Safety concerns rise as bikes hit the street

With more drivers turning to motorcycles and scooters to save on gas, safety officials predict the trend will come with a different cost.

Motorcycle deaths were on the rise long before gas prices passed $4 a gallon and consumers began looking to two-wheelers for fuel efficiency of up to 60 miles per gallon.

But an influx of novices hitting the highways – coupled with long-time riders putting more miles on their bikes – has renewed calls for safe cycling and beefed-up safety laws.

"With an increase in motorcycle sales this year, the number of motorcycle fatalities will undoubtedly rise," said David Parsons, president of AAA Carolinas.

Motorcycle sales have climbed over most of the last decade – and so have the number and rate of deaths on them. And a spring spike in sales and registrations of motorcycles comes at the same time that Carolinas Medical Center has noted a jump in accidents.

"We are seeing an uptick, a clear increase in the number of motorcycle drivers and riders involved in crashes," said Dr. Michael Thomason, medical director of the CMC's Ross Trauma Center.

North Carolina, with some of the strictest motorcycle safety standards in the nation, is one of 20 states requiring helmets for all riders. It also requires a special license endorsement earned from a driving test or a training course.

But the law allows drivers to get an 18-month permit, which can be renewed indefinitely, without taking a driver's test or driving course. Of new riders in 2007, 25,000 got permits and only 12,000 got a motorcycle license, Parsons of AAA said.

"Motorcyclists should be required to demonstrate their riding ability before being allowed to drive on public roads," said Parsons, who is pushing for a change in state law.

Safety officials recommend that riders take a training course certified through the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.

"Motorcycles are a lot bigger and more powerful than they were 20 years ago. You can't just hop on a motorcycle and drive away," said Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, who expects motorcycle fatalities to be up for the tenth year in a row.

The number of people killed on motorcycles in North Carolina increased from 136 in 2004 to 183 in 2007. In South Carolina – which doesn't require helmets for riders 21 or older – deaths increased from 88 in 2004 to 109 in 2006.

Injury statistics for this year are not yet available.

There are signs that some riders are taking safety issues seriously.

At Charlotte Honda, general manager Steve Negra said he's seen a 20 percent increase in motorcycle sales since late April – and most customers have already completed a training course.

"It's been a pleasant surprise," he said. "The only people we find not doing that is the younger guy – he's bullet proof."

Ken Lipack, owner of Harley Davidson of Charlotte in Matthews, operates the Rider's Edge Academy of Motorcycling to teach safe techniques.

"We've seen a tremendous amount of growth this year in the enrollment," he said.

Lipack began to use rising gas prices as a marketing tool after he saw a 15 percent increase in his sales in the last two months.

He bought advertisements on gas pumps at 40 Charlotte-area Circle K Shell stations promoting the good gas mileage and relatively low $10,000 price tag of his smaller motorcycles.

"We have more people asking for the bikes that get better gas mileage," Lipack said.

Motorcyclists are about 35 times more likely than passenger car occupants to die in a traffic crash when the number of miles traveled is taken into account, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates.

In North Carolina, motorcycles accounted for 12 percent of highway deaths but only 2 percent of registered vehicles in 2007, AAA said.

Poor skills were a factor in 51 percent of N.C. motorcycle deaths over the last three years, according to the N.C. Governors Safety Highway Program.

"If you're on a bike on a highway, it's obvious you're not the winner of any accident," said Lee Elliott, program coordinator for motorcycle safety courses taught at Central Piedmont Community College.

"It's more difficult than driving a car. You're dealing with balance and more coordination issues while you're managing the road."

Although 45 percent of motorcycle accidents involve only the bike, a large percentage of the crashes with other kinds of vehicles are believed to be the fault of the person driving the car or truck.

"They don't pay attention, they don't see them (motorcyclists), they're not looking for them," said Robert Karney, a Charlotte lawyer who specializes in biker injury cases.

Sales of scooters were up 25 percent and smaller motorcycles were up 7.5 percent in the first quarter of 2008 over a year earlier, while sales of more expensive models were down, said Mike Mount, a spokesman for the Motorcycle Industry Council.

Those figures don't include the sale of used motorcycles – which most riders buy.

But increasing sales of motorcycle batteries, chains and tires suggest those sales are also up.

Charlotte Harley dealer Lipack said his service center is busier too – an indication that recreational riders are now commuting and putting more miles on their bikes.

That's true for Mark Mitchell, 50, of Matthews, who since spring has almost exclusively used his bike to get to work. His Jeep Wrangler got just 15 to 18 mpg, while his Kawasaki gets about 50 mpg.

"Out of a gallon of gas I can get a good day and a half on a motorcycle," said Mitchell, a Web site manager for a television network. "In the Jeep, out of a gallon, I can't even get to work."