As More Motorcycles Hit the Road, Fatalities Rise

By Beacon Staff

As the popularity of motorcycles continues to grow, fueled in part by high prices for gasoline, so does the number of fatalities across Montana. State officials are stressing safety and it appears more people are heeding the advice, with motorcycle rider safety classes filling up at an increasingly rapid rate. This year’s statewide turnout for the Montana Motorcycle Rider Safety (MMRS) courses was a record high.

Last year, there were 522 motorcycle accidents, 36 of which were fatalities, compared to 288 accidents and 14 fatalities in 1998. The 2008 motorcycle death toll was 34 as of Sept. 8, according to Jack Williams of the Montana Department of Transportation. Williams said there were 35 as of the same time last year, which is nearing the end of the motorcycle season. Overall accident numbers aren’t yet available.

Michele Calvert, MMRS director, and Williams both said the rise in fatalities is directly related to the overall increase in motorcycle riders. But Calvert is encouraged by the large number of participants in the MMRS RiderCourse safety classes that are held in 10 cities and towns across Montana, including Kalispell. From April to September, classes are held in the parking lot of Flathead Valley Community College, but there are no openings left this year.

“There are a lot more people riding motorcycles – a lot,” Calvert said. “It’s just becoming more and more popular.”

Riders in Montana aren’t required to take the safety courses to earn their endorsement, the motorcycle equivalent of a driver’s license, but both Calvert and Williams advise everybody to take them. Aside from learning essential safety skills, completing RiderCourse allows people to opt out of the riding skill portion of the endorsement exam and just take the written part. Also, many insurance companies offer premium discounts for riders who have completed the course, and some motorcycle manufacturers offer to pay the course’s fee.

Calvert expects about 2,000 people to complete the safety course this year, a bump up from last year’s 1,800 total. Enrollment has been steadily increasing in recent years.

The RiderCourse basic beginner classes are weekend-long, running from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday. Bikes and helmets are provided, and the courses are split between classroom work and road skill testing. The advanced classes for experienced riders, who bring their own helmets and motorcycles, are Saturday only from 8 to 5.

The RiderCourse program works in conjunction with the DOT. Williams said his agency helps purchase motorcycles for MMRS and supports the program in a variety of other ways.

An increasing number of older people are enrolling in the safety classes, Williams said. Many of them are returning to riding after a lengthy break during their middle-age years. The motorcycles they rode when they were young, Williams said, were often substantially smaller and less powerful. With the bigger, beefier bikes, he said the classes are important.

“(The bikes) are more than they realize and I think the training really probably helps with the change,” Williams said.

Safety has always been a concern with motorcycles. While motorcycle accidents constitute only a small percentage of the overall number of road and off-road accidents, they make up a disproportionately large portion of fatalities. Last year, motorcycle crashes contributed 2.4 percent of all crashes, but 13.3 percent of all fatal accidents. In Montana, helmets are not required for riders over the age of 18 and though endorsements are required by law, Calvert said “there are a lot of unendorsed riders out there.”

Montana is not alone in its growing number of motorcycle riders, Calvert said, which makes safety classes that much more important.

“It’s going on all across the country,” Calvert said. “We’re just keeping up with the rest of the country on this one. Safety is always No. 1.”