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It's not your imagination: Florida leads in motorcyclist deaths

If you’re in a wreck, and you’re on a motorcycle, you’re 35 times as likely to die than if you had been in a car. That’s according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Photo by EAMONN KNEESHAW (2008)

If you’re in a wreck, and you’re on a motorcycle, you’re 35 times as likely to die than if you had been in a car. That’s according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Juan Andino-Casillas died earlier this week in Tampa when he crashed his Suzuki motorcycle into a Toyota that turned into his lane. He was 35.

Jerry Williamson died earlier this month in St. Pete Beach when he crashed his Harley-Davidson motorcycle into a Cadillac that turned into his lane. He was 42.

Benjamin Mower died last month in Zephyrhills when he crashed his Suzuki motorcycle into an Isuzu that turned into his lane. He was 19.

Sure seems like these fatal motorcycle wrecks have been happening around here a lot of late. Doesn't it?

We made some calls.

"More people are riding," said Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association in Washington, "so more people are dying."

More local: "You have a huge number of motorcyclists, and many of them are driving recklessly," said Steve Gaskins, the Hillsborough County spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol. "It really started spiking, I'd say, in '02 and '03, as far as the fatalities are concerned."

Which is true. Kind of.

Let's start with the national numbers.

More people are riding motorcycles than ever before. The Motorcycle Industry Council says sales have been on the rise since 1993. The U.S. Transportation Department says 350,000 motorcycles were sold in 1997 — and 1.2 million in 2006.

So it's not all that surprising that more people are also dying on motorcycles than ever before. Those stats have gone up 10 straight years. The numbers actually are sort of startling. In '97, 2,110 people died on motorcycles; in '06 — 4,810.

It's more dangerous to ride a motorcycle than it is to drive a car. It just is. For obvious reasons.

If you're in a wreck, and you're on a motorcycle, you're 35 times as likely to die than if you had been in a car. That's according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

And the state with the most motorcycle deaths?

The Sunshine State.

More than second-place California. A lot more than third-place Texas.

Makes some sense. Big state. Warm weather.

Here, though, is where the numbers get a little more muddled. According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, these are the motorcyclist fatality stats for the state for the last few years: 441 in '05, 521 in '06. Then 517 in '07. Then 489 in '08.

That '08 number is considered "preliminary" and could still go up because some law enforcement agencies lag on reporting their data to the state. For now though, check it out — a bit of a plateau.

"We don't have an explanation," said Courtney Heidelberg of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. "We measure the what. We don't measure the why."

Maybe it's the state's efforts to up awareness. Last year's "Ride Proud. Dress Loud." campaign urged riders to increase their visibility on the roads by wearing brightly colored clothes.

Or maybe it's the state law that went into effect in July that requires all motorcyclists to pass the basic ride course to get a license — although a quarter of the people who die in motorcycle accidents don't have the proper license.

Or maybe it's all those LOOK TWICE SAVE A LIFE bumper stickers. That campaign was started 14 years ago by a couple in Georgia after their 25-year-old son died on a motorcycle. They say they've distributed 650,000 stickers worldwide.

Or maybe it's just that people are driving less these days. Gas prices. The economy. The number of overall deaths in motor vehicle wrecks in the first 10 months of '08 was down 10 percent from the first 10 months of '07.

The only certainty: Every time a motorcyclist dies in west-central Florida, guaranteed, people will fill the comments section on the bottoms of the stories on tampabay.com. They'll blame the people in the cars, the people on the motorcycles, even the poor snowbirds. Some people will say the bikers got what they deserved. Other people will tell those people to watch their mouths.

"Motorcyclists think car drivers don't look out for them," said Marianne Trussell, the chief safety officer for the state Department of Transportation. "And car drivers think motorcyclists drive too recklessly."

Some things never change.

Times staff writer Drew Harwell and staff researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

It's not your imagination: Florida leads in motorcyclist deaths 02/26/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 2, 2009 11:15am]
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