Safe Riding

Are Baby Boomer Motorcyclists Out of Control?

Written by  January 31, 2005

You may have seen the newspaper headlines and promos on TV reporting that older motorcyclists are out there riding into things and getting killed in epidemic numbers. Just search the Internet, and you’ll likely find several sites in which “safety experts” suspect inexperienced baby boomers with plenty of disposable income are buying bigger and more powerful motorcycles than they can handle.

These facts seem to be backed up by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) that shows between 2002 and 2003: Motorcyclist fatalities increased from 3,270 to 3,661, a 12 percent rise. Notably, the greatest increase in fatalities was to those over the age of 40, which increased the average age of motorcyclists killed in accidents from 32 in 1991 to 38 in 2003.

So have baby boomers gotten the kids out of the house and chosen motorcycling as their new hobby on which to spend their disposable income? And if so, are they really riding out of control? As I’ve stated in some of my previous articles, I’m not big on statistics, and since the general media can easily twist numbers into whatever “facts” they choose, I feel one has to come to their own conclusions based on the information available, common sense and basic math.

While I’m sure there are older motorcyclists (or motorcyclist of any age for that matter) who bite off more than they can chew, there are also a lot more motorcyclists on the road today. To me, this comes down to simple math. If more people over 40 are riding motorcycles, more people over 40 are likely to be involved in motorcycle accidents. Here’s another way to look at it. The NHTSA reports that deaths due to SUV rollovers are on a steady rise, so does that mean SUVs are more dangerous than they used to be, or are drivers out of control? No, it means there are simply more of them on the road.

Had news reporters gone just a few more pages into the NHTSA presentation, they would have uncovered a graph comparing the ages of motorcycle owners with the ages of riders killed in motorcycle crashes. And that graph supports something we’ve all known for years – that older motorcyclists are considerably safer than younger motorcyclists. In fact, the NHTSA numbers indicate that a rider over the age of 49 is less than half as likely to be killed in a motorcycle crash as a rider under the age of 25.

The lesson here is that the general news media doesn't really understand motorcycling well enough, but that’s hardly news, is it?

However, there is more to it than that, because the NHTSA presentation actually contains some useful information regarding the causes of motorcycle crashes you might want to keep in mind.

First of all, it is true that a majority of fatal motorcycle accidents involve more than one vehicle. And previous studies have shown that in those cases, the majority of crashes are caused by the driver of the other vehicle. No surprise here – watch out for the other guy!

But, the presentation also notes that in rural areas, 53 percent of motorcyclist fatalities stem from single-vehicle accidents. In other words, these are self-inflicted fatal accidents, which is within our power to prevent.

What’s causing these crashes? The NHTSA numbers indicate that 60 percent of those killed in single-vehicle accidents had been drinking, and nearly half were over the .10 percent blood alcohol content (BAC), which is the legal limit in most states.

In fact, older riders are worse, not better, as 73 percent of riders aged 30 to 39 who were killed in single-vehicle accidents on undivided highways had been drinking, as had 66 percent of those aged 40 to 49. In comparison, only 30 percent of riders under the age of 20 who died in similar crashes had been drinking.

On the other hand, a majority of riders under the age of 20 killed in motorcycle accidents didn’t have a valid license to ride a bike; while more than 75 percent of accident victims aged 40-49 were properly licensed.

So, the real message of the NHTSA presentation; once you get past the confusion generated by the general press should be this:
Watch out for all the other drivers on the road, and if you’re involved in a multi-vehicle accident, chances are, they will cause it.
Watch out for yourself on rural roads, because your safety is in your own hands.
Just because you’ve been riding for a while, don’t think your experience will protect you if you drink and ride. Alcohol and motorcycling don’t mix at any age.
If you’re a young rider, get licensed – and while you’re at it, get trained through a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course. The skills you pick up can save your life.

Many states now require new riders to take classes in order to get their motorcycle license; however, there are currently no such requirements for a license holder who decides to get on a bike for the first time in decades. States also do not require continuing periodic education.

With or without all these statistics, and no matter what your age, to ride a motorcycle safely, you need skill and knowledge. The best way to achieve this is by taking a Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) course that is designed to teach you the mental and physical skills needed to control your motorcycle.

If you’re a new rider, consider taking an MSF RiderCourse, such as the Motorcycle RiderCourse: Riding and Street Skills. If you have been riding for some time, the Experienced RiderCourse should be right up your alley. Bettering your skills through training and practice will increase your riding enjoyment and decrease your chance of a mishap.

Ride Safe!

By Mike Schweder