Understanding Motorcycle Fatality Statistics—An Answer To Denver Post

To understand current motorcyclist fatality statistics one must take into account the historical data shown in this chart. Most of the time, as in this chart,  [sorry, chart no loner available] the data we are given show only the total number of fatalities for a given year and leave out a breakdown by varying age groups of riders and how that may have changed over time. This age-breakdown data and how it changes over time is critical to understanding the current trends.

For at least the last ten years the majority, nearly 60%, of motorcycle fatalities have occurred in the 45 and older age group. Motorcycles are not called “donor cycles” anymore because the people dying on them are too old to donate their organs.  This is a recent phenomenon.  Thirty years ago it was mostly 18-24 year olds who were dying on motorcycles.  Maybe it was because they were the age group that made up the majority of riders.  That’s surely part of it, but I think there is something else going on that explains the current trend.

The Denver Post has an article on the front page of Saturday’s paper reporting that 86 bikers were killed in motorcycle accidents in Colorado in 2013; 57% of them were over 45, 24% were over 55. The article points out that older bikers are more at risk and need to “get a handle on things.” They attribute the fact that older bikers dominate the death stats to slowed reaction times and deteriorating eye sight.  It’s their age, they say, that is killing them on motorcycles. The problem with the Post’s conclusion is that it used to not be that way.  Apparently age alone can’t  account for what’s happening right now.

I agree that older bikers need to get a handle on things, but the Post story completely misses what is really going on here.  It’s probably not their fault, they just don’t have the historical memory of someone who is not only an old guy, but has always ridden a bike from his youth to his present age, which is much older than most of those represented in the fatality stats.

Someone who is 45 today was born in 1969.  A 55 year old was born in 1959.  Thus, a 45-year old was in his late teens and early 20s in the period 1987-1994 and today’s 55-year old was there in 1977-1984.  This group straddles the tail end of the Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) and the beginning of Generation X (born 1965-1979).  The Post writers are probably aware of all that.  They don’t appreciate the significance of it, though.

There is a back story that one must know to understand current motorcycle fatality trends.

1969 Honda CB 750, $1495 original price

1969 Honda CB 750, $1495 original price

While several brands of American-made motorcycles had been around since at least 1903 when the first Harley Davidson was made and sold, the real boom in motorcycle riding in America began in the 1960’s with the introduction of the Honda Dream 50R in 1962.  In the years following, Japanese motorcycle manufacturers introduced Americans to dozens of motorcycle styles from Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Yamaha.  British bikes, Triumph and Norton, also did well in the market until the 1980s when both went bankrupt.

In 1969 the Honda CB750 became the most sought-after, the most drooled-over motorcycle in America. The thing had a top speed of 125mph! I wanted one so bad I could taste it.  So did ten of thousands of others in my age group.

easy riderEven Harley Davidson came out of the doldrums for a little while around 1969 when Easy Rider hit the movie theaters.  That couldn’t be sustained by Harley because compared to the Japanese bikes, AMF-owned Harley was building junk for higher sticker prices that nobody wanted.  “Captain America” and “Billy”, the bikes used in Easy Rider, had been extensively modified by Ben Hardy’s motorcycle shop in Los Angeles.  Otherwise, Harleys were prized by outlaw biker gangs but few others.

The 1969 Honda CB750 had a sticker price of $1,495.  While that was out of sight for some, many college students could cobble together enough money from part-time jobs and parental largess to get one of these wondrous machines.  College in those days was not nearly as expensive as it later became, and part-time jobs while going to college were more the norm back then.

This was the typical experience of the Baby Boom Generation, and it’s my vehicle for telling you the back story of the current motorcycle death problem shown in the graph at the top of this post.  That back story is the contrast between the Baby Boomers experience and the much different one of Generation X.  It is Generation X that is making up the current motorcycle death tallies, and there’s a solid reason why it’s happening.

From the mid-sixties until the mid-1980s a huge number of young men ages 18 to 25 rode motorcycles.  It might have been a majority if one counts riders who rode only by borrowing from friends (that was done in those days) or by sharing a bike with someone (also done then).  These were the Baby Boomers who got out of college at some point, got married and started a career.  We’re talking the late 1970’s and into the 1980s.  The chart above shows that motorcycle fatalities had been very high, up to 5,000 annually, in the late 1970s.  By 1985 and continuing until about 1995, fatalities declined rapidly, finally dipping to just 2,000 in 1997.  This corresponds to Baby Boomers giving up their bikes for babies and careers.

