- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 15, 2008

Linda Godette said the importance of motorcycle safety was impressed on her in her 20s as she returned home from her nursing job one evening early in her career.

A motorcycle rider had hit a fence alongside a road, decapitating him. She stopped to help, a gesture that included picking up his head and putting it with his body.

“The whole thing left an imprint, so I’m even surprised I’m looking at a motorcycle,” Ms. Godette, 51, of Rockville, said as she inspected a fuel-stingy Kawasaki Ninja she considered buying recently at Cycles USA, a motorcycle dealership in Silver Spring.

With gasoline topping $4 a gallon, motorcycles are becoming a popular alternative for drivers looking to save a buck. But an increase in motorcycle sales has coincided with a marked increase in motorcycle-related deaths.

According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, a trade association, 1.1 million cycles were sold in the United States last year - a 30 percent increase over 2001, when 850,000 motorcycles were sold.

“Some people who were only riding on weekends in the past are using their motorcycles during the week to ride to work,” said Mike Mount, spokesman for the trade association.

While some non-hybrid cars can boast of fuel efficiencies of 30 to 40 miles per gallon, most motorcycles can easily get 40, 50, even 60 miles per gallon. Scooters - those small-engined cycles typically used for short commutes - can get up to 100 miles per gallon. Scooter sales were up 24 percent in the first quarter of 2008, compared with the same period last year, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

“We know we can attribute [the increase in motorcycle sales] to the increase in gas prices,” said Corinne Geller, spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police. “We heard from a lot of folks who said they were looking for a way to be more efficient with their fuel and with their money and were turning to motorcycles.”

Yet as motorcycle sales increased 30 percent, motorcycle-related deaths jumped 50 percent nationally over roughly the same period.

In 2006 - the last year for which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has figures - 4,810 motorcyclists were killed on the nation’s roadways, up from 3,197 in 2001. 2006 was also the first year that the number of motorcycle-related deaths surpassed that of pedestrian deaths (4,784).

“With more motorcycles out there, you’ve increased your chances of having more motorcycle accidents,” said Ms. Geller, the Virginia State Police spokeswoman.

Last year, Virginia had 166,806 registered motorcyclists. Of those, 126 were killed and 2,284 were injured, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

While the motorcycle-registration rate in Virginia rose 81 percent between 2001 and 2007, the fatality rate for motorcyclists rose 186 percent.

“It goes to too much power, too much bike and not enough experience,” Ms. Geller said. “The majority of the crashes involved just running off the road.”

Motorcyclists are about 35 times more likely to be killed in accidents than automobile drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The first year of riding is the most dangerous because of lack of experience.

Road conditions that give car drivers little concern (puddles, gravel, debris) can become mortal hazards for riders balanced on two slim wheels. And motorcyclists lack the protection a car’s body provides in an accident.

Following too closely and too much speed also account for fatal motorcycle crashes - as do car and truck drivers who do not watch for motorcycles.

Late last month, a Harley-Davidson slid into a sport utility vehicle trying to turn onto Route 328 in Easton, Md. Police said the SUV blocked the intersection as the driver prepared to turn, forcing Joseph R. Wheatley Jr., 53, to put the bike down on the pavement. Mr. Wheatley and his passenger, Linda Marie Shea, died of their injuries from the accident.

“Because of the smaller profile of motorcycles, they’re generally hard to see,” said Lora Rakowski, spokeswoman for the Maryland State Highway Administration.

Among motorcyclists who count themselves as lucky is Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters. In announcing a new motorcyclist-safety program in November, she told how she broke her collarbone when she crashed on a highway north of Tucson, Ariz., in August 2005.

“If I hadn’t taken … safety precautions, I wouldn’t be standing here today,” Mrs. Peters said.

Despite their dangers, motorcycles keep attracting fuel-conscious consumers. The national average price for a gallon of unleaded regular topped $4 on June 8.

“The price of fuel is motivating a lot of it,” said Martin Stadtler, 40, a consultant who lives in Silver Spring.

A longtime motorcyclist, he was looking for a new bike for his wife last week.

“I think there are a lot of people who wanted to ride a bike, but [fuel prices are] pushing them toward that,” Mr. Stadtler said.

Jahi Hollis, 26, a Rockville glass worker, said he puts between 200 and 700 miles on his motorcycle weekly.

If he drove a car, his fuel bill would “probably double,” he said. “The price of gas is just getting ridiculous.”

Sam Loughridge, sales manager at Cycles USA in Silver Spring, said sales of all motorcycles at his shop are up about 25 percent since last year.

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