More than 5,000 people were killed riding motorcycles on U.S. roads in 2015, close to an all-time high, and a 10 percent increase over 2014’s figure.

This marks the first time since pre-recession 2008 – and only the third time in history – that more than 5,000 motorcyclists have died, according to a report by the Governors Highway Safety Association and Sam Schwartz Consulting.

Key reasons for the 5,010 fatalities were increased permissiveness from states for riding without a helmet, demographic surges in motorcycle ownership in the 20- to 29-year-old and 50- to 59-year-old age groups, and an increase in riding while impaired.

“These sobering findings provide a stark reminder of how susceptible motorcyclists are to fatal and life-threatening injuries,” Richard Retting, one of the authors of the report, said in a statement.

“The risk of motorcycle crashes and fatalities is compounded by factors such as alcohol and drug use, increased speed limits, the repeal of state helmet laws, and a record number of vehicles on U.S. roads. Concerted efforts are needed to reduce this tragic loss of life,” Retting added.

Fewer Helmet Laws = More Deaths

Only 19 states and Washington D.C. require all riders wear a helmet. Another 28 states mandate helmet use only for riders younger than age 18 or 21, and three states have no helmet requirement. The use rate of helmets in universal-law states was 89 percent, compared with 48 percent in all other states, according to a 2014 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In Michigan, which saw a 23 percent increase in motorcyclist fatalities, state highway safety officials cited the repeal of Michigan’s all-rider helmet law in 2012 as a factor in the increase in fatalities, the report said.

According to NHTSA, wearing a helmet decreases the risk of dying in a motorcycle crash by 37 percent. In 2013 – the more recent year data was collected – an estimated 1,630 lives were saved in the U.S. by motorcycle helmets; an estimated 715 additional fatalities could have been prevented if all motorcyclists had worn helmets.

Skills Not Keeping Up With Horsepower

Demographics also have played a role in the fatality study. Numerous states reported that motorcyclists killed in traffic crashes are often middle aged.

Although the 2015 numbers are preliminary, the report stated fatalities by age group should mirror 2014 numbers, when 20 to 29 year olds represented 26 percent of deaths, and 50 to 59 year olds represented 22 percent of deaths.

New York officials suggested that crashes/fatalities among older, returning riders may be due in part to rusty skills last used decades ago, and the inability to handle the increased power of today’s motorcycles.

Fatalities among young riders who are just starting out, and may have more courage than skill, kept pace with those among middle-aged riders. For instance, forty percent of motorcycle fatalities in Maryland involved younger males, ages 21-35. In Texas, 20- to 29-year-old males comprised the majority of motorcycle deaths.

Fewer than half of motorcyclists today have completed formal motorcycle safety training, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

One favorable trend is the increasing availability of antilock brakes on motorcycles. Given the small contact patch that motorcycle tires have with the road, panic stops on a bike with traditional brakes can often result in the bike's wheels “locking up” and spilling the bike over instead of braking to a successful stop.


Motorcyclist Fatalities and Percent of Total Traffic Fatalities, 1990-2014

YearMotorcyclist FatalitiesTotal FatalitiesMotorcyclist Deaths as a Percent of Total Traffic Fatalities
Fatality Analysis Reporting System (NHTSA)