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Helping Motorcyclists Reduce Danger on the Road


As anyone who has ever ridden one will attest, few modes of transportation can match the magic--or the danger--of a motorcycle.

With spectacular mountain, desert and coastline roads and year-round riding weather, California is one of few areas that can offer a motorcyclist a more varied or beautiful setting for a Sunday ride.

Yet, lurking beneath the exhilaration is an ominous reality perhaps best summed up in the maxim that there are no fender benders in motorcycling; the rider is the fender.

"Motorcycling is definitely more dangerous than driving," said David Thom, director of the Head Protection Research Laboratory at the University of Southern California.

But, he adds, "You can also do a lot to reduce your risks."

According to Thom and other experts, statistics and studies establish that the key factor in motorcycle injuries and fatalities is not the cycle, but the rider.

First, eliminate those who are drunk or on drugs. The California Highway Patrol reports that between 1991 and 1995, 45% of the fatal accidents in which the motorcyclist was at fault were because of alcohol or drugs.

Then take away those who never bothered to qualify for a motorcycle license. They made up about 26% of motorcyclists but were involved in 64% of the state's fatal motorcycle accidents from 1986 to 1995, the CHP said.


California has taken aggressive steps to reduce motorcycle deaths and injuries by concentrating on riders. In addition to the much-publicized fight over a mandatory helmet law, the state has pushed for rider safety training courses, making them mandatory for motorcycle license applicants 18 and younger. Adults also are encouraged to take the courses. Those who pass the course are exempt from the riding portion of the DMV license test.

It appears to be working. Deaths and injuries from motorcycle accidents in California are dropping sharply.

Between 1986 and 1995, the CHP reported that fatal motorcycle accidents fell from 840 per year to 261.

The number of registered motorcyclists also dropped from 700,000 to 531,000 in the same period, but there were 1.2 fatalities per 1,000 registered vehicles in 1986 compared to 0.5 fatalities per 1,000 registrations in 1995, a drop of more than 50%.

"Fatal accidents have fallen faster than the number of registered motorcycles," said John Billheimer, an analyst with the Bay Area Transportation research firm Systan Inc.

During roughly the same period, the number of older motorcyclists--who have fewer accidents--increased, rising from an average age of 27 in 1980 to 33 in 1990.

In 1986, California had a motorcycle accident rate, including nonfatal crashes, of 43.3 per 1,000 registered motorcycles, well above the 30.8 rate for the rest of the United States, said Billheimer.

A decade later, there were 18.3 accidents per 1,000 registered motorcycles in California, compared with 18.9 in other states. All the more impressive, said Billheimer, considering that a survey by the Irvine-based Motorcycle Industry Council found that the average California motorcycle is ridden 700 miles more each year than the average cycle in other states.

And more recently, a Systan Inc. study found those who completed the state's safety program were only half as likely as other riders to be hurt or killed in accidents. Among those under 18, who were at most risk, accidents fell by 88%, according to the study.


After passage of the state's helmet law, UCLA researchers Jess Kraus and Corinne Peek found that the proportion of riders with severe head injuries decreased almost 20% among fatally injured riders and almost 30% among nonfatally injured riders.

Smart riders, say experts, also don protective motorcycle gear--not only a helmet but shoes or boots that extend past the ankles, gloves, leather or other long pants and a jacket to help protect the body. Top-quality modern motorcycle jackets have sophisticated shoulder, arm and spinal protection armor.

Thom of the Head Protection Research Library had one piece of advice for motorcyclists: "Take the common-sense steps because you cannot level the playing field once the laws of physics take over."

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