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July was among deadliest months for motorcyclists in Minnesota

July was a deadly month for Minnesota motorcyclists.

Rochester police and firefighters responded to a motorcycle versus automobile crash on East Center Street in Rochester in May.

July was a deadly month for Minnesota motorcyclists.

With 19 deaths, it tied with 2006 for the highest number motorcycle-related fatalities for any July since 1997.

Last year, 10 motorcyclists died in July from fatal crashes.

Stephanie Kaufenberg of the Minesota Department of Public Safety said she wouldn't be surprised to see that record broken once this year's preliminary data is further analyzed.

And this year has seen 40 rider fatalities, a figure fast approaching last year's 51 deaths.


The rise in fatal motorcycle crashes comes at a time when ridership is at record-high levels with 237,000 registered motorcycles and 404,967 licensed operators. It also comes at a time when fewer and fewer riders are getting trained before hitting the road — so few so that the DPS has had to cancel some of its training courses because of low enrollment.

Three months ago, Bill Schaffer, director of the state's Motorcycle and Roadway Safety Programs, assumed that the late spring would have put a curb on the number of fatalities. Now he said he suspects it only had riders itching to get out on their bikes.

"When the weather did get nice, people really got out there with their motorcycles and rode hard," he said, "and maybe didn't have the kind of warm-up they have in a typical spring."

Half of this year's fatal crashes were single-vehicle accidents, he said, and of those, failure to negotiate a curve was a leading cause. That points to inexperience or lack of skill, he said, which are the key focus of basic training courses.

But even with the knowledge of what's factoring into these fatalities, Schaffer said he's still unsure what exactly has made this particular season so lethal.

"It's kind of perplexing because we don't really know why we see these factors," he said. "Why are we having more this year?"

Training riders

Every week starting on a Thursday night, Rodney Friedrich teaches a group of 25 motorcyclists, usually made up of beginners, how to be good riders.


They make their way through a work book; they practice sharp stops and tricky curves; they learn how to ride with a passenger.

When the class, which costs $160 and is offered through Rochester Community and Technical College, is done, they can go to the DMV and get their endorsement.

Enrollment in classes such as Friedrich's peaked in 2008, when some 10,600 students signed up, but since then that number has been on the decline. Last year only 7,438 were trained.

This year, Friedrich said he's seen a significant drop in enrollment.

"(It's) been the wildest year. I've been doing this for what, 24 years, and they've canceled out half of my classes," he said. "We've never had that problem before."

Last summer, he said the program couldn't offer enough to fill demand.

"I'm puzzled as to why these classes aren't filling up," he said. "But every time I pick the paper up or turn the TV on it's another motorcyclist that went off a curve and got killed."

The training is required for any drivers younger than 18, but upon becoming a legal adult, the course becomes optional. Without it, a driver can take a short test at the DMV and obtain a permit — and it's these drivers that keep Friedrich worried, he said.


"They can go out and buy the biggest bike they want to, and they can ride out in traffic with no experience, no training, no skill," he said. "They never do have to be tested on their motorcycle — they can ride around on this permit."

Friedrich recalled a time when such a permit-brandishing student arrived to class on a big motorcycle. But once he got on the smaller training bikes, he couldn't even negotiate a turn without toppling, Friedrich said.

"And I'm thinking in my mind, 'This guy is riding that big Harley out in traffic?'" he said. "It's scary."

He teaches about 360 students in a single summer, of which he said only a handful already have their endorsements and are there to sharpen their skills or be checked out for bad habits.

"I think a lot of them think their skills are already there," Friedrich said.

Safety precautions

Another growing concern for instructors and state officials is the lack of use of helmets and other protective gear.

In the 40 motorcycle fatalities this year, at least 20 riders killed in crashes were not wearing helmets. Helmet-use was included in 36 law enforcement reports.

Mike Madden, director of the Southeastern Minnesota Harley Owners Group, has been in two motorcycle crashes: one while wearing a helmet, and one without.

Although he just purchased a new helmet, he said he doesn't always use it.

He clocks about 10,000 miles a year on his bike and has been riding since he was 15 — more than 40 years ago. Madden admitted he had never taken any formal training courses.

He estimated that only half of the SEMHOG wore helmets.

"They're uncomfortable, they're hot, you know, but they come in handy if you get in an accident," he said. "It's personal preference, I guess."

Age factors in fatalities

In this year's surge of fatal motorcycle crashes, baby boomers have made up more than two-thirds of the fatalities.

And not only do they make up a greater share of licensed motorcycle drivers, said Schaffer, they also fare worse than younger drivers in serious crashes.

"Motorcycling is a very physically demanding activity, and when riders are older, they're a little slower," he said. "I'm over 50 myself, and I just don't bounce like I used to. People just aren't as crash-resistant as they were when they were younger."

But those younger riders, said Schaffer, are over-involved in fatal crashes compared to their share of ridership.

"There aren't many owners in that age range, and yet they're about a quarter of our fatalities," he said.

Madden said the 150-member Southeastern Minnesota Harley Owners Group is made up of predominately older riders.

Those baby boomers, he said, are pulled in by an "attraction, an allure to motorcycles and the legends of Harley."

He said it's the same thing that attracts the age group to hot rod or Corvette clubs.

"There just seems to be an attraction to transportation," he said. "Money frees up a little bit more and time frees up a little more. What guy, at some point in time ... hasn't dreamed of having a motorcycle or having a Corvette?"

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