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8/22/2008 - Motorcycle deaths in Virginia at lowest level since 2005

Virginia motorcycle fatalities spiked last year to the highest level in at least a decade, prompting public awareness campaigns, stepped-up enforcement initiatives and a declaration by the governor that May 2008 would be "Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month."

The efforts seem to be paying off.  Half as many people died while riding motorcycles in Virginia during the first five months of this year compared with the same period last year - 20 in 2008 and 41 in 2007, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. The 2008 numbers are preliminary because crashes still under investigation have not been submitted to the DMV. So far this year, 11 motorcycle deaths have been reported in Hampton Roads, five of them in Chesapeake.

Statewide, motorcycle fatalities are at their lowest level since 2005, even though there are more registered motorcycles in the state than ever before - 136,953 as of May 31.

Virginia is on pace to see its first yearly decline in motorcycle deaths in more than five years.

Keith Lindgren, coordinator of the Virginia Rider Training Program at Tidewater Community College, credits the decline to an increased emphasis on motorcycle education.

More than 100 people take motorcycle classes each week in Hampton Roads, Lindgren said.

Also, the Navy recently instituted a program requiring any service member who owns a sport bike to take a one-day course, in addition to a basic rider-training course.

"We want to make sure people are aware of the danger of these things when they get on them," Lindgren said. "I was always of the belief that the majority of the accidents are caused by the other driver, but what we're finding is it's not that as much as it's the motorcyclists themselves."

About half of the 126 riders who died in motorcycle accidents last year were between the ages of 21 and 35, according to the DMV, and rider behavior contributed to 80 percent of the deaths.

The DMV, which analyzed crash reports, found three main causes: losing control, following too closely and speeding. The agency also found that four out of five motorcycle crashes kill or injure the rider, compared with one out of five car crashes. 

"Last year put the issue back on our radar screens," said Mary Ann Rayment, media coordinator for the Virginia Highway Safety Office.  "We've been trying to bring back the importance of training to the motorcycle community." In the past year, state officials have given presentations on motorcycle safety, issued a brochure and launched a training program called Motorcycle 411.

In March, the DMV sent thousands of letters to Virginians who owned motorcycles but did not have a "Class M Designation" on their driver's licenses. The letter warned the owners that if they are caught operating a motorcycle without the designation, they could face a $2,500 fine and a year in jail.

To get the designation, riders must pass a knowledge test and a road skills test, or complete a motorcycle training program such as the 2-1/2-day class offered through TCC.

"There's an awful lot of stuff you need to learn," said Dave Hunter, manager of Honda of Norfolk. He said Honda pays up to $75 for customers who buy new motorcycles to take training classes, which typically cost $100 to $125 in Hampton Roads. "Having learned from the bump-and-bleed method myself," he said, "it's really good to have someone who knows what they're doing teach you how to ride."

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