By David Sharp
PORTLAND, Maine - Increasing numbers of middle-aged Americans are getting motorcycles, whether to recapture their lost youth or pull through some kind of midlife crisis. As a result, riders 40 years old and over are accounting for an alarming number of motorcycling deaths.
Across the country, the annual number of motorcycle fatalities among 40-plus riders tripled over the past decade to 1,674 in 2003, while deaths among riders under 30 dropped slightly to 1,161, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
According to the administration, the average age of motorcyclists killed in accidents rose from 32 in 1994 to 38 in 2003.
``It's really kind of astonishing. The ages of these fatalities are so high. You would think it would be all of the young kids on those fast bikes, but it's not,'' said Carl Hallman, highway-safety coordinator with the Maine Department of Public Safety.
The surge in deaths among older riders helped to push motorcycle fatalities higher overall. They jumped by nearly half during the past five years, from 2,483 in 1999 to 3,661 in 2003.
As for why so many riders in their 40s, 50s and beyond are dying, big, powerful bikes appear to be part of the explanation. Federal figures also show that riders in their 30s and 40s who died were more likely to have been drinking than their younger counterparts.
In addition, safety experts say many older riders are either returning to motorcycling after many years or are trying it for the first time.
``They haven't ridden in 20 or 30 years, so their skills are rusty. Motorcycles have changed, and they're getting bigger motorcycles. And they're getting on without a refresher course,'' said Cathy Rimm, program director for Motorcycle Rider Education of Maine.
Finally, safety officials point out the obvious: Older riders' eyesight and reflexes are not what they once were.