More motorcycle fatalities involve riders 40 and up

August 22, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A motorcycle accident used to be a young man's way to the morgue. It was the teen rebel living fast and dying young, the Leader of the Pack roaring off to his doom.

That was another century. Now crash victims are increasingly likely to have gray hair and grandchildren. They are people like Richard Nally Jr., 46, and his wife Connie, 41, who didn't live to see her son's wedding because a car made a left turn in front of their motorcycle last fall near White Marsh.

"I don't think it's something we'll ever get over," said Lissette Beamer, Connie Nally's mother.

The Rosedale couple became part of a grim national trend - an increase in deaths on motorcycles, especially among middle-aged and older Americans.

While motorcycle fatalities among all riders have gone up in the past few years, deaths among those 40 and up have more than doubled. Riders in that age group now account for almost half of all fatalities.

The demographics are nothing new to the emergency physicians who deal with the aftermath of motorcycle wrecks.

"We've got a guy upstairs now who's 70-something who was hurt riding his motorcycle," said Dr. Thomas Scalea, physician in chief at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center. "When he came in, I wasn't surprised."

Statistics released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this month show the extent of the change:

In 1990, only 15 percent of motorcycle fatalities involved riders 40 and older. By last year, the percentage had risen to 46 percent. (One statistic that has held steady over the decades is that about 90 percent of those killed are male.)

From 1988 to 1992, motorcycle fatalities among those 40 and older never exceeded 500. Last year, they accounted for 1,674 of the 3,661 total deaths.

The average age of riders killed on motorcycles rose from 29 years in 1990 to 38 in 2002.

In 2003, the number of motorcycle deaths among people 50 and older was three times that among teenagers.

Rae Tyson, spokesman for the NHTSA, said government officials don't fully understand the increased fatalities among older Americans because there hasn't been a comprehensive study of what causes motorcycle accidents since the 1970s.

"Everybody agrees there is a desperate need for a good, comprehensive causation study," he said.

In part, the increased risk to older riders simply reflects that there are more of them on the road. Other possible factors include alcohol use and reluctance to wear helmets and a potentially lethal combination of age and inexperience.

Scalea said middle-aged people - many of whom are taking up motorcycling late in life - simply don't have the same abilities they had before.

"You're not as good at 50 as you were at 30; you're just not," he said. "Your reflexes, your hand-eye coordination - everything starts to degrade."

When an older person gets into an accident, the consequences can be more serious than for a younger rider with the same injuries. Scalea said the ability to recover from trauma diminishes with age, even as young as 40.

"The older you are, the more likely you are to die from injury," he said.

State Highway Administration figures show that Maryland's death toll reflects the national trend. In 1999, a quarter of the 42 people killed in motorcycle accidents were over 40; last year, that age bracket accounted for more than 40 percent of the 53 killed.

The Nallys were one of two Maryland couples in their 40s who died on their bikes last year. They had been married five years, and each had two children in their 20s.

"They all took it pretty hard," said Beamer, who lives in Shrewsbury, Pa. She said her grandson Lester Beares, whose wedding Connie Nally was helping to plan when she died, went through a period of anger over losing his mother so soon.

Beamer said Richard Nally was a loving husband who made her daughter happy after a troubled first marriage. "They lived for each other," she said.

As a mother, Beamer said, she was concerned when the couple took up motorcycling but was reassured by their age. "They were two extremely safety-conscious young people," she said, adding that they never drank and always wore helmets when riding.

When they bought their motorcycle, the Nallys joined the swelling ranks of bikers on American roads. According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, sales have increased for 11 straight years.

Those sales have been especially strong among older Americans. In 1985, the median age of motorcycle owners was 27. Now, according to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, it's about 41.

Like the Nallys, who started riding about two years before their accident, many of those enthusiasts are taking to the roads on two wheels later in life.

Gail Cassell and her husband, Bill, began motorcycling three years ago in their early 40s when their children were grown. The Pasadena couple rides with a local chapter of the Christian Motorcycle Association.

"It's a good time for a husband and wife to spend quality time together," she said.

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