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Uneasy Rider: Boomer Deaths in Motorcycle Crashes Jump
From the Wall Street Journal of Mon, 22 Dec 2014 00:15:33 EST
Randall Dowell, age 50, lost part of his leg and sustained other injuries in a motorcycle accident in April.
Randall Dowell, age 50, lost part of his leg and sustained other injuries in a motorcycle accident in April. Steven Turville for The Wall Street Journal

On a typical day in the U.S., a dozen people die in motorcycle accidents. An increasing number of them are baby boomers.

Though the overall U.S. motorcycle toll appears to have leveled off in recent years, deaths have risen among older riders as more of them hit the road. Those 55- to 64-years-old accounted for 16.3% of motorcycle crash deaths in 2013, the latest year for which that breakdown is available. That was down from 17.2% in 2012 but up from 9.3% a decade earlier and less than 3% in the early 1990s.

Benjamin Garrett III, 60 years old, was commuting to his job at an industrial-technology firm in early November when the driver of an oncoming Ford Mustang made a left turn. Mr. Garrett’s Harley-Davidson clipped the back end of the car, ejecting him from the motorcycle. The father of six, a volunteer basketball coach, was pronounced dead in a hospital near his Bradenton, Fla., home.

“He was a very careful rider,” said Holly Switow, Mr. Garrett’s widow. She said he was wearing a helmet and a newly purchased reflective jacket. The driver of the car was charged with failure to yield.

One reason for the rise in deaths among older riders is that there are more people in that age bracket. The percentage of Americans between 55 and 64 years old increased to 12.3% in 2012 from 10.8% in 2007. That group’s share of motorcycle deaths rose even faster.

While older riders may be less reckless in their habits, they also are more vulnerable, said James Hedlund, a traffic-safety consultant in Ithaca, N.Y. “Their reflexes and their vision aren’t as good as they were,” he said, and their bodies are more fragile: “The same impact will cause more damage to a 55-year-old than a 25-year-old.”

The statistics still show there’s work to be done.

Scott Wine, CEO of Polaris Industries

So far, the motorcycle industry has done little to address the specific safety needs of older riders. Harley-Davidson Inc., the largest U.S. maker of motorcycles, says it encourages safety for riders of all ages by promoting riding courses offered by its dealers. “Rider training continues to be a really important part of our strategy,” said Angela Thundercloud, Harley’s rider training manager. Ms. Thundercloud said she didn’t believe a specific push was needed to reach older riders.

Polaris Industries Inc., which makes Indian and Victory motorcycles, plans to create a program to encourage veteran riders to take refresher courses, said Scott Wine, the company’s CEO. “The statistics still show there’s work to be done,” he said.

Some baby boomer men gave up motorcycling in their 20s or 30s when they had children and settled down. Once the children were grown, the dads had more time and money, allowing them to buy motorcycles, typically larger than those they had in their youths. In the 1960s, a 650 cubic-centimeter engine was considered big, said Joe Proia, a motorcycle-training instructor in Uxbridge, Mass. Today’s typical Harley engines are more than double that size.

“Just because you rode 20 years ago doesn’t mean you can pick it up where you left off,” said Paul W. Coté, president of the Massachusetts Motorcyclists’ Survivors Fund, which helps families of riders who were killed or injured.

The Motorcycle Safety Foundation, funded mainly by manufacturers, prepared materials nearly a decade ago for “seasoned rider” courses to help riders stay safe as they age. Robert Gladden, a vice president of the foundation, said that it has sold hundreds of copies of the course materials but that he was unable to name an organization using them.

Some trends are encouraging. The number of motorcycle deaths per 100 million miles traveled trended down to 23.4 in 2012 from 38.8 in 2003, U.S. government data show. Even so, the number of deaths per mile traveled was 26 times higher for motorcycles than for cars in 2012.

“The way to make a motorcycle safe is to put four wheels and a body on it,” said Mr. Hedlund, a former senior official of the traffic safety administration. Short of that, he and others say, greater use of anti-lock brakes would save lives. Both Harley and Polaris say such brakes are standard or optional equipment on many of their motorcycles.

Mr. Hedlund also favors legislation mandating helmets for all riders in the 31 states that don’t have such laws.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported on Friday that U.S. motorcycle crash deaths in 2013 totaled 4,668, down 6.4% from 2012 but roughly in line with 2011. The dip in 2013 didn’t signal a change in the trend, Mr. Hedlund said, because the 2012 total was boosted by unusually warm and dry weather early in the year that encouraged more motorcycle riding. Without that weather effect, he said, the accident tolls for 2013 and 2012 probably would have been little changed.

Randall Dowell is relearning to walk with a prosthetic leg.
Randall Dowell is relearning to walk with a prosthetic leg. Steven Turville for The Wall Street Journal

Randall Dowell, a 50-year-old truck driver who lives in Galion, Ohio, resumed riding several years ago after a long period away from motorcycles. While he was riding his motorcycle one afternoon last April, a car swerved into his lane and struck him, Mr. Dowell said. He lost the lower part of his left leg and suffered serious injuries to a knee and wrist.

“Pretty much my whole left side has been reconstructed,” he said. Mr. Dowell is relearning to walk with a prosthetic leg.

“I was doing nothing crazy,” he said. “I was just cruising easy,” at about 25 miles an hour, and wearing a helmet. Mr. Dowell doesn’t think his reflexes have slowed but says recovery from injuries is slower at his age than in his youth.

He isn’t sure whether he will ride a motorcycle again: “That is going to depend on how much use I can get out of my left hand—and whether my wife will let me.”

Write to James R. Hagerty at

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