Two major life changes for this group of men made them give up their motorcycles.  First, many became fathers. Career demands were the second big thing.  These two factors relegated tens of thousands of perfectly good motorcycles to collecting dust in the garage and were eventually sold on the used market.  Buying a good used motorcycle for a low price was easy then.  Motorcycle industry sales of new bikes tanked during the 1980s and into the early 1990’s.

1983 Honda VF750R Interceptor

1983 Honda VF750R Interceptor

There is an interesting overlap in the fatality stats.  The Baby Boomers began to ride less while fatalities remained high for a while longer.  Honda again.  In 1983 Honda introduced the Honda VF750R Interceptor, later referred to simply as the ”VFR.”  This was another amazing first from Honda, the first “sport bike,” later derogatorily referred to as the Japanese “crotch rocket.”  All the other brands rushed sport bikes into the market and these bikes were bought and ridden by younger riders.  While the top speed of the 1969 CB750 was awesome enough, the V-four in the VFR truly seemed like a rocket engine, even though later offerings by the other Japanese manufacturers continued to raise the bar.  The Interceptor’s top speed was even higher than the “old” CB750, but it’s “roll-on” speed was where is shined.  Somewhere about 6,000 rpm a twist of the throttle would cause this bike’s engine to explode with horsepower, and the bike would streak down the road as if on a wire-guided missile.  Street riders now commanded the performance characteristics of racing bikes. It was truly amazing. In the right hands and done in a safe place, it was an awe-inspiring riding experience.  Other manufacturers were quick to offer bikes that were competitive in every way. Naturally, some riders got a little too full of themselves.  The motorcycle fatality statistics at the time showed the overwhelming majority of deaths were occurring among young men 18-24 on Japanese “crotch rockets.”  That’s when some people started calling them “donor cycles.”

So what is going on now? The majority of deaths on a motorcycle has dramatically shifted to a different demographic group. Now it’s the old guys on Harleys.  What gives?

Here is what gives.

Between 1985 and 1995 motorcycle sales increased and a large segment of those sales were to older riders who were going back to motorcycling after a long hiatus to raise children and build a nest egg bank account.  The first of these were the Baby Boomers.  They  were the riders who lusted after the Honda CB750 in 1969.  They satisfied their lust with the CB750, or perhaps a different bike that could be had at a lower price. They got lots of riding experience when they were young. They learned survival skills on a motorcycle. They learned that you must think of yourself as invisible when on a motorcycle because you essentially are invisible to many drivers in automobiles.  They learned that when on a motorcycle you should always give the other guy the right of way.  It’s not a matter of pride or demanding your rights, it’s survival. It’s about being sure you get to go home to your family and not to the hospital or the morgue.

So why did the fatality rate (after the big decline 1985-1994) begin a steep increase in 1995, finally getting up to 5,000 a year again?  More importantly, why did the majority of deaths come not from 18-24 year olds on sport bikes, but from the older set?

Simple.  Beginning in around 1995 and later it was Generation X instead of the Baby Boomers that were buying motorcycles.  Unlike the Baby Boomers who were returning to motorcycling, Generation X were first time riders.  They had little or no riding experience in their youth because it just wasn’t as much the thing to do at that time for their generation.

Merely getting old is not enough for the getting of knowledge.  The Gen Xer’s in 1995 and later were responding to the Harley craze that began in early 1990’s (long after Harley had been sold by AMF and began building quality again). Maybe motorcycle riding is something like skiing, being best learned at a young age.  At any rate, the Gen Xer’s failed, in my opinion, to understand that one cannot ride a motorcycle in traffic as one would drive a car.  In your car you can count on other drivers seeing you, at least most of the time. The Baby Boomers understood something the Gen Xer’s didn’t seem to grasp.  You always have to be on defense riding a motorcycle.  You have to act as if you are invisible.  You may as well assume everyone is trying to kill you.  Even though they may not consciously intend it, they are.

So, I say it’s not slow reaction times and poor eyesight. It’s not old age. It was a faulty mindset and a lack of honed skills and muscle memory gained while young.

Actually, I don’t think it is as bad as the numbers make it seem.  5,000 annual motorcycle deaths in 1979 is not the same as 5,000 such deaths in 2009 because the number of both cars and motorcycles on the roads is also much higher.  The death numbers are beginning to decline again, corresponding to an increase in motorcycle awareness and rider competence.  The Gen Xer’s have learned a hard lesson and they’re doing better now.  They’re getting a handle on things.

 

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