The Long Run

Vroomer boomers

The age of motorcyclists is on the rise, and so is their rate of injuries and fatalities

By Kay Lazar
April 26, 2010

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The highway signs are cropping up like dandelions on a spring lawn: “Look twice, save a life,’’ and “Share the road with a motorcycle.’’

While it may be hidden beneath their shades and helmets, many of the motorcyclists sharing those roads are increasingly likely to have gray hairs and wrinkles. As baby-boomer bikers have reconnected with their youth, the mean age of motorcycle ownership has risen — from 33.1 in 1998 to 40.2 in 2003, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council trade association. And the American Motorcyclist Association’s latest data show the average age of its members is 48.

It’s not just the age of riders that is climbing. So, too, are their rates of injuries and fatalities. A new study from researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center found that riders over 40 sustained more severe injuries and had longer hospital stays and higher risks of dying in motorcycle crashes than those under 40.

“We’re not saying that motorcycles are unsafe or that people shouldn’t ride them,’’ said Dr. Mark Gestring, the medical center’s trauma director and lead author of the study, which was published in the March issue of American Surgeon.

“We are just saying, if you get injured and you are older, the consequences are higher.’’

Gestring had been noticing over the past several years a steady increase in the number of older riders, and the severity of their injuries, in his emergency room. After he and his colleagues combed through the National Trauma Databank, a giant repository for all sorts of injuries across the country, a troubling picture emerged.

They found, for instance, that rib fractures nationwide were twice as common among injured riders over 40 than younger bikers. They also found that roughly 32 percent of injured riders over 40 required treatment in hospital intensive care units, compared with just 27 percent of those younger than 40. And they found that the over-40 group was more likely than younger riders to wind up with complications, such as pneumonia, blood clots, or infections. Perhaps most striking, they discovered that the older riders were up to twice as likely to die from less severe injuries.

Their findings were based on the records of riders in the United States who were involved in crashes between 1996 and 2005, which translated to some 61,689 motorcyclists between the ages of 17 and 89.

Another study, from researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, found a 145 percent increase in nationwide death rates between 2000 and 2006 among motorcyclists age 65 and over. The findings, published in the February issue of Injury Prevention, were culled from a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data bank for deaths and injuries treated in hospital emergency rooms.

In Massachusetts, the rate of motorcycle-related deaths and injuries among 55- to 64-year-olds has surged fourfold from 1998 through 2007, according to the state Department of Public Health — the largest increase among all age groups. The second-largest jump was among the 45- to 54-year-old segment, which saw a more than 50 percent increase.

While the University of Rochester study didn’t delve into the reasons for increased risks to older riders, Gestring said the higher stakes are likely due to the body’s overall reduced resources for withstanding injuries as we age, from thinning bones to less resilient tissue. Older riders are also likely to carry more medical baggage — such as cardiac problems and diabetes — and to be taking medications, such as blood thinners, that can complicate injuries.

Those conclusions jibe with what Dr. Jonathan Olshaker routinely sees at Boston Medical Center, where he is chief of emergency medicine. Particularly common, Olshaker said, are head traumas — injuries that Gestring and his colleagues also found were more prevalent among older riders.

“The blood vessels over the surface of the brain, as you get older, they stretch more, and these vessels are what cause most of the brain injury because they are more susceptible to tearing under the force of injury,’’ Olshaker said.

One factor older and younger riders may have in common is helmet use. Gestring’s study of injured motorcyclists found overall helmet usage around 73 percent for both groups, a level he and other safety specialists said was far too low given the risk of fatalities and brain injuries.

Helmet laws vary from state to state — Massachusetts requires them, but New Hampshire does not. Some riders say they eschew the gear because helmets block their peripheral vision.

For Peter Danas, a 56-year-old Wilmington father of two teenage boys who also is a proud owner of a big bike, a 2005 Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic touring machine, helmets are a staple.

Danas rode motorcycles as a teen and through college, then walked away for years, while he married, raised his sons, and established his career as an independent publisher. But about 10 years ago, the open road beckoned.

Before he climbed aboard a bike again, he took a safety course and joined the Boston HOGs, as in Harley-Davidson Owners Group, which, he said, holds regular safety rides for cyclists to brush up on their skills. Safety training is especially important for aging riders, whose eyesight and reflexes might not be what they once were, Danas said.

“If you have an older gentleman, in his late 50s or 60s, it may take a second or two longer to respond to what is happening, where as a younger person may respond more quickly,’’ Danas said. “But the younger kids may tailgate a foot away, and I am four car lengths behind because I want the time to respond.’’

Regardless of age, the sheer number of motorcyclists involved in serious accidents rose sharply over the past decade. Between 1997 and 2008, annual motorcycle rider fatalities jumped about 150 percent, from 2,116 to 5,290, according to the US Department of Transportation, which noted that “fatalities have increased disproportionately to the rise in registrations and sales’’ of motorcycles.

Then last week, the Governors Highway Safety Association released preliminary numbers for the first nine months of 2009 that showed a 10 percent decline in motorcycle deaths nationwide, although a quarter of the states, including Massachusetts and Rhode Island, still experienced significant increases. New Hampshire and Connecticut saw large declines. The association attributed the nationwide decline to the economy and bad weather in many parts of the country keeping motorcyclists off the roads.

Pete terHorst, a spokesman for the American Motorcyclist Association, said bikers of all ages face threats on the roads today that weren’t nearly as prevalent a decade ago, including much larger and heavier sport utility vehicles and the ubiquitous cellphone user behind the wheel.

“Distracted driving is a much bigger issue now,’’ terHorst said, “and that’s a huge concern for the motorcycling community.’’

Hoping to better understand the causes behind the 11-year spike, the Federal Highway Administration has commissioned a study. The lead investigator, Samir Ahmed, a professor of transportation systems and engineering at Oklahoma State University, said researchers will scrutinize at least 300 crashes and consider the riders’ training, age, medical condition, and use of medications, alcohol, and illicit drugs. They’ll also study road and weather conditions, helmet use, and the size, weight, and types of motorcycles involved.

The design of the study will help researchers understand how age plays a role in the number and severity of injuries and deaths among motorcyclists, Ahmed said.

Kay Lazar can be reached at