Motorcycle Deaths, Injuries Cost $16 Billion, Says Government Report

A motorcyclist rides between cars in slow moving traffic on Highway 101 in Corte Madera, California.

A motorcyclist rides between cars in slow moving traffic on Highway 101 in Corte Madera, California.  (Getty)

Those itching to splurge on a shiny new bike may want to think twice.

A new government report says direct costs from deaths and injuries caused by motorcycle accidents were $16 billion in 2010, but the full cost is likely higher because long-term medical expenses are difficult to measure.

The Government Accountability Office report says motorcyclists are involved in fatal crashes at higher rates than drivers of other types of vehicles, and are 30 times more likely to die in a traffic crash than passenger car occupants.

Motorcycles are popular among Latinos and the industry has taken notice. In 2009, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company launched a new section on their site dedicated to “Harlistas,” also known as Harley riders of Latino heritage. Users were encouraged to submit personal stories, photos and videos about their experiences on the open road. The company also has expanded to Latin America because it sees the region as a big growth area. 

However, the rise of crashes caused by motorcycles is proving to be costly in several ways.

While 439,678 motorcycles were sold in the U.S. 2010, the report states there were 82,000 injuries and 4,502 deaths. The average cost for a fatal crash was estimated at $1.2 million, while the cost for injuries ranged from $2,500 to $1.4 million depending upon the severity.

Despite the alarming increase of crashes and fatalities, shoppers can’t get enough of the bike’s allure. In 2011, approximately 440,899 motorcycles and scooters were sold in the U.S., a spike in sales compared to 2010. The Motorcycle Industry Council described the typical motorcycle owner in 2009 as 41-years-old, which is up from the 1980s when the ideal owner was considered to be 24.

It's difficult to determine the full costs with accuracy because some types of costs are difficult to measure, the report said. For example, treating serious injuries can be long and expensive, but follow-up analyses of costs are conducted only for a few years.

The report also says laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear helmets are the only strategy proven effective in reducing fatalities and injuries. Several studies have estimated helmets reduce the risk of death by as much as 39 percent. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated helmets saved the lives of 1,550 motorcyclists in 2010.

However, there has been strong opposition from motorcycle groups to "universal" helmet laws, and only 19 states have them. Another 28 states have "partial" helmet laws that require only some motorcyclists to wear helmets, usually riders under age 21 or under age 18. Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire have no helmet laws.

Educating other motorists to look out for motorcyclists, and teaching motorcyclists how to ride safely is, according to Jeff Hennie, vice president of the Motorcycles Riders Foundation, “the ultimate solution for saving lives.”

But Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which supports mandatory helmet laws, said: “Education is not a substitute for wearing a helmet.”

"It's like saying if you take a driver's ed class, you don't have to wear your seat belt," she said. "Now how silly is that?"

Partial helmet laws are also difficult to enforce because it's hard for police to tell the age of motorcyclists as they go whizzing by, she said.

The National Transportation Safety Board dropped mandatory helmet laws from their list of ten "most wanted" safety improvements earlier this month, angering some safety advocates.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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