Wayne Snyder recalls his father telling him as a 10-year-old that when he was strong enough to lift a laid-down motorcycle and kick start it, he could ride it.
After two years of of working out and about 40 kicks, Snyder went for his first ride.
“I came back two days later,” said Snyder, now 67. “He took a leather strap to me. Boy, do I remember those days.”
Today Snyder is the deputy director of American Bikers Aim Toward Education Region 16. Like many motorcyclists, he loves the feeling of freedom he gets while riding.
However, that feeling comes at a heavy price.
Nearly 4,295 motorcyclists were killed nationally in 2014, up 10 percent from 2004 and 93 percent from 1994, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
National statistics were unavailable for last year, but 163 people were killed in motorcycle-related crashes in Ohio in 2015, including one motorcyclist in Lorain County, according to the Ohio Highway Patrol. Ohio motorcycle-related fatalities increased 16 percent from 2014.
Part of the rise in deaths over the last 20 years is due to the skyrocketing popularity of motorcycles. In 2011, there were some 8.4 million registered motorcycles in the U.S. — Ohio ranked 16th with about 390,000 — according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. That was more than double the 3.8 million in 1997.
Inexperienced riders with powerful motorcycles are at risk. In 2014, 32 percent of all motorcyclists killed were riding motorcycles with an engine size of 1,400 cubic centimeters or greater, compared to nine percent in 2000 and one percent in 1990, according to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, which analyzed safety administration data.
Snyder said many new motorcyclists buy the iconic Harley-Davidson motorcycles popularized in movies like “Easy Rider,” “The Wild One” and “Pulp Fiction.” “What they need to do is start off with a smaller bike and work their way into the cruiser classification,” he said.
Besides sometimes riding too-powerful motorcycles, many new motorcyclists lack training, Snyder said. Ohio allows motorcyclists to get temporary permits annually rather than eventually get a motorcycle endorsement, which requires taking a road and written test.
In 44 percent of last year’s fatal crashes in Ohio, the motorcyclist lacked an endorsement.
Snyder said his group is lobbying the legislature to make motorcyclists get endorsements after receiving permits for three straight years. If they fail to get an endorsement after three years, they would have to wait five years before getting another permit.
“We’re trying to get people out there that are licensed and experienced and tested to prove that they can handle a motorcycle,” he said, “instead of people that are just going out and buying a bike, jumping on it, riding it, and have never rode in their lives.”
Another major crash cause is distracted drivers, said Snyder who said he was rear-ended by a car while stopped at a red light in Elyria in 1982. Snyder’s group also wants the legislature to more severely punish distracted drivers who cause crashes.
The most common form of distracted driving by far is simply allowing your mind to wander while behind the wheel, according to the AAA. Using electronic devices is a distant second on the list (driving while texting is a misdemeanor in Ohio).
In 2014, 3,179 people were killed nationally, and 431,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers, according to the safety administration.
Motorcyclists need to be hyper-vigilant and humble, said Lisa Thuning, president and co-founder of the Oberlin-based Celtic Sisters Motorcycle Club. Thuning, who has been riding since 2008, said she’s never crashed, but has had a few close calls with deer and cars pulling in front of her.
Thuning, whose four-member club makes weekly runs that go from a few hours to all day, said she frequently practices emergency braking in parking lots to prepare for the unexpected.
“There’s always something you can learn to ride safer and better,” she said. “I never twist that throttle with ego.”
While Snyder and Thuning said they try to be safe, both said they often don’t wear helmets. Riders 18 and older in Ohio who have been riding more than a year aren’t required to wear helmets and haven’t been since the helmet law was abolished in 1978.
Snyder was wearing a helmet in a 1993 crash in which he said a car cut him off in Elyria and he was thrown from his motorcycle. He received 11 stitches in the back of his head and his helmet cracked.
But while helmet comfort has improved in recent years, Snyder compares wearing one to having an oven on your head. Thuning, who has neck problems, said a helmet reduces her peripheral vision, a common complaint of riders.
Both say wearing a helmet should be a matter of personal choice. “We all know the risks when we get on this beast,” Thuning said.
But not wearing a helmet can increase deaths and insurance expenses. Helmets are 37 percent effective in preventing death and 67 percent effective in preventing brain injuries, according to the safety administration. The American College of Surgeons found riders wearing helmets are 85 percent more likely to avoid critical or serious brain injuries compared to riders without helmets.
Of the 1,667 motorcyclists who died in Ohio from 2004 to 2013, 1,202 (72 percent) weren’t wearing helmets, according to the highway patrol. In Lorain County from 2010 through 2014, 14 of the 17 motorcyclists killed (82 percent) were helmetless, according to the the Lorain County General Health District, which analyzed patrol statistics.
Helmet proponents note deaths have steadily increased as helmet laws decreased. In the late 1970s, 47 states had motorcycle helmet laws compared to 19 now.
Insurance costs are also up. Helmet proponents cite Michigan, which abolished its helmet law for most motorcyclists 21 and older in 2012.
The insurance institute and the Highway Loss Data Institute found insurance claims were 10 percent higher in Michigan after the abolishment compared to 2010 and 2011. Claim severity increased 36 percent and overall insurance losses were 51 percent higher. The 2013 study compared Michigan claims to those in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin, where helmet laws remained unchanged.
“More riding might account for more frequent crashes, but it doesn’t explain the increase in severity,” Matt Moore, data institute vice president, said in a news release. “Motorcyclists are sustaining more injuries per crash or more serious ones after the law change than before.”
Russ Rader, insurance institute spokesman, said in an interview that if the federal government tied highway funding to requiring helmet laws, states might re-institute them. Rader said that’s unlikely to happen, but his group is lobbying the safety administration to require motorcycles have anti-lock brakes.
Rader said a study by his group found anti-lock brakes — which typically add between $400 to $1,000 to a motorcycle’s cost — reduce fatal crashes by 31 percent.
“That’s dramatic,” he said. “You seldom see a technology with that kind of effect.”
While technology can reduce crashes, Snyder said alertness by drivers and motorcyclists and respecting each others right to the road is key. “We need everybody to be on the same page,” he said.
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or GoodenowNews on Twitter.
Photos by Evan Goodenow | Oberlin News-Tribune Lisa Thuning, who co-founded the Celtic Sisters motorcycle club in 2014, said with the warm season beginning, motorcyclists need to exercise caution and drivers need to be extra alert.