Motorcycle fatalities on the rise

Adam Foster, 26, of Goose Creek takes the motorcycle road test Wednesday as Department of Motor Vehicles examiner Cindy Holliday observes him at the Leeds Avenue facility. Foster passed the test and earned a motorcycle license.

Adam Foster swerved his 2007 Yamaha through orange cones and stopped repeatedly to the satisfaction of a DMV examiner Wednesday to become the latest of a growing number of South Carolina residents to earn a motorcycle license.

The Goose Creek resident did it in sweltering 90-degree heat while decked out in a leather jacket and helmet and with a little help from a required motorcycle safety course that he took as a member of the Navy.

Foster, 26, said the road course convinced him all riders should be required to receive training before getting on a bike.

"Probably about 75 percent of the people I know who have been involved in motorcycle accidents are guys who just got their bikes," he said.

A national study released Wednesday shows that motorcycle fatalities nearly doubled from 2,110 in 1997 to 4,810 in 2006 and that many states could do a lot more when it comes to required training, licensing and awareness.

The upswing in deaths was prevalent in South Carolina, where the 109 motorcycle deaths in 2006 accounted for 11 percent of all fatalities,despite motorcycles accounting for only 4 percent of all registered vehicles in the state, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, which did the study.

Preliminary numbers released by the S.C. Department of Public Safety show fatalities rose to 120 in 2007, and there were 52 as of June 15 this year.

State authorities say they expect the numbers to continue to climb because of more inexperienced riders, heavier and faster motorcycles and fewer bikers wearing helmets.

The study says that in 2006, 81 of the 109 riders killed in South Carolina crashes weren't wearing helmets, though it doesn't say how many of those deaths were attributed to head injuries.

The state is looking at ways to change state law to improve safety. While not expected to mandate all riders wear helmets — state law only mandates helmets for those 21 and older — it could require inexperienced riders to wear them until they complete safety courses.

South Carolina is one of 27 states with helmet laws covering some riders. Twenty states require everyone to wear them.

Authorities say rising gas prices also appear to be driving more people to drive motorcycles to work. The number of licensed motorcycle drivers also rose from 114,312 in May 2006 to 128,643 in May 2008.

The report says several states are having training capacity problems since motorcycle sales more than tripled from 356,000 in 1997 to 1.1 million in 2006, but South Carolina isn't one of them.

Still, officials say more people are enrolling in classes. There's been a sudden increase in popularity in the beginner and intermediate courses at Trident Technical College, according to Steve Price, educational program consultant for the school's continuing education division. Their classes already are full for July, but spots still are open for August.

The study states that in 2006, 25 percent of motorcycle operators killed in crashes did not have a valid license. The S.C. Highway Patrol found a similar problem here when it studied 99 fatal motorcycle crashes between July 2006 and December 2007. Thirty-six had beginner's permits and 25 had no licenses.