CT saw 4 fatal motorcycle crashes in a week, and deaths have risen nationwide. A Hartford trauma doc calls it ‘an inordinate amount of fatalities.’

·5 min read

On Friday, the 82nd Sturgis Motorcycle Rally begins in South Dakota, the largest rally in the country, lasting 10 days. It attracted more than 500,000 people last year and safety is a very clear component.

But while motorcycle riding is as popular as ever, deaths and injuries of motorcyclists also are rising, and both can be devastating, according to Dr. Jonathan Gates, chief of trauma surgery at Hartford HealthCare.

And he doesn’t blame any rally for the increase. It’s the riders on the highways and other roads that are at risk.

“We are seeing an increase in fatalities and injuries from motorcycles; there’s no question about it,” he said. There have been four fatal motorcycle crashes in Connecticut since last week, in Goshen, Shelton, North Haven and Hamden.

And while fatalities are a major concern, Gates is also worried about the number of injuries that leave people with missing limbs, traumatic brain injuries and other devastating, long-lasting problems.

“They are impaired and they may be impaired for a lifetime, both mentally and physically,” he said.

With 8.3 million motorcycles registered, there were 5,579 deaths among motorcyclists, 94% riders and 6% passengers, in the U.S. in 2020, an 11% increase from 2019 and the most since record-keeping began in 1975, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Injuries totaled 82,528, a 2% decrease.

Further, the number of motorcycle deaths was 29 times the number for cars, per mile traveled, in 2019, accounting for 14% of all motor vehicle crash fatalities in 2020, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The numbers do not reflect that safety is a prominent element for most riders. Motorcycle riding classes abound in Connecticut, where safety information is crucial, including at community colleges. And as Mike’s Famous® H-D Riding Academy in New London points out in its online explanation of requirements, “To receive a motorcycle endorsement from the State of Connecticut you must successfully complete all of the requirements of the State of CT, Motorcycle Safety Foundation” and for students there, also the academy class.

But Gates pointed out that motorcycles account for “only 3 percent of motor vehicles on the road … so it’s an inordinate amount of fatalities.”

Quotewizard reported that helmet use declined from 71 to 68% last year. The NHTSA reported: “In States without universal helmet laws, 57% of motorcyclists killed in 2020 were not wearing helmets, as compared to 11% in States with universal helmet laws.”

Connecticut requires a helmet only for riders under 18.

“Anything is fair game” when it comes to motorcycle crash injuries: neck, spine, head, intestinal injuries, Gates said.

“The energies are so high that the body is not designed well to withstand that kind of injury,” he said.

“I would say we see more of the pelvic fractures and extremity injuries, but also some of the more extreme head injuries from motorcycle crashes as well,” he said.

“We do all we can with head injuries to prevent what we call secondary insult,” Gates said. “It’s worsening bleeding that we want to prevent” inside the skull.

Otherwise, “someone may not be as intellectually equivalent as they were before the crash,” he said.

Rider impairment caused by alcohol or other drugs can be a factor in motorcycle crashes. Hartford HealthCare’s Not One More campaign seeks to have drivers pledge to know their limits and not have “one more” drink or joint. So far, 849 people have taken the pledge.

“Connecticut has the fourth-highest per capita impaired fatalities” in the country,” Gates said.

He said all types of people ride motorcycles, including a fellow trauma surgeon who sees the injuries crashes can cause.

“Especially in seeing these all the time, you’ve got to wonder, how do you come to grips with that?” Gates said. “The power-to-weight ratio is very high and there’s no protection for the rider.”

Some riders cruise as fast as 100 mph and it’s the “abrupt stop” that causes the bodily injury, Gates said. “If they are weaving between vehicles, that puts them more at risk as well,” he said.

Quotewizard.com found that alcohol, climate and helmet use determined which states were the most dangerous for motorcyclists. Connecticut ranked 22nd, with 58 motorcycle fatalities alcohol, climate and helmet use in 2020, and a 26% increase from 2019.

However, Connecticut ranked fifth among the states in the colder, northern half of the country, where motorcycle riding drops off in the winter.

Motorcyclists are more likely to have drunk alcohol than other drivers — 27% vs. 23% for car drivers and 19% for drivers of light trucks, according to the NHTSA — and 41% of motorcycle riders who died in single-vehicle crashes were impaired.

Gates speculated that the COVID-19 pandemic, especially during the early lockdown phase, may contribute to the increase in crashes, but said the trend began before the coronavirus arrived.

“Those motorcycle crashes and motor vehicle crashes have really continued in that accelerated pace that we saw after the first and second wave of COVID,” he said.

“I think it’s multifactorial,” he said. “When people were limited in their social actions, it was difficult. People are social animals. When those restrictions were lifted, people were anxious to get back to their normal lives.”

Ed Stannard can be reached at estannard@courant.com.