The surging popularity of motorcycles, combined with weakened helmet laws and other factors, has boosted annual motorcycle fatalities to...

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The surging popularity of motorcycles, combined with weakened helmet laws and other factors, has boosted annual motorcycle fatalities to nearly 4,000, injuries to 76,000, and hospital bills for treating shattered bodies to more than $840 million, safety experts say.

Deaths of motorcyclists increased for the seventh straight year in 2004, federal statistics show, reaching a level 85 percent higher than in 1997. And a recent analysis of hospitalized cyclists — a snapshot of the year 2001, when 30,505 motorcyclists were admitted — showed 16 percent needed subsequent rehabilitation or care.

Nationwide, fatalities totaled 2,116 in 1997; 2,294 in 1998; 2,483 in 1999; 2,897 in 2000; 3,197 in 2001; 3,270 in 2002; and 3,661 in 2003. Totals are not yet available for 2004.

Dr. Jeffrey Coben, lead author of the study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, called initial hospital costs “a drop in the bucket.”

“Many of these people are going to have significant brain injuries and requirements for long-term care,” said Coben, an emergency-medicine specialist at West Virginia University School of Medicine.

Motor-vehicle comparison

The increase in motorcycle deaths outpaces motor-vehicle deaths, which have hovered between 40,000 and 45,000 for a decade. Federal highway safety officials want Congress to fund a study of the rising carnage among motorcyclists; the request is pending.

In his study of hospitalized cyclists, Coben found 12 percent had head injuries, 13 percent broken arms and about 30 percent broken legs.

“We had, early last month, two motorcycle patients come in a few days apart,” said Dr. Michael D. Williams, a trauma surgeon and director of injury prevention at Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. “Both lost their lower legs. One died, one lived.

“If you’re flying through the air, your limbs are the first thing you’re going to hit unless you hit your head. If you’re sliding feet first, you often hit a curb. The bones do what they’re supposed to do — they absorb the impact. And they shatter. The blood vessels near the bones, the arteries and veins that supply your legs with blood, are torn and crushed in the process.”

More on the road

Since the last time deaths were studied more than 20 years ago, motorcycle registrations are on the rise — from about 3.8 million in 1994 to nearly 5.4 million in 2003. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation estimates the average annual mileage put on a motorcycle rose from 2,478 in 1998 to 3,050 in 2003.

But popularity alone does not account for the steep rise in fatalities. Safety experts suspect other factors: Motorcycles are bigger. The typical rider is older. And alcohol contributes to a greater share of motorcycle crashes than accidents involving cars.

Some believe the roads have become more hazardous.

“The biggest problem right now are distracted drivers, the people … talking to their kids or talking on a cellphone,” said Steve Zimmer, executive director of ABATE of Ohio, one of many state groups that oppose mandatory helmet laws. “They run the motorcyclists off the road, or they turn left in front of them.” ABATE stands for American Bikers Active Toward Education.

Beyond all this, the weakening of helmet laws has resulted in many unnecessary head injuries and deaths, public-health experts say. A helmet reduces the odds of death in a wreck by about one-third, according to federal analyses. But helmet laws are passionately opposed by many who believe they limit personal freedom.

Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Texas and Pennsylvania have all relaxed their helmet laws since 1995. Louisiana repealed its helmet law in 1999, but reinstated the requirement in August after deaths climbed sharply.

In Texas and Arkansas, where helmet use had been about 97 percent, it dropped to 66 percent and 52 percent, respectively, within two years of the repeals. Motorcycle deaths increased in both states.

A proposal to relax Michigan’s helmet law is pending.

“We have never, ever seen a situation where a state has repealed its helmet laws and it did not impact safety,” said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., intends to offer a legislative amendment that would block a percentage of highway construction for states failing to pass helmet mandates for all ages. A similar requirement existed before 1995, when it was scuttled by Congress.

James Sisco, president of ABATE of Louisiana, said the key to lowering deaths is education among riders and greater awareness of motorcycles among motorists. “Helmet laws are just feel-good legislation,” he said.

Expensive recoveries

Colleen Bray, a Tacoma Park, Md., pharmacy student and part-time motorcycle-parts buyer who has ridden cycles for more than a decade, said she opposes mandatory helmet laws.

But she wears a helmet and credits it with saving her life in an accident 10 years ago. While driving a motorcycle in Berkeley, Calif., she was hit head-on by a teenager in a speeding Mustang. She was launched from the bike, hit the car, and shot along the pavement.

“I heard my head hitting the ground, three loud whacks,” Bray said. “It was like someone was holding flash cards as I was going along the ground. It was a series of stills: sky … ground … sky … ground. The idea that it might be my last moment did occur to me.”

Bray had nine broken bones below her left knee. She was hospitalized about five days, then went to a nursing home. Her medical bills were about $60,000.

Shortly after Pennsylvania lifted its helmet ban, Coben said, one motorcycle crash victim ran up hospital bills of $230,000. His study of 2001 wrecks showed about 16 percent of those hospitalized were uninsured. That’s higher than the 5 percent uninsured among overall hospital patients that year, according to federal statistics. About 10 percent of motorcycle riders were covered by government insurance.

“We’ve got all these public debates going on about what to do with Medicaid and Medicare,” Coben said. “Then we have this second debate about personal freedom and First Amendment rights (of motorcyclists). But people have failed to make the connection. … What happens to the personal-freedom argument is going to impact the debate over health-care insurance and costs.”