HUNTSVILLE — At first glance, crash data collected in Utah suggest men in their twenties riding motorcycles on an August day at 2 p.m. may be a statistic on wheels waiting to happen. But the problem lies more with the number of people who fit that description, experts say, and do not necessarily indicate men are more reckless on their choppers.
Twenty-nine men were killed while riding their motorcycles in Utah during 2013, according to the state Department of Public Safety. Similar female fatalities were extremely rare, numbering just two in that span. The same trend holds nationally, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: 91 percent of the 4,246 motorcycle fatalities nationwide in 2012 were male.
Motorcycle incidents statewide are most deadly in the afternoons and in the summer, periods when motorcycle traffic is high. The age group most likely to be in motorcycle collisions is 20-24 years old, making up 16.4 percent of all incidents. And the proportion of American motorcyclists who are men is high — but not quite the 91 percent high reflected in annual deaths.
Data compiled by the national Motorcycle Industry Cycle reports 12.5 percent of motorcycle owners in 2012 were women, up from 10.5 percent from 2009. Russ Rader, senior vice president and spokesman for the Insurance Institute, told the Standard-Examiner the number of women riding motorcycles will continue to increase.
"The rider demographic is changing over time," Rader said. "More and more women are taking up riding and as they do, they will take up a bigger but still small portion of accidents and fatalities."
Jennifer Anderson, 28, of Clearfield was the latest motorcycle fatality in the Top of Utah. The Weber County Sheriff's Office reported a high rate of speed was a factor in her single-vehicle crash on Trappers Loop Highway on Sept. 1.
Anderson was driving the motorcycle at the time, making her tragic death even more of an anomaly. Nationally in 2012, only 32 percent of women who died in motorcycle crashes were the driver of the vehicle, as opposed to 99 percent of men.
Three males each in Davis and Weber counties died in 2013 motorcycle crashes, according to Gary Mower, a research analyst with the state Highway Safety Office. No females were killed in either county in that time. Box Elder and Morgan counties each reported zero motorcycle fatalities in 2013. In all, 31 females were involved in 227 Top of Utah wrecks during the year — a 13.6 percent rate.
Preventing fatalities through controllable factors
The jury largely is out on whether any of the correlation between male riders and motorcycle deaths is in fact causation, but experts point to several controllable factors they say can be highly indicative of safety vs. danger on a chopper.
Lots of space between vehicles
Only 13.3 percent of fatal motorcycle crashes in Utah occur at traveling speeds of less than 40 mph, according to the Utah Department of Public Safety.
"Probably the biggest message is to slow down," Mower said.
Motorists have been proven to be less perceptive of motorcycle speed than that of other vehicles, according to Mower.
"People underestimate their speed because of their size," Mower said. "It's psychological."
Almost one quarter of American motorcyclists killed in 2012 were driving without a proper license, according to the Insurance Institute. Proper motorcycle training is critical, Mower said, because motorcyclists will inevitably have to drive defensively.
"You need to know how to react when another vehicle comes into your space," Mower said.
The motorcycle itself is much safer if it is equipped with anti-lock brakes, Rader said.
"They are proven to be effective in reducing crashes (and) they're increasingly available on motorcycles," he said.
Rader recommended new motorcycle buyers settle for nothing less than anti-lock brakes. The Insurance Institute estimated the brake technology reduces the risk of death in a motorcycle accident by 37 percent.
And, of course — helmets
Utah enacted a helmet safety law in 1969 that covered all riders. In 1977, lawmakers weakened the law to include only riders under 18. In the 38 states where partial helmet laws are in place, almost 60 percent of riders killed were not helmeted.
Motorcycle laws have been loosened across the United States almost without interruption since the 1970s, Rader said.
"Safety obviously isn't considered (in state helmet laws), or else it'd be different," Rader said.
Motorcyclists are 67 percent less likely to suffer brain damage in a crash if they are wearing a helmet, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.