Preliminary numbers released last week by the federal government suggest the nation isn't making much progress in reducing traffic deaths. But the most troubling news of all was the fastest-growing source of fatal accidents - those involving motorcycles. In all, an estimated 4,800 motorcycle riders lost their lives in collisions last year. That's a 125 percent increase over the last decade.
The situation is much the same in Maryland, where police recorded 82 deaths and 1,701 injuries related to motorcycle accidents in 2006. That's more than twice as many injuries as 10 years ago and more than three times as many deaths. While motorcycles' 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. As of January, only 20 states required all motorcyclists to wear a helmet. The repeal of mandatory helmet laws since the 1970s (before 1975, all states required them) has led to a marked decline in the use of helmets nationwide and an increase in head injuries.
Maryland reinstated its universal helmet law in 1992, but injuries and fatalities have still gone up. Why? Safety advocates say it's not just the rise in ridership, and they point to rider behavior - in many cases, a failure to follow the most basic rules of the road - as the cause of too many crashes.
Because motorcycles give their riders almost no protection from a crash, the impact of rider error is greatly magnified. Riding in the blind spots of other vehicles and riding under the influence of alcohol or drugs are also common factors. An estimated one out of three crash victims is not even licensed or trained to operate a motorcycle, according to federal estimates.
These are troubling statistics. Instead of asking the Maryland General Assembly to repeal the mandatory helmet law, as they do each year, motorcycle groups such as ABATE (A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments) ought to be pushing for programs to make the roads safer. Requiring motorcyclists over age 18 to take the state's now-voluntary motorcycle safety course is but one possibility.
The cold reality is this: In 1996, one out of every 23 traffic deaths in Maryland was a motorcycle rider. Last year, it was one out of eight. And the stakes are only going to get higher as the rising price of gasoline makes motorcycles all the more attractive - and fatal accidents all the more likely.