Motorcycle Mayhem Resumes

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Spring seems finally to have come to Minnesota, and that means more motorcyles on the roads. If the recent past is any guide, it also means more motocyclists maimed and killed.

There were 53 motorcycle fatalities last year in the helmet-law-free Gopher State, the most since 2008. The Department of Public Safety hasn’t yet released full 2012 statistics, but in 2011 fewer than two-fifths of the 42 killed and 1,248 injured were wearing helmets. Three-fifths of the crashes involved only a single motorcycle. And the chances of a motorcycle crash being deadly are six times greater than for other motor vehicles.

An uptrend in Minnesota motorcycle casualties is practically assured as long as helmets aren’t required for those 18 and older, ridership continues to grow and the economy keeps recovering. DPS says the state has 237,000 registered motorcycles and 405,000 licensed operators, both all-time highs.

The trend is nationwide as well, with a 9 percent increase in motorcyle deaths last year across the United States.

“If the economy continues to improve and gasoline prices remain high, then motorcycle registrations, travel and fatalities will continue to rise unless active measures are taken,” said James Hedlund of the Governors Highway Safety Association. “The most effective strategy by far is to enact a universal helmet use law in the 31 states that lack them.”

Good luck with that. Minnesota’s 1968 helmet law was repealed for adults in 1977 and there’s been little sign of political will to take on the hair-in-the-wind bikers lobby since then, despite more than 1,600 fatalities and tens of thousands of injuries. In fact, more states are repealing helmet laws than enacting them. Michigan, for example, repealed its law last year, resulting in 16 needless deaths, according to a University of Michigan study. Helmet use by riders in Michigan crashes dropped from near-universal (98 percent) to less than three-quarters.

If we can’t require bikers to protect their heads, at least we can offer them instruction to avoid plastering themselves on the pavement. The Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Center conducts courses from April through October at 30 campuses around the state. For a complete course listing and registration visit dps.mn.gov.

At Minnesota 2020, we still think a universal helmet law would be good public safety policy at the cost of a slight inconvenience to riders. If that can’t be achieved, training is the next best approach. “Riders must shoulder the responsibility for protecting themselves,” said Bill Shaffer of the MMSC, a division of DPS, “and the first step is to take a rider training course.”