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Report: N.H. Motorcycle Fatalities Rise

Fatal motorcycle accidents in New Hampshire doubled in the first nine months of 2012 compared to a year earlier, exceeding a longtime nationwide increase in bike fatalities that seems likely to continue increasing as the economy rebounds.

That’s the conclusion of a report from the Governors Highway Safety Association, which says the data continues a long-term trend in which the number of motorcycle fatalities is rising even as overall traffic fatalities are falling.

In fact, the report says, almost one out of every seven people killed on the nation’s roads are riding motorcycles.

“In the 14 years from 1997 to 2011, (nationwide) motorcyclist fatalities more than doubled, from 2,116 to 4,612, while total traffic fatalities dropped by 23 percent, from 42,013 to 32,367. … Motorcyclist fatalities in 2012 will have moved even closer to the highest levels ever recorded,” the report cautions. “In 2011, 14 percent of all traffic fatalities were motorcyclists.”

The report makes six recommendations to stem the increase, including making riders use helmets, a hot topic in New Hampshire.

Just as important, it says, is more rider education — an argument that resonates with Roger Pageot, owner of RJ’s Motorsport on Amherst Street, which sells and services used motorcycles.

“People go through a two-day course, come out with their driver’s license and assume they can just go ride any-size motorcycle. It’s peer pressure,” said Pageot, who has been in the motorcycle business since 1973. “Just because you have a checkbook and can buy one doesn’t mean you know how to ride one.”

Pageot shared an example of a woman who bought a bike two weeks ago.

“I told her (it) wasn’t a good idea to buy that bike as a starter bike, it was too big, but with peer pressure, she did it anyway,” he said. “She called me up on Monday and said I don’t want that motorcycle, I’m scared. And good for her to know it.”

Pageot said some motorcycle riders pressure others not to buy smaller bikes, saying they’ll be bored.

“We’d rather see you bored than on a slab, or with broken legs,” he said.

Under state law, adults can get a driver’s license by taking a two-day “basic rider class” or passing a Division of Motor Vehicles test.

Two days isn’t enough, Pageot argued.

“There’s no follow-up on the training. People should go on to the next level,” he said, pointing to the private Motorcycle Operator Safety Training company in Manchester as an example. “Most of them don’t.”

The GHSA report notes, “All states currently conduct operator training courses, but they may not provide enough course openings at places and times when riders can attend” and urges expansion of rider training requirements.

The report also points to various signs that motorcycle operators are contributing to the problem.

For example, it says a third of fatal motorcycle accidents involved speeding, compared to a quarter of fatal car accidents. “Almost half of all motorcycle fatal crashes did not involve another vehicle, and speeding likely contributed to many of them,” it says.

Furthermore, it says drunken driving is a major issue: “Twenty-nine percent of fatally injured motorcycle riders had a blood alcohol concentration above the legal limit of .08.”

It recommends that police target motorcycles as part of impaired-driving programs, with “highly publicized enforcement, using officers trained in identifying impaired motorcyclists as well as other vehicle drivers, combined with offender sanctions including vehicle impoundment or forfeiture.”

As for helmets, the report says the 31 states that do not have universal helmet mandates should reconsider their stand, including New Hampshire.

It notes that Michigan repealed its motorcycle helmet mandate in April 2012. A researcher with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute analyzed that state’s motorcycle crashes for the full year. The researcher estimated that fatalities would have fallen 21 percent if the helmet law had remained in place — but actually, fatalities increased by 18 percent.

Other factors noted by the report:

∎ Fatalities rise and fall with motorcycle registrations, which in turns echoes the economy. That’s why motorcycle fatalities fell sharply in 2009: Fewer people were riding.

∎ Similarly, it said, ridership rises with high gas prices because motorcycles are more fuel-efficient, and rises with good weather.

∎ Last year’s mild winter and early spring probably contributed to the sharp rise in New Hampshire fatalities, the report said.