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LESS MONEY, MORE MOTORCYCLE DEATHS

As crashes rise statewide, experts say affordability is one factor.

Debbie Harrigan wishes she could have bought her son a car. A single mom, she never had the extra cash.

So, 17-year-old Jon saved $1,300 and got a used motorcycle.

For two months, the Ridgewood High senior rode his black and yellow Kawasaki to school and work. It got better gas mileage and didn't require insurance.

Jon's ride came to fatal end Nov. 1 when a car collided with his motorcycle on U.S. 19.

His death is part of a statewide surge in motorcycle fatalities and injuries, a trend experts say is fueled in part by affordability.

"Economics," said Sgt. Jim Bordner, spokesman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office who also worked for 12 years as a traffic homicide investigator.

"If you look at what $10,000 or less will buy you vs. a car, and with about 20 to 30 miles more in gas mileage, and with gas balancing at $3 a gallon, the dollars and cents add up," Bordner said.

Jon's mother believes his death was avoidable.

"Motorcycles used to be a treat, a luxury," Harrigan said, staring at a picture of Jon on her kitchen table. "Now they're all some people can afford. I'm frustrated because my son shouldn't be where he is yet."

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People who have motorcycle accidents in Florida are six times more likely to die than automobile drivers.

The number of registered motorcyclists statewide was 582,740 in 2006, compared with 339,488 in 2002.

The number of fatalities also is rising steadily.

In 2002, 274 people died in motorcycle crashes; by 2006, the number was 521, according to the most recent statistics from the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

In Hillsborough County, 37 people died in 2006. Pinellas had 24 deaths, Pasco had 13 and Hernando had four. Hillsborough had the third-highest number of motorcyclist fatalities in the state, compared with 44 in Broward County and 61 in Miami-Dade.

Youth, inexperience and speed are usually factors in the accidents, but just as many crashes involve car drivers who are careless or don't see motorcyclists, law enforcement officials said.

Jon Harrigan died when he and his 16-year-old girlfriend were on their way home from running errands. The crash left her with a broken leg.

The driver of a car attempting to cross U.S. 19 hit the motorcycle, the Florida Highway Patrol says. She didn't see the bike.

"People who ride motorcycles will tell you how evil car drivers are," said Bordner, of the Pinellas Sheriff's Office. "The opposite is true if you talk to people in cars. They complain about how fast motorcycles go. The reality is that the roadways are only as safe as the worst driver.''

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While nationwide sales of motorcycles dropped slightly in 2007, managers at local dealerships say sales are holding their own, even in a sagging economy.

People are trying to save gas and money, said Billy Bott, sales manager at WFO Kawasaki shop in Brooksville. Some of the bikes in the showroom get anywhere form 30 to 75 mpg.

"You can come here and pay $3,600 for a new bike," Bott said. "And you don't have to have insurance in the state of Florida to ride a motorcycle."

Along with the no helmet law, Florida is one of few states where insurance is not required to register a motorcycle. That changes when a rider is charged after a crash with injuries. The rider is financially responsible for bodily injuries and property damages to others.

To ride without a helmet, a motorcyclist must be 21 or older. The rider must also be covered by an insurance policy providing at least $10,000 in medical benefits.

Not having insurance doesn't deter most riders, Bott said.

"I use my motorcycle to get back and forth from home to work," he said. "I don't have insurance either."

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Chris Beistline was one of Jon Harrigan's best friends.

He test-drove Jon's motorcycle, then helped his friend learn how to ride it.

Now, the windshield of Beistline's Suzuki displays white lettering that reads, "In Loving Memory of Jon Harrigan."

Beistline bought his bike nearly two years ago as a cheaper way to get around.

"After working for three years, I finally started to make $8 an hour," Beistline said. "I can barely afford my motorcycle. If I could afford an older used car with insurance, I would get it."

Since Jon's death, he and others are frequent visitors to the Harrigan home. They sit in Jon's room or hang out around the picnic table outside. They always make sure to hug Debbie Harrigan as they enter the front door.

Beistline still can't believe what happened. Each time he puts on his helmet and swings his leg over the yellow and black ride, he thinks about Jon.

"I'm the one who told him that riding is the closest thing you can get to flying," he said. "It is."

Times staff writer Jonathan Abel contributed to this report, along with news researchers Carolyn Edds, Caryn Baird and Shirl Kennedy. Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1432.

Fast Facts

By the numbers

582,740 Registered motorcycles in Florida in 2006.

521 Motorcyclists who died statewide in 2006.

7,934 Motorcyclists injured statewide in 2006.

616 of those riders were injured in Hillsborough

465 were injured in Pinellas

253 were injured in Pasco

100 were injured in Hernando

County by county motorcycle deaths

2002 2006

Hillsborough 22 37

Pinellas 12 24

Pasco 9 13

Hernando 2 4

Source: The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles

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