 2009, which followed 11 straight years of steady increases in motorcycle deaths.

The good news was tempered by the climbing numbers of fatalities during the third quarter of 2010.

Nationally, fatalities were down 25 percent during the first three months of last year and remained down by 1 percent over next three months. Then they rose dramatically in the third quarter of the year, the report said.

Motorcycle fatalities had more than doubled since the late 1990s, peaking in 2008 at 5,312 deaths. But they plunged in 2009. The cause of the drop is unclear. All states offer motorcycle safety courses. Some states, including Florida, have mounted motorcycle safety awareness campaigns.

In 2009, nearly 8 million motorcycles were registered in the United States and in Florida, bikers made up just over 6 percent of the motoring public, up from 4 percent the year before.

The study said that the number of bikers wearing federally-approved helmets dropped 13 percent in the first nine months of 2010. A helmet that meets federal standards reduces the wearer’s chances of being killed in an accident by about 40 percent, safety advocates say.

While 20 states require motorcyclists to wear helmets, only 13 states specify that the helmets must meet federal standards, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Michele Harris, director of AAA Traffic Safety Culture, works closely with the Florida Motorcycle Coalition, which includes members of rider groups, biker advocates, motorcycle dealers, insurance representatives and others.

She said that the reasons for the down tick remain a mystery.

“There is nothing specific as to why there is a reduction,” she said. “We can speculate about some of the things that are going on. AAA is studying the crash reports that may talk about the reasons, but conclusions won’t be out until August.”

She said safety training and awareness campaigns likely are a big part of the reduction.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of education going on out there that talks to riders about not drinking and riding,” she said, “and wearing protective gear and wearing helmets.”

She said there are indications that more bikers in Florida are wearing helmets.

Whatever the reason, the report is good news, she said.

“It’s excellent that we are seeing a trend downward,” she said, even though it seems more and more bikers are out there, especially in Florida where motorcyclists hit the highways year-round.

Steve DiFiore rides a Suzuki Intruder and is an organizer of group rides for the 210-member Tampa Motorcycle Riders club. Twice, he has been involved in bike wrecks and both times he was cut off by a motor vehicle.

The first time, he was wearing a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers and he got fairly scraped up, he said. After that, he began to wear protective gear, a jacket, gloves and boots. He always wears a helmet.

In the second wreck, the gear protected him, he said.

“What you wear is a personal choice,” he said, “but, I always recommend safety gear.”

Councilor, the Harley rider from Wesley Chapel, said he has started taking his bike to work occasionally to save on gas.

“I have car and a bike, but more recently, I’ve been riding my bike more than the car,” he said. “I ride whenever I can because my bike gets 50 miles a gallon. And, it’s more fun.”

Getting out on the open road is always invigorating, he said, in spite of the inherent dangers.

“It’s good to clear your head,” he said, “to get the wind in your hair and the bugs in your teeth.”

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