Motorcycle Fatalities Surge: 5 Keys to Staying Alive When You Drive

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Get your motor running, head out on the highway -- but don't become a statistic. Take these simple precautions.

Pop quiz: What takes one minute but will reduce your risk of death by more than a third?

Answer: Putting on a helmet when you ride on a motorcycle.

Okay, that was an easy one.

But even riders who wear helmets aren’t always taking all of the possible — and relatively simple — safety precautions that could save them from severe injuries or death.

A just-released Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) report notes there was a 10 percent increase in motorcycle riders’ deaths in 2015 compared with 2014.

Even more telling: While motorcycles make up only 3 percent of registered vehicles in the United States and travel less than 1 percent of vehicle miles on U.S. roads, they account for almost 15 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities, 26 times more than passenger vehicles, according to the GHSA’s “Spotlight on Highway Safety: Motorcyclist Traffic Fatalities by State 2015.”

So, if you or someone you love is a motorcycle enthusiast (we get that — open road, fresh air, etc.) here are the most important motorcycle safety tips for you:

1. Choose your helmet carefully — then wear it

Helmets approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation must meet certain criteria, such as thick inner liners and sturdy chin straps. Skullcaps and other types of unapproved helmets do not provide adequate protection. Some contend that helmets may cause neck and head injuries during crashes, impair vision or even cause riders to faint from heat. Yet statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that more neck and head injuries — and certainly more deaths — occur when riders fail to wear helmets. The Motorcycle Industry Council offers an online resource so you can check how your helmet rates.

There are 32 states that currently do not require all riders to wear helmets, according to the GHSA report. One of them is Michigan, which repealed its helmet law in 2012 — which was a factor, according to the report, in the 23 percent increase in motorcycle fatalities in the state in 2015.

2. Opt for anti-lock brakes

If you or someone you love is in the market for a new motorcycle, make anti-lock brakes a priority feature. According to the GHSA, one favorable trend is “an increasing availability of anti-lock brakes, which have been shown to decrease fatal motorcycle crashes.”

According to the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, anti-lock brakes only kick in when you brake hard — helping you stop faster with less chance of falling — and don’t affect normal braking:

No matter how skilled a rider you are, you can’t predict when a driver ahead of you will cut you off, forcing you to brake hard. Road surfaces can be unexpectedly sandy or more slippery than they look.

With ABS, riders can brake fully without fear of locking up.

3. Skip the spirits

Sure, driving under the influence is never a good idea, but it’s more likely to be fatal if you’re riding a motorcycle, which requires more skill than driving a car.

Motorcyclists with blood-alcohol concentrations of 0.08 or higher account for 29 percent of fatal crashes, the GHSA reported. Impaired drivers of passenger cars and light trucks accounted for 22 percent of overall fatal crashes. Only 2 percent of large truck drivers involved in fatal crashes were impaired. Officials in Iowa credit part of its 24 percent decrease in motorcycle fatalities from 2014 to 2015 to efforts to discourage events such as “pub crawls.”

4. Polish up your skills

Motorcycle experts note that many middle-aged riders are returning to the road after giving it up for a period. Florida reported a 50 percent increase in motorcycle fatalities from 2014 to 2015 among riders ages 35 to 44 and a 47 percent increase among riders ages 55 to 64. Even in Wisconsin, where weather prohibits year-round riding, the average age of motorcyclists who died in crashes was 47 in 2015, up from an average age of 20 in 1995. Sure, older riders may have motorcycle licenses, but their skills could be rusty, and as the GHSA report notes, motorcycles have become more powerful on average than they were in the past.

Courses for motorcycle riders vary among states but are generally available for everyone from novices to experienced riders. Reputable courses are available nationwide from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Don’t forget to check with your insurance company to see if taking such a course will get you a discount.

5. Keep it legal

Riders without licenses account for 25 percent of fatally injured motorcyclists, reported the GHSA. Obtain a license before you ride. That likely requires you to demonstrate the skills you need to operate the machine, but staying alive is worth it, right?

What’s your opinion on helmet requirements for motorcyclists? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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