In states like Oregon, where there are fewer months with dry road surfaces and warmer air, it’s hard not to notice an increase in news stories about personal injuries and fatalities due to motorcycle crashes during the summer months. Add to that the nearly steady increase in motorcycle registrations in the state over the past 10 years, often with a more than 5% increase from the previous year, and that means an onslaught of motorcycles on the roads for a limited amount of time. Increases in these motorcycle accidents could mean an increased need for motorcycle injury attorneys. But the numbers also reveal something else. In recent years, motorcycle deaths among people in their 40s to 60s have increased, likely due to the fact that there are larger numbers of older drivers, but also because as people age, the physical and mental functions needed for safe driving can deteriorate.
Between 1998 and 2008, the most recent data available from the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration, fatality rates of motorcycle crashes increased steadily across the board, even as car crash fatalities decreased. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, by 2008, car fatalities were at an all-time low while motorcycle fatalities were at an all-time high. Whether or not these motorcycle crash fatalities were a result of wrongful death, therefore requiring a wrongful death attorney, is unclear. Some of the crashes can be attributed to the fact that motorcycles are more likely than other vehicles to crash with a fixed object – opposed to another moving vehicle – according to the NHTSA. However, there’s another clear piece to the puzzle: Age.
The NHTSA and the CDC have conflicting data about the various ages of those fatalities, perhaps because of their different areas of focus. According to the CDC, the age group with the most motorcycle fatalities has long been riders in their 20s. The NHTSA tells a different story, though. According to their data, motorcycle fatalities in 1998 were more common for riders in their twenties. But by 2008, riders older than 40 were more likely to die in motorcycle crashes, and by a larger margin.
In Oregon, the numbers support those of the NHTSA. In 2011, motorcycle crash deaths disproportionally affected people between the ages of 45-64, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation, with more deaths in that age range than all other age ranges combined. Of all the motorcycle crashes in Oregon that year, nearly twice as many did not involve another vehicle. This category includes accidents caused by overturning, colliding with a fixed object, or others classified as “non-collision.” Fatalities in those categories were five times higher than fatalities of motorcycle crashes with other vehicles involved, and more motorcyclists died in collisions with fixed objects than any other kind of collision, according to ODOT. But why is there such an increase in fatalities with age?
It could be sheer numbers. According to The Insurance Journal, motorcyclists older than 50 accounted for just 10 percent of all bike owners in 1990. However, “[b]y 2003, the 50-and-older crowd represented 25 percent of motorcycle owners,” and “the average age of motorcycle owners rose from 33 to just older than 40.”
In addition to the increased numbers, factors of aging could play a role. In an article about aging vehicle drivers, the CDC noted that as people age, “declines in vision and cognitive functioning (ability to reason and remember), as well as physical changes, may affect some older adults’ driving abilities.”
Although this does not address motorcycle drivers specifically, the more physical and mental demands of riding a motorcycle could exaggerate those age factors. “It takes an estimated 2,500 tasks to ride a motorcycle and only 800 to drive a car,” making motorcycle driving more complex, according to ODOT and TEAM OREGON, Oregon’s official motorcycle safety program. As TEAM OREGON’s communications and outreach manager, Pat Hahn, said in a news story for KTVZ, “[m]otorcycling is different from driving a car – you need a higher level of skill and awareness than you do in a passenger vehicle.”
There is one more theory behind these increased deaths, though it cannot be proven one way or the other until there is a shift in data collection. In the article by The Insurance Journal, there are two trends of motorcycle fatalities that could be related. As previously discussed, one is age. The other is the size of the motorcycles. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, between 1985 and 2009 there were an increase in deaths on motorcycles with engines larger than 1400cc, and a decrease in deaths with motorcycles having engines smaller than 1400cc.
Although the NHTSA sees an increase in fatalities for people over 40 and for those driving larger motorcycles, there is no evident data that the two go together. If they do correlate, though, there would be ramifications. As motorcycle engine size increases, so does the weight of the motorcycle, making it harder to maneuver. If decreased strength and cognitive functions are in play with older drivers, an increased weight and necessary skill level could raise the number of motorcycle accidents and deaths.