Motorcycle safety activists worried about baby boomer deaths
Friday, January 21st 2005, 2:00 pm
News On 6
PORTLAND, Maine (AP) _ Mike Cullinan made a midlife course correction, breaking up with his girlfriend and buying himself a big Harley-Davidson motorcycle: a 620-pound Dyna Low Rider with a 1,450-cc, fuel-injected engine.
Lots of baby boomers and middle-aged Americans like the 38-year-old Cullinan are getting motorcycles, whether to recapture their lost youth or pull through some kind of midlife crisis.
And now, as a result, riders 40 and over are accounting for an alarming number of motorcycling deaths.
Safety experts suspect older riders with a lot of disposable income are buying more machine than their aging, out-of-practice bodies can handle.
Across the country, the annual number of motorcycle fatalities among 40-plus riders tripled over the past decade to 1,674 in 2003, while deaths among riders under 30 dropped slightly to 1,161, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
According to NHTSA, the average age of motorcyclists killed in accidents rose from 32 in 1994 to 38 in 2003.
``It's really kind of astonishing. The ages of these fatalities are so high. You would think it would be all of the young kids on those fast bikes, but it's not,'' said Carl Hallman, highway safety coordinator with the Maine Department of Public Safety.
The surge in deaths among older riders helped to push motorcycle fatalities higher overall. They jumped by nearly half during the past five years, from 2,483 in 1999 to 3,661 in 2003.
In Maine, 22 people were killed on motorcycles in 2004, the highest level in a decade. In New Hampshire, 29 died, versus nine the year before. In Vermont, there were 11 fatal crashes, more than in the three previous years combined. In all three states, riders in their 30s and older accounted for the most crashes.
``From a career standpoint, they have a little extra time and a little extra disposable income. The kids have grown up, so they're looking for hobbies,'' said Rae Tyson, a NHTSA spokesman who specializes in motorcycle safety.
As for why so many riders in their 40s, 50s and beyond are dying, big, powerful bikes appear to be part of the explanation. NHTSA data show that both engine size and deaths among riders with the largest class of engines rose during the past decade.
NHTSA figures also show that riders in their 30s and 40s who died were more likely than their younger counterparts to have been drinking.
In addition, safety experts say many older riders are either returning to motorcycling after many years or are trying it for the first time.
``They haven't ridden in 20 or 30 years, so their skills are rusty. Motorcycles have changed, and they're getting bigger motorcycles. And they're getting on without a refresher course,'' said Cathy Rimm, program director for Motorcycle Rider Education of Maine, a nonprofit organization that offers safety training.
Finally, safety officials point out that older riders' eyesight and reflexes are not what they once were.
``In our experienced-rider courses, we do take into account the way your body changes, that your reaction time will change and that your eyesight will change. There are changes older riders should make,'' said Mike Mount, spokesman for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation in Irvine, Calif.
Cullinan, a repair shop manager from Standish, had not ridden for 15 years, and his life underwent a big change when he broke off a relationship. He spent more than $18,000 on his black low rider with chrome.
``I went for the largest bike I could handle, or that I hope I can handle,'' he said.
Though Maine and many other states require classes for new riders to get motorcycle licenses, there are no such requirements for a license holder who decides to get on a bike for the first time in decades. No state requires continuing periodic education, said Kathy Van Kleeck of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.
Cullinan said his eyes were opened by the statistics. He has bought a helmet, which is not required in Maine, and is taking a refresher course this winter.
``I'm hoping I will learn something that'll make me safer,'' he said. ``I'll be riding this spring and summer with my eyes open.''