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Why drinking and driving – on a motorcycle – is a seriously bad idea as deaths spike 9%

August 18, 2014 by Steven M. Gursten

Disturbing new numbers show how deadly  impaired driving is for motorcycle riders

alcohol related motorcycle fatalities

SAFETY in Numbers (vol. 1, issue 5, Aug. 2013), a National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) report, provides motorcyclists the above unfortunate headline. While significant progress has been made over the past 40 years in reducing the percent of alcohol-impaired drivers who drive automobiles on our roads, the NHTSA data indicates that many (younger?) motorcyclists are definitely not getting the message.

The report states:

“The overall number of fatalities in alcohol impaired crashes went down in 2011 but the number of alcohol impaired motorcycle drivers in fatal crashes went up by 9%, the only driver class to rise.

Motorcycles also had the highest percentage (29%) of alcohol impaired drivers of all vehicle types (24% of passenger car drivers were alcohol impaired, 21% of light-truck drivers, 1% of large-truck drivers).”

And the 2012 numbers (the latest statistics available) don’t get any better. From 2011 to 2012, motorcyclist deaths increased by 29%. There were 4,403 total motorcycle fatalities in 2011 and 4,667 deaths in 2012, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety fatality facts for motorcycles and ATVs.

Of those, 29% had a blood alcohol concentration at or above 0.08 %. That equals 1,246 (9%)  motorcyclists who were killed under the influence in 2012.

Why are there more motorcycle deaths? It all comes down to physics. Motorcycles are less stable and less visible than cars and often have high performance capabilities – which is a fancy way of saying they can go really fast. When a motorcycle crashes, the operator is without the protection of an enclosed motor vehicle, so he is more likely to be seriously injured or killed. The federal government estimates that per mile traveled in 2011, the number of deaths on motorcycles was over 30 times the number of cars.

What does it all mean? Ask an attorney

As an attorney who has helped quite a number of motorcycle enthusiasts who have been seriously injured in crashes over the past 20 years, there are a couple interesting additional observations that I would make, based upon this new report.

The first observation, which I noted in parenthesis above, is that the report doesn’t address the age of the rider, but age is clearly a huge determinant. Younger riders are more aggressive riders. They tend to take more risks, ride faster, and – based upon my own law practice of helping people in motorcycle accidents – are more likely to be involved in a crash with a car or lose control and strike a tree.

The second observation, related to the first, is that helmets save lives. In states like Michigan, where riders over 21 have the choice whether or not to go with the wind in their hair, we now have clear data that confirms this based upon the numbers of motorcycle operators who have been killed with and without helmets since the law changed.

And motorcyclists continue to drink and drive — despite campaigns to raise awareness that drinking and riding don’t mix. That again goes to youth. Younger drivers of cars, and younger operators of motorcycles are much more likely to drink and drive – or as here – ride.

Finally, let’s not forget popular culture. A big part of why this is happening is the appeal that has been carefully cultivated because it creates a lot of money for businesses, cities, and the liquor industry to link riding with partying and drinking. There is a revenue-generating subculture that creates desirable behaviors like riding to the bar, or bar hopping, or participating in large regional festivals where the booze is plentiful and flowing. Again, from my own law practice as an attorney, so many of the horrific attendant care cases I have with motorcycle owners involve alcohol and coming from big events like this, especially in West Michigan and Northern Michigan.

But let’s not give the liquor lobby a pass here. There were reports that behind the big helmet law repeal push was the liquor lobby, which hoped to attract more bikers to Michigan bars and restaurants. That takes raw commercial cynicism to an almost criminal level, in my opinion.  To read more about the connection between the liquor lobby and the motorcycle helmet repeal push, take a look at my blog post, “Snyder’s motives in repealing motorcycle helmet law questionable.”

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