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Uneasy Riders

An insurance report that questions the safety habits of motorcyclists past 40 has stirred debate, pro and con, among enthusiasts.

April 17, 2002|KATHLEEN DOHENY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's two hours until noon on a sunny Sunday, and the glare from the chrome on row after row of Harleys, Hondas, BMWs and other bikes parked at the Rock Store on Mulholland Highway is blinding.

The motorcycle owners are milling about the legendary restaurant and biker hangout, admiring their two-wheeled transport and trading tips on accessories and repairs.

Most in the crowd are men--91% of motorcycle owners are, according to a recent motorcycle industry study--although a few women stand and rock on their boots before tucking their hair up into their helmets.

On closer inspection, a good part of the crowd appears to be age 40 or older. Some say they have been riding since they were teenagers. Others are new to the sport.

The latter group has safety experts--as well as some of the old-time riders--worried.

Across the country, the number of middle-age motorcyclists is rising.

And the number of them being injured and killed each year is rising dramatically, according to a controversial special status report released in January by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group funded by the insurance industry.

The death rate among 40-and-older motorcycle riders has been rising steadily since 1990, the insurance institute reported. And since 1997 the rate has soared by 68%, compared with a 20% jump among cyclists younger than 40.

Because of its implication that older motorcyclists are more dangerous than younger riders--to themselves and to others--the IIHS report has drawn fire from the motorcycle industry as well as from devoted riders.

Both groups contend that the rising death and injury rates simply reflect the fast-growing population of older riders and charge that the IIHS report failed to take into account demographic shifts.

"Yes, older motorcyclists are crashing more, [because] there are more of them," said Edward Moreland, vice president of government relations for the American Motorcyclist Assn. The riders group calls the IIHS report "hopelessly flawed."

In 1980, 15.1% of motorcycle owners were 40 or older, but by 1998, 43.1% fell into that demographic group, said Mike Mount, a spokesman for the Motorcycle Industry Council and the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.

The shift--which insurance institute spokesman Russ Rader insists is accounted for in the IIHS accident and death analyses--has occurred as motorcycles have become more expensive.

Despite the motorcycling community's widespread condemnation of the insurance industry report, old-timers acknowledge that some newcomers don't take safety seriously.

Longtime riders Matt Kelch, 65, a retired airline pilot, and Neil Reynolds, 58, a Woodland Hills architect, said they fear that the slipshod habits of novices--those older than 40 as well as those younger--will invite more government regulation of motorcycling.

"We wear protective gear," said Kelch as he rested at the Rock Store, pointing to his leather jacket, boots and a so-called full-face helmet that protects the wearer's head, face and neck.

Although helmets are mandatory in California, some novices, he said, wear "beanie" helmets that cover only the top of the skull and provide much less protection. Some newcomers, Kelch and Reynolds said, take insufficient instruction, try to go too fast and carry passengers before they are skilled enough to handle them.

In California, those who want to drive a motorcycle need a Class M1 license. After getting an instruction permit, motorcyclists who are 21 and older can either complete the California Highway Patrol's 16-hour motorcycle course and provide the completion certificate to the Department of Motor Vehicles, or take the motorcycle driving test at the DMV, with three chances to pass. Those younger than 21 must take the CHP course.

Costs of the program are $75 for those under 21 and an average of $200 (the price varies from locale to locale) for older riders . For information on the CHP training course, call (800) 227-4337.

Most of those who come to motorcycling late in life say fulfillment of a long-delayed wish, not midlife crisis, brought them to the sport. For some, it is the first time they have been able to afford both a car for basic transportation and a motorcycle for fun.

Gery Moret, 65, said he had wanted a motorcycle for as long as he can remember--but his mother always worried that it was unsafe. His mother died a few years ago, though, and then his son, Jim Moret, 45, a Westwood broadcast journalist, got into motorcycling.

Now the elder Moret has a Honda CB900 Custom and his son has a Harley-Davidson water-cooled V-Rod. Jim Moret said it's the social component, not the speed, that attracts him. On weekends, he will take off from the Westside with three or four friends, ride to a coffeehouse for a stop, then to a breakfast stop, on to the Rock Store and back home.

Mark Goulston, 54, a West Los Angeles psychiatrist who recently took up motorcycling, said the getting-away-from-it-all advantages also are attractive to older riders.

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