Road Worrier

Motorcycle deaths up as traffic deaths drop

Staff WriterSeptember 28, 2010 

Motorcycle deaths are increasing in North Carolina as other traffic deaths decline, and state Sen. Harry Brown looks forward to the start of mandatory safety classes for the youngest bikers.

Brown, a Jacksonville Republican, sponsored a law that will take effect in January with North Carolina's first-ever requirement for motorcycle safety training. Like the state's wise ban on phoning while driving, this requirement would be a good idea for all motorcyclists - but it applies only to those younger than 18.

"You've got to start somewhere," Brown told the Road Worrier. He favored a higher age limit but compromised at 18 after encountering resistance from some motorcyclists.

"Here in Jacksonville we have a lot of young military men being hurt on those bikes," he said. "We need to do something to protect those guys. And if we can show that it works, we can try to expand the age later."

Let's hope so. Highway Patrol crash reports count 87 motorcyclists killed on North Carolina roads this year, up 23 percent from the same period in 2009. Researchers say only a small fraction of motorcycle crashes involve riders younger than 18.

The Triangle's most recent motorcycle death was reported early Friday. Byron Lee King, 53, of Raleigh was killed when his motorcycle hit a deer south of Cary on Yates Mill Pond Road.

Though motorcycle deaths are on the rise, overall traffic deaths are falling. In North Carolina crashes investigated by the Highway Patrol this year, the total traffic fatality count has continued to decline - down 5 percent from 2009.

The patrol's numbers do not include crashes investigated by local sheriffs and police, which will be added later.

The new law makes two small improvements.

Learner permits tighter

It will end a quirky practice that lets motorcyclists get learner's permits for 18 months at a time - and renew them forever. That lets them avoid taking a road test, required for a regular license. Starting Jan. 1, a motorcycle learner's permit is good for only 12 months and can be renewed only once, for six more months.

To get a motorcycle learner's permit or a driver's license with motorcycle endorsement, anyone under 18 will have to pass a course taught by either the Motorcycle Safety Foundation or the N.C. Motorcycle Safety Education Program.

"It's a great safety course," Brown said. "Older bikers do take the class now - they just don't want it to be required."

Sgt. Jorge Brewer, a Highway Patrol spokesman, blames the biker death rate on inexperienced riders with high-performance machines.

"This combination increases the risk," he said. "When you have a motorcycle going at a high rate of speed, there's hardly any time to react."

The new training requirement should make a difference, he said.

"Any type of training and certification we can get at an early age, it's going to help," Brewer said.

Or will it? Rob Foss, senior research scientist at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center, says young drivers are responsible for a tiny share of fatal crashes.

Few young cyclists crash

In its most recent study, a few years ago, the Chapel Hill-based center found that only 1.6 percent of motorcycle crashes involved riders younger than 18. One-third were age 20 to 29, and another one-third age 30 to 45.

"Whatever good you do with the safety class, you're not doing the public any good by requiring it of a minuscule chunk of the motorcycling population," Foss said.

He agreed with Brewer that safety classes, required for all bikers in some states, seem likely to help reduce crashes.

"It's always hard to argue against education," Foss said. "You need to learn how to do an emergency stop. If you come upon an emergency and you haven't learned how to do that, you very well may go down."

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