Shortly before 10 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 12, a van crossed the centerline in Keeler Township and struck an eastbound motorcycle, killing its driver and critically injuring a female passenger.
The man suspected to be the driver of the van suffered only minor injuries. He was arrested and lodged in the Van Buren County Jail on charges of operating while intoxicated causing death and operating while intoxicated causing serious bodily injury. He was later released, after police determined another individual had been driving but fled the scene.
The crash killed 27-year-old Darek Jamal Bullock-Mills of Niles, according to Michigan State Police. His passenger, 24, was transported via med flight to Bronson Kalamazoo Hospital.
Just hours before, another motorcyclist was hospitalized following an afternoon crash in Jamestown Township. Only weeks ago, searchers located the body of a 31-year-old Hamilton man, Logan Sweet, who had been missing for several days in West Michigan.
Police believe Sweet left the roadway on his motorcycle and hit a tree.
Two weeks before that, deputies from the Ottawa County Sheriff's Office were dispatched to reports of a motorcyclist down shortly before midnight on Ottawa Beach Road in Park Township.
Police found a 22-year-old Holland man was traveling west on Ottawa Beach Road at a high rate of speed on a 2008 Yamaha, lost control, left the roadway and crashed. He suffered fatal injuries.
In a crash Monday, June 20, a 56-year-old Holland Township motorcyclist suffered fatal injuries. Another fatal crash took place near Wayland on Sunday, June 12, claiming the life of one man and seriously injuring one woman. Yet another motorcyclist, a 28-year-old Holland man, succumbed to injuries suffered in a car-versus-motorcycle crash Thursday, May 12.
These are just the cases covered by local media outlets in West Michigan. According to data compiled by the Skilled Motorcyclist Association — Responsible, Trained and Educated Riders (SMARTER), an education and advocacy-focused nonprofit based in Michigan, crashing a motorcycle is getting more dangerous, and the situation isn't helped by the state's repeal of its helmet requirement in 2012.
"We just simply aren't doing the job in the state of Michigan," said SMARTER CEO Dan Petterson. "There are a lot of things wrong with the motorcyclist safety effort in Michigan, and the data tells us we aren't making progress."
Petterson believes the first step is reinstating the helmet law. To be clear, not all of the fatalities and hospitalizations in West Michigan over the past four months were a result of motorcyclists' decision not to wear helmets — but according to the data, the repeal of the helmet law has led to about 20 more fatalities per year.
"Research tells us wearing a helmet is really the only scientifically proven method of saving motorcyclists' lives and the quickest, easiest, cheapest way (to ensure helmet-wearing) is to reinstate the law," Petterson said.
"The second thing I would do is make sure Michigan has one agency or person responsible for ensuring safety. Right now, it's divided between different agencies and people, and it's been recommended for a couple of decades that we establish a single person."
Right now, Petterson said, motorcyclists must pass a safety course or have had their license for at least two years, plus a minimum of $20,000 in third-party medical insurance, before riding without a helmet. They must also be at least 21. But there's no system for enforcement.
"There's no sticker on my license plate or anything to verify I've met those requirements," Petterson said. "The law as written isn't enforceable, and there's no effort to make it enforceable. It was simply a way to pacify a few legislators that felt there should be requirements of some sort."
For each year since Michigan eliminated its helmet requirement, data shows un-helmeted riders who crash die at a rate often double that of riders who are wearing a helmet.
In total, there's been a 16.3 percent increase in Michigan's motorcyclist fatality rate per 100,000 registrations between 2012 and 2021, and the average number of fatalities per year increased 22.73 percent during the same period.
And although motorcycle crash fatalities are a problem nationwide, the Midwest — in particular — has trouble with helmets. As a region, the Midwest reported the lowest helmet use in the country, according to a study by QuoteWizard based on data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The study found 53 percent of riders in the Midwest reported wearing helmets in 2020, while just 45 percent reported wearing helmets in 2021. Not only did the Midwest have the largest year-to-year drop in any region, but 45 percent was at least 20 percentage points below the next lowest region.
But it's not just helmeted riders vs. un-helmeted riders. It's also general awareness by drivers of larger vehicles on the roadway and the rise of what researchers call "lunatic" drivers.
"Particularly in early 2020, people weren't traveling, so there were fewer automobiles on the road and less congestion," Petterson said. "Those people who decided to travel, they were risk-takers, so when they went out and the roads were empty, they drove fast.
"When you take that behavior and apply it to motorcyclists, if I exhibited that same behavior, I'm probably dead. And that's just the simple fact that motorcycles are the most dangerous vehicle."
This article originally appeared on The Holland Sentinel: Why are so many motorcyclists dying on Michigan roadways?