N.H. Vows to Target Motorcycle Safety as Accident Deaths Rise

January 6, 2006

Around this time last year, when New Hampshire reported a dramatic increase in motorcycle accident deaths, the state announced it was working on a safety campaign directed specifically at motorcyclists.

A $100,000 campaign pleaded for caution by bikers and other drivers. Motorcycle safety courses were promoted.

But fatalities went up, by almost the same number as the 2004 increase that prompted the programs in the first place.

“In any of these endeavors, it’s like trying to turn a huge ocean liner,” said Peter Thomson, head of the state Highway Safety Agency. “You can’t just take a right turn. It takes time to change course and maneuver.”

A state task force on motorcycle safety will continue maneuvering, building on last year’s programs and pressing for new ones, geared particularly at motorcycle driver training.

“It’s pretty obvious if we can get people into the (training) course, we are going to save more lives,” he said.

One of the 27 people killed in 2004 and two of the 42 killed last year took the formal motorcycle riding course, he said.

Thomson blamed the increase in motorcycle deaths from 9 in 2003, to 27 in 2004, up to 42 last year on several factors: more motorcycles, not enough drivers taking the training, good weather that extended the riding season and more baby boomers buying machines they can’t necessarily handle.

“You’ve got the baby-booming generation and they are using the money they have saved up through their lifetime to buy these motorcycles,” Thomson said. “They are bigger, and far more powerful than when they used to ride them back in high school.”

Twenty-two of the 42 motorcycle fatalities last year were 40 or older.

New Hampshire does not require adult motorcycle operators or passengers to wear helmets. Riders under age 18 are required to wear helmets.

In Vermont, motorcycle fatalities increased from 3, to 11, to 14 in the last three years. Last year, overall fatalities dropped from 98 to 75, while the motorcycle deaths increased.

In Maine, 15 of the 166 people killed last year were on motorcycles, down from 22 of 194 the previous year. Twelve of the victims in 2005 were 39 or older.

National figures show the number of motorcycle fatalities among riders age 40 and older tripled from 1993 to 2003. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported the mean age of motorcyclists killed rose from 32 in 1994 to 38 in 2003.

New Hampshire’s safety program included a rally and ride-in at the Statehouse in April, urging motorcyclists to be more aware of the dangers of the road and strongly suggesting they complete a training course, Thomson said. The message was reinforced through advertising, road signs, highway maps and messages on state employee checks that also reminded other drivers to share the road with bikers.

Sen. Robert Letourneau of Derry, a member of the state task force, said lawmakers will see two proposals this session aimed at motorcycle safety.

One would require driver education courses and commercial schools for new drivers of all ages to include curriculum on the different characteristics of motorcycles and large trucks; “how they handle, how they are able to stop in different conditions,” Letourneau said. “There needs to be some education here.”

Another proposal would require new motorcycle drivers to pass a written test before getting learners’ permit.

“Right now, all you need to do is go to the DMV, plunk down $30, they give you a piece of paper and say you’ve got 30 days to come back for a test,” Letourneau said.

“You are let loose on the roads of New Hampshire and we don’t know if you have any rider experience,” he said.

Letourneau said there haven’t been many fatalities among motorcycle drivers carrying learner’s permits but, he asks, “are they getting the proper education?”

He said it would be difficult to legislate a solution to the growing problem of Baby Boomers who might have ridden decades ago riding again without refresher courses.

He hopes statistics will do the talking. For instance, from 1990 to 2005, 23,000 riders have taken motorcycle education courses, and only two have been involved in fatal crashes, he said.

Instead, safety officials can continue to strongly suggest training, even in the showroom.

“Some of the dealers are doing it themselves,” he said, especially for older buyers. “Salesmen are now saying, ‘How long has it been? Perhaps you should consider taking a refresher course.”

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