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September 06. 2012 12:49AM

Dramatic increase in New Hampshire motorcycle deaths

With a good two months to go in the riding season, New Hampshire has seen the number of motorcycle deaths jump substantially from the year before.

As of Tuesday, 24 motorcyclists have died on New Hampshire roads, according to the New Hampshire Highway Safety Agency.

In all of 2011, 14 motorcyclists died.

This year's fatalities include two killed during a memorial ride in Westmoreland in August, four killed during Bike Week in June, and two riders killed overnight Monday on Route 101, suspected of driving 119 mph.

Experts give reasons that range from inexperience, the inherent dangers of motorcycling, the tendency of many riders to forgo helmets — even the weather.

“We've had a long, dry summer, so a lot of motorcycle activity,” said New Hampshire State Police Sgt. Matt Shapiro.

With more motorcyclists on the road, there is a greater chance for them to be in accidents, said Shapiro, who is analyzing crash data as part of a highway safety initiative.

To be sure, New Hampshire loves motorcycles.

Motorcycle registrations rank third-highest per capita in the United States, according to the website advrider.com. Bike Week in Laconia is one of the largest motorcycle gatherings in the country each year. And the hills, curves and rural scenery turn a motorcycle ride into a back-country roller-coaster ride.

Not only are motorcycle fatalities up, but so is their portion of the total number of fatalities in the state.

So far this year, motorcycle fatalities counted for nearly 1 of every 3 of the 77 motor vehicle fatalities in the state.

Last year, it was closer to 1 in 6.

Peter Thomson, coordinator of the state Highway Safety Agency, said motor vehicle fatalities — both involving cars and motorcycles — were down in 2011 and the first seven months of 2012.

He attributes the significant drop to the effort by New Hampshire State Police under Col. Robert Quinn to reduce fatalities.

Then August hit, and 22 people died on New Hampshire roads in a single month. At this point, it could just be an aberration, Thomson said.

“The New Hampshire State Police are trying to do everything possible to prevent fatalities,” Quinn said.

That includes a data-driven approach to make sure speeding patrols and DWI checkpoints are effective, partnerships with local police, and the Driving Toward Zero effort, a multi-agency effort that calls for halving the number of fatalities by 2030.

Impaired driving, distractions and speed account for 75 percent of motor vehicle fatalities, Shapiro said.

In an interview, Quinn was particularly concerned about distracted driving, which he said is responsible for a large number of crashes. He notes that state law prohibits texting but says nothing of dialing a mobile telephone.

“If someone's dialing a phone, that's not texting?” he said.

Motorcycles add additional dynamics to fatalities.

State officials say a lot of drivers don't see motorcycles as easily as cars. Motorcycles already lack the protection of cars and trucks, and about 70 percent of all motorcycle fatalities involve riders who don't wear a helmet.

Also, motorcycles allow for speed.

“Speed gets into someone's mind,” Thomson said. “Who would think you would go 119 miles per hour on a motorcycle.”

About a year ago, the state started analyzing crash data to better understand accidents and target resources.

Motorcycles are particularly susceptible to crossover accidents, when an on-coming car crosses a median and clips the motorcyclist, said Stuart Thompson, highway safety engineer for the state.

Thompson said median rumble strips would be a great solution for any two-lane highway. Several years ago, they were cut into Routes 9 and 202 between Hillsborough and Interstate 89, and head-on crashes dropped significantly.

“They're shown to be very cost-effective,” Thompson said. “They don't cost as much, but they have a good impact on safety.”

But communities complain about them, so they don't get put in.

“You have a change like that, and it's hard for people to accept,” Thompson said.

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Mark Hayward may be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.


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