Deadly danger: Drunken motorcyclists on the road
Some motorcyclists aren’t just intoxicated by the rumble of an engine or the experience of zooming down an open road. Drinking and driving has become so prevalent among bikers that they’re involved in more deadly alcohol-related crashes than any other group of motorists.
A federal report shows 29 percent of all fatal vehicle crashes in 2009 involved motorcycle drivers who were drunk. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, released in August 2011, breaks down other alcohol-impaired drivers involved in fatal crashes by type of vehicle:
• 23 percent of passenger car drivers.
• 23 percent of SUV drivers.
• 12 percent of van drivers.
|A federal report shows 29 percent of all fatal vehicle crashes in 2009 involved motorcycle drivers who were drunk.|
The statistics, collected annually, highlight a problem that motorcycle industry experts and government data indicate has existed for years.
Alcohol: Big part of the biker culture
Alcohol affects three key components for safe riding — judgment, balance and coordination — according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Any alcohol use increases a biker’s chance of crashing by about five times, but bikers with a blood-alcohol level past the legal limit of 0.08 percent have a 40 percent greater chance of crashing.
“It’s one of the biggest frustrations we have, in trying to get motorcyclists to realize that alcohol and riding a motorcycle never mix,” says Robert Gladden, vice president of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, which develops rider education and training programs.
Blame the lifestyle embraced by motorcyclists. Many bikers tend to socialize at bars, restaurants and private parties, where flowing booze is a normal part of the culture, experts say.
“Alcohol is, to many, an acceptable part of the riding community,” says Imre Szauter, government affairs manager for the American Motorcyclist Association, which promotes motorcyclists’ rights.
The actions can cause odd accidents, plus just odd behavior. James Scarborough was arrested in Naples, Fla., in June 2011 for a DUI after being trapped underneath a motorcycle he crashed into some trees. The 49-year-old man told police that the “boogeyman” caused the accident.
Some motorcycle owners, however, are concerned that if they leave their motorcycles at an establishment after drinking too heavily, the bikes could be stolen or vandalized. Others don’t want to designate someone to drive their customized bikes.
“People take a great deal of pride in their vehicles,” Szauter says. “Most motorcyclists will not let someone (else) operate their vehicles.”
The “either I operate it or nobody operates it” mentality often is why bikers think they have no choice but to drive their motorcycles, even if their blood-alcohol level exceeds the legal limit. Szauter says what’s disturbing is that people spend so much time and money on their motorcycles, only to injury or kill themselves and damage their bikes by driving drunk.
Even if a death or injury doesn’t occur, an alcohol-related accident could jack up the premiums for already pricey motorcycle insurance. Also, if a driver is convicted of a DUI, he can continue to ride, but Szauter says the biker’s insurance premium could rise or his coverage could be canceled.
Revving up the safety factor
Safety advocates say bikers must take more responsibility for their actions. They need to have a way to get home if they plan to drink. Gladden says people who want to ride to a bar and then hop on a motorcycle to head home are behaving foolishly.
“It’s a matter of getting people who are motorcyclists to understand and acknowledge just how high the risk is for them when they choose to ride impaired,” Gladden says.
A prevailing attitude — not just among motorcyclists, but among all folks who drink and drive — is that they’re invincible. In the past decade, efforts by industry groups, alcohol manufacturers and government agencies have sought to educate motorcyclists about the dangers of driving drunk and to reduce crash rates.
• A “Ride Straight” program by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and American Motorcyclist Association earlier this decade aimed to show the consequences of drinking and riding and provide resources for getting home safely.
• The Motorcycle Safety Foundation has created the Basic Rider Course curriculum, used in 48 states and at U.S. military installations with examples of why drinking and driving is a bad idea. It also has developed a Ride Straight module that uses goggles simulating a 0.08 blood-alcohol level for driving schools, community colleges, motorcycle clubs or other organizations to educate folks about how alcohol impairs bikers.
• Keep Your Balance, a rider education program, was launched in 2007 by Miller Brewing Co. and the American Motorcyclist Association to promote reduced alcohol consumption and riding, by providing tools that encourage people at motorcycle events to wait to sober up before starting their engines.
• Riders Helping Riders, an instructional and peer invention program, was created in 2008 by the U.S. Department of Transportation and American Motorcyclist Foundation.
Safety efforts yield results
The efforts appear to be working. After 11 years of steady increases in motorcycle deaths, data from the Governors Highway Safety Association show a 16 percent decrease from 2008 and 2009, and another 2 percent decline for the first nine months of 2010 (the most recent data available). It also forecasts dramatic declines in these states once figures for all of 2010 are available:
• Oklahoma — 30 percent.
• Oregon — 27 percent.
• Texas — 16 percent.
Officials in those and other states that have seen reductions in motorcycle deaths credit safety programs and an emphasis among law enforcement officers in some states on detecting impaired motorcyclists. Szauter says those officers have a difficult task, because improper lane changes and erratic driving — signs of drunken driving — are exhibited even by sober drivers.
There is one sign that motorcyclists may be getting involved in fewer alcohol-related crashes. The younger generation of riders appears to be downing heavily caffeinated Mountain Dew and energy drinks such as Red Bull and Monster rather than beer and cocktails, Gladden says.
“It’s good to see them not drinking and riding,” he says.