Motorcycle deaths dropped 2 percent in the first nine months of last year, but the report by state transportation officials may signal just a blip, not a lasting improvement in safety.
There were 80 fewer motorcycle deaths from January through September of 2010 than in the same time frame the previous year, said the report, scheduled for release Tuesday by the Governors Highway Safety Association.
But fatalities had started to climb back up during the last three of those nine months. And that has safety advocates worried.
"The drop is all in the front half of the year," said report author Jay Hedlund, a safety consultant. "It looks very much as if we've hit bottom and may be starting back up again."
Fatalities were down 25 percent during the first three months of last year, and still down 1 percent in next three months after that. Then they went up 3 percent in the third quarter of the year, the report said.
Annual motorcycle fatalities have more than doubled since the late 1990s, peaking in 2008 at 5,312 deaths. But they plunged 16 percent in 2009 as the economy tanked. What caused the drop is a matter of debate.
Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the safety group that issued the report, said recreational motorcycle riding appears to have declined while the recession was at its worst, and that explains why the number of deaths went down.
Now that the economy is showing signs of recovery, Adkins said he's concerned a rebound in recreational riding will lead to more deaths.
But Jeff Hennie, vice president of the Motorcycle Riders Foundation, disagrees. He said the economy — especially the recent rise in gas prices — appears to have increased, not decreased, motorcycle use.
"If I have a choice between driving a pickup or my motorcycle, I'm taking the motorcycle that gets 50 mph," Hennie said. "It's not sport, it's transportation."
A related data trend is also worrisome. The number of motorcyclists wearing federally-approved, impact-absorbing helmets dropped 13 percent in the first nine months of 2010. At the same time, motorcyclists wearing so called "novelty" helmets — which are lightweight and offer little protection — rose 9 percent.
A helmet that meets federal standards reduces the wearer's chances of being killed in an accident by about 40 percent, Hedlund said. The only reason for wearing a novelty helmet is to avoid getting ticketed for not wearing a helmet, he added.
Twenty states require all motorcycle riders to wear helmets, but only 13 states specify that the helmets must meet federal standards, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The board has urged states to require all riders to wear helmets that meet federal standards.
Lobbying by motorcyclist groups has led some states to repeal mandatory helmet laws.
Meanwhile, BMW Motorrad USA said it will offer anti-lock brakes as standard equipment on all its 2012 model year motorcycles, the first manufacturer to take that step. Improper braking has been identified as a factor in many motorcycle crashes. BMW said its sales account for less than 3 percent of the U.S. market.