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US traffic deaths rise for first time since 2005 -- motorcycle rate a big contributor

Michael Conroy / AP file

This school bus crash on the southeast side of Indianapolis on March 12, 2012, killed the driver and a student.

For the first time in nearly a decade, the number of traffic deaths went up and a shift away from motorcycle helmet laws may be to blame, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and helmet advocacy groups.

An improving economy, which leads to more discretionary driving, also played a role in the increase, according to NHTSA officials. “With a rebounding economy that there’s increased discretionary driving, which is clearly always the leader in terms of dangerous driving scenarios,” NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said.

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Last year was the first year that deaths rose since 2005 and it marked the highest number of people to die on U.S. roads since 2008. The total number of fatalities rose 5.3 percent to 34,080, according to the NHTSA estimate.

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The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) is projecting that approximately 5,000 motorcyclists died in 2012: a 9 percent increase from 2011. This would represent 14.7 percent of overall traffic fatalities, the highest percentage ever.

Motorcycle deaths are up for several reasons: unseasonably warm winter weather early last year drew more riders out; high gas prices have led to an increase in motorcycle sales and more riders; and states continue to overturn laws that required helmet use.

“We’re seeing a really heightened number of motorcycle crashes and fatalities, which has really been driving the numbers in a lot of states,” Strickland said.

NHTSA said road deaths rose in all four quarters of 2012 and the fatality rate rose to 1.16 deaths per 100 million miles traveled, up from 1.10 in 2012 — and the highest fatality rate since 2008.

The rise follows a steady decline in road deaths since 2005, when 43,510 people died. Road deaths are down 26 percent since 2005. Road deaths in 2011 hit a 60-year-low, falling to 32,367.

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“After years of historic lows, any small uptick is going to look like a strong contrast,” Strickland said.

However, the focus on motorcycle fatalities is hard to escape in May, which is National Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month. Proponents of mandatory helmet laws point to the fact that motorcycle traffic fatalities went up in 34 states and decreased in 16 states.

Right now only 19 states require them of all riders, down from 26 states that did so in 1997. Several states repealed mandatory helmet laws in recent years, including Michigan, Pennsylvania.

Campaigns to repeal the laws are underway in some of the remaining states, and no state has enacted a universal helmet requirement since Louisiana did so in 2004.

Every region of the country saw motorcycle fatality numbers rise last year, including jumps of 32 percent in Oregon, 29 percent in Indiana, 18 percent in Michigan and 8 percent in Pennsylvania.

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However, opponents of mandatory helmet laws claim the rise in fatalities can't be attributed simply to riders not wearing helmets.

(Click here for more about the report on the rise in motorcycle fatalities.)

The Alliance of Bikers Aimed Toward Education (ABATE), a Pennsylvania-based organization that opposes helmet mandates, said fatality levels are influenced by several other factors, including an increase in motorcycle riding, alcohol impairment and road deterioration.

Charles Umbenhauer, ABATE’s lobbyist, said motorcycle registrations in his state increased from 286,531 to 404,409 last year. The fatality rate in the last full year of the state helmet mandate was 5.5 per 10,000 registrations, and 5.2 per 10,000 last year, the first year of the repeal.

“It’s common sense. If you put more motorcycles on the highway, you’re going to have more accidents and more fatalities,” he said.

More reporting from Open Channel

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