Preliminary numbers released last month by the federal government suggest the nation isnít making much progress in reducing traffic deaths. But of particular concern is statistics reflecting the fastest-growing source of fatal accidents ó those involving motorcycles. In all, an estimated 4,800 motorcycle riders lost their lives in collisions last year. Thatís a 125 percent increase over the last decade.

The situation is even more pronounced in Texas, where 360 people died in 2005 as a result of motorcycle crashes, according to the most recent statistics available from the Texas Department of Public Safety. The toll was only 129 in 1995, so the number of deaths here has almost tripled in less than a decade.

While motorcyclesí popularity has grown over that time, so has the number of cars on the road, and yet overall traffic deaths are little changed over the decade.

Experts point to a combination of factors. At the start of this year, only 20 states required all motorcyclists to wear a helmet. Before 1975, all states required them. But the repeal of mandatory helmet laws since then ó at the urging of motorcycle enthusiasts ó has led to a marked decline in the use of helmets nationwide and an increase in head injuries.

Another factor safety advocates cite beyond the rise in ridership involves rider behavior. In many cases, motorcyclists fail to follow basic rules of the road.

Even so, almost two-thirds of motorcycle-involved crashes are caused not by the motorcyclist, but by the other driver. The driver either does not see the oncoming motorcyclist or does not see him or her in time to avoid a crash. Automobile drivers also contribute to another 10 percent of motorcycle crashes where the motorcycle is the only vehicle involved. Drivers who unintentionally pull out in front of a motorcycle often force the rider to over-brake, slide and fall.

The most common crash between other vehicles and motorcycles is at an intersection when the automobile driver is making a left turn in front of a motorcycle, the Texas DPS says.

Regardless of where the blame lies in any specific accident, itís obvious that motorcycles give their riders almost no protection from a crash, so the consequences of mistakes on the road are greatly magnified. Motorcyclists must continue to learn how to travel safely and responsibly, and automobile drivers must always be aware that much more visible cars and trucks arenít the only legal users of streets and highways.

Safety warnings issued by law enforcement agencies are important to heed. The opportunities for such collisions will only grow as the popularity of motorcycling grows and as the cost of gasoline makes this an appealing transportation option.

Brownwood Bulletin