Mature Bikers - No Cause for Alarm

Misleading statistics presented out of context can create the unwarranted impression that motorcyclists over the age of thirty-five or forty are a hazard to themselves and others on America's highways. Maturity and experience breed safer, not more dangerous, riders. The raw statistics do not take several influential factors into account including: years of experience, rider training, type of motorcycle, type of riding, changes in motorcycle population and changing rider population demographics.

A recent Washington Post article by Greg Schneider, “Rebels With Disposable Income,” discussed the purchasing habits of aging baby-boomers and highlighted the tendency to indulge in “toys” previously beyond the reach of the subject group. The changing demographics of Harley-Davidson motorcycle purchasers were central to the piece, in particular that the median customer age is now forty-six. Making light, and arguably inappropriate, use of some National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) statistics, Schneider alleges, “The federal government says the trend is contributing to rising death rates among motorcyclists. Last year, bikers under age 40 were less likely to die in a crash than the year before, while deaths among bikers over 50 were up 24 percent…” (Schneider F01). It is not much of a stretch to imagine that a forty-six year old who has not ridden a motorcycle for decades might be dangerous straddling a high-powered, heavyweight bike – especially in traffic. Schneider failed to report, however, that also according to the NHTSA, “overall motorcycle-related fatalities actually declined substantially [by 48%] between 1990 and 1999… a far better track record than any other form of highway transportation” (American Motorcyclist Association 1).

Another thing that these statistics do not take into consideration is the change in the age demographic for all active motorcyclists. It stands to reason that a large population of motorcyclists in the 25 – 35 age group ten years ago is now in the 35 – 45 group. If there is a shift in the median age of a population, it is entirely reasonable to expect a corresponding shift in the accident mortality rate for the same group. According to the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA), statistics provided by the NHTSA supports this thesis. In the ten-year period ending in 1999, the mean age of fatally injured motorcyclists increased from 29.3 years to 36.5 years while the mean age of motorcycle owners shifted from 26.9 years to 38.1 years (American Motorcyclist Association 1).

My insurance rates indicate a substantial risk differential based on the type of motorcycle ridden. Anyone familiar with the difference between a “sport bike” and a “touring” motorcycle would not find this particularly mysterious. Sport bikes are exceptionally powerful, agile, lightweight, and very difficult to operate at legal speeds. These high-strung machines virtually beg riders to test their limits, and consequently, are easy to loose control of. Although the engine size and horsepower of a touring machine may exceed those of a sport bike, the touring bike is built for an entirely different style of riding. Appealing to the ‘over forty' crowd, these large, expensive machines are more at home lumbering down the interstates or scenic byways than darting in and out of traffic. In a recent study on passenger vehicle insurance emphasizing motorcycles, the NHTSA reported the following among its conclusions, “Sport bikes, however, had bad loss records… these vehicles experienced losses per policy that were 1.5 to 2 times those of other motorcycles with large engines and 3 times the all-motorcycle average” (“Motor Vehicle Insurance in the United States” 9). Even though the motorcycle I ride is large, making it a generally bad insurance risk, I actually receive a discount because it qualifies as a touring bike.

Years of experience and rider training programs both speak of the rider's attitude toward the sport. I remember a cliché about ‘bold pilots' not surviving long enough to become ‘old pilots,' and I am confident the same applies to motorcyclists. According to the NHTSA, “In 1996… 40 percent (27,000) [of 67,000 total police-reported crashes] were single vehicle crashes. Many of the causes of motorcycle crashes may be attributed to lack of experience or failure to appreciate the inherent operating characteristics and limitations of the motorcycle” (“The Anatomy of a Motorcycle Crash” 1). Rider training programs allow participants to benefit from the experience of veterans, as well as presenting more subtle theoretical information, which might go unrealized even with long experience. The training programs also provide an opportunity to practice crash-avoidance techniques in a controlled environment. Seasoned cyclists may have learned these lessons through the school of hard knocks, but at the very least, they have lived to tell the tale by practicing very defensive driving. In either case, this breed of cyclist demonstrates a certain seriousness and responsibility toward the sport. In contrast to the trained and/or experienced riders, the NHTSA estimates that in as many as one-third of fatal motorcycle crashes, the operators are not properly licensed (“The Anatomy of a Motorcycle Crash” 1).

An additional statistic, which is not overlooked in Schneider's article, is regarding the overall population of motorcyclists on our highways, “A decade ago, fewer than 300,000 Americans bought motorcycles. Last year, 937,000 did, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council” (Schneider F01). Curiously, Schneider cites the mortality and sales statistics in adjacent paragraphs without addressing the possibility of a correlation. There has been a threefold increase in the number of new motorcycle sales, and the median age of all motorcycle owners increased from 26.9 to 38.1 (46 for new Harley purchasers). Is it not possible that there are other factors contributing to an increased mortality rate for bikers over fifty? A more meaningful statistic would compare the number of fatalities to the population of registered motorcycles for a given classification of riders.

Works Cited

American Motorcyclist Association (AMA). “AMA Puts Motorcycle Fatality Statistics in Context.” . 2001. 17 May 2003

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
“Motor Vehicle Insurance in the United States A 1998 - 1999
Snapshot with Emphasis on Motorcycle Coverage.” 20 May 2003