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Montana shines, startles in motorcycle study

Montana shines, startles in motorcycle study

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A Missoula Police officer surveys the scene of a 2017 collision between a motorcycle and a semi-truck.

A study that calls Montana the least deadly state for motorcyclists suggests an even more startling nugget:

In a cold-weather state with barely 1 million people, there are more than 300,000 registered motorcycles.

That’s one for every 3.4 Montanans, and here’s hoping that .4 person has a minibike.

For sure, the ratio’s skewed because many bike owners have more than one. But only eight states have more bikes, and they’re the seven most populous ones along with Wisconsin, No. 20. Montana ranks 43rd in population.

“Isn’t that nuts?” said Maj. Steve Lavin of the Montana Highway Patrol in Helena. “That really shocked me. I never heard that before. I can’t figure out why Montanans own so many motorcycles.”

No doubt his wonderment is shared by even those who ride, sell and share the road with hogs, choppers and crotch rockets. But Mike Schroeder said maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising.

The general manager of Grizzly Harley-Davidson in Missoula said he wouldn't have guessed there were that many, either.

“But it kind of figures. Because we have such a short season of summer activity, everybody wants to take advantage of it, and there’s not a better way to do it than on a motorcycle,” Schroeder said. “We’ve got such good riding. It’s part of the reason I moved here.”

Seattle-based Quote Wizard, an insurance comparison website, released the study earlier this month. It ranks all 50 states in terms of fatalities and registered motorcycles based on 2017 numbers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Highway Administration.

Mississippi wore the tarnished crown as the most dangerous with 14.22 fatalities per 10,000 registered motorcycles that year. Texas (13.44), South Carolina (12.27) and Florida (10.06) were all in double figures. Montana was way last at just .75 with 23 motorcycle fatalities compared to 306,655 registered cycles.

South Dakota was next least dangerous at 1.36, followed by Alaska (1.88) and New Hampshire (1.90).

Highway Patrol and the Montana Department of Transportation will tell you 23 motorcycle deaths, or almost two a month, are still too many. They share in the Vision Zero initiative with a stated goal of eliminating all highway fatalities.

Montana’s unofficial 2018 numbers indicated 20 people died in motorcycle-related crashes last year. Through May 20 this year, two people lost their lives on state roads where motorcycles were involved. That’s the same number as last year going into Memorial Day weekend, and down from four in 2017.

"Riding a motorcycle no matter where you are is dangerous," Quote Wizard noted when it released its report. "The open exposure compared to the confines of a vehicle presents a greater risk of bodily harm. Safety features are better than ever but injuries and death are an ever-present risk."

“The big takeaway we saw on both sides of the ranking list was the southern, warmer states came out on top in terms of having the highest rate of motorcycle fatalities, whereas the colder weather states had the lowest,” said Adam Johnson of Quote Wizard, who compiled the study. “It’s what we figured it would be. The less time folks are outside on motorcycles, the less danger they’re in of having a fatal accident.”

That explains the general pecking order, but it doesn’t clarify why little old Montana, among all the northern tier states and Alaska, ranks so much better than any of them.

“Both statistics really surprised me, but as I dug into it a little bit I guess I was surprised a little less,” Lavin said.

Yes, he agreed, fewer months of good riding weather plays into the low fatality rate for motorcycles.

“The only other reason I could think of is we’re in less urbanized areas, so you don’t have as many vehicles in congested traffic where motorcycle fatalities are probably happening in states with bigger urban centers,” Lavin said.

“It’s wide-open roads,” Schroeder agreed. “The only thing you’ve got to worry about here are critters.”

Rentals at Grizzly Harley-Davidson are picking up as summer approaches and get “basically out of control” from June through August, Schroeder said. Local riders are active well into October, and it's no wonder.

“Montana’s got probably the most scenic, wide-open roads where you’re not so worried about traffic no matter which direction you go,” Schroeder said. “Especially on the west side it’s just fantastic. We have a huge rental business. People come from all over the world, really, to ride here.”

Of course, those rental bikes are registered, so they’re counted among Montana's 306,000. Not all states consider three-wheelers to be motorcycles. Montana state law defines motorcycles as motor vehicles that have seats or saddles and not more than three wheels. They include side-by-sides but not tractors, mopeds or two- or three-wheeled all-terrain vehicles used exclusively on private property.

Schroeder speculated on one thing that might bump Montana’s motorcycle numbers up: All the cycles and dirt bikes that were registered years ago but sit collecting dust in barns and garages.

Johnson said Quote Wizard produces such studies to give insurance companies fodder when they’re setting rates.

Lavin, the Highway Patrol major, has never had a motorcycle.

“I guess I’m still in the majority,” he quipped.

But the Quote Wizard study has his attention.

“It kind of intrigues me. I think I’ll continue to dig as well," said Lavin.

"But it’s good news for a change," he added. "Usually we’re hearing about leading the nation in DUIs and DUI deaths, so it sounds like an encouraging report.” 

Rank (worst) State Registered Motorcycles Fatalities Fatalities per 10,000 Registered Motorcycles
1 Mississippi 28,124 40 14.22
2 Texas 364,690 490 13.44
3 South Carolina 118,132 145 12.27
4 Florida 586,267 590 10.06
5 Arizona 164,055 163 9.94
6 North Carolina 188,843 176 9.32
7 New Mexico 57,718 53 9.18
8 Kentucky 101,163 90 8.90
9 Missouri 138,294 121 8.75
10 Louisiana 113,664 96 8.45
11 Tennessee 165,968 134 8.07
12 Maryland 118,277 86 7.27
13 Arkansas 89,457 65 7.27
14 Nevada 76,032 54 7.10
15 Alabama 112,185 79 7.04
16 Hawaii 35,576 25 7.03
17 Oklahoma 136,190 93 6.83
18 Georgia 203,922 139 6.82
19 Connecticut 90,131 57 6.32
20 California 842,543 529 6.28
21 Virginia 193,951 117 6.03
22 Indiana 250,579 149 5.95
23 Wyoming 28,960 17 5.87
24 Kansas 95,892 56 5.84
25 Michigan 258,487 150 5.80
26 New Jersey 152,979 83 5.43
27 Colorado 190,002 103 5.42
28 Maine 51,467 26 5.05
29 Pennsylvania 377,158 187 4.96
30 Illinois 333,943 162 4.85
31 Nebraska 55,736 27 4.84
32 Utah 83,993 39 4.64
33 West Virginia 60,582 26 4.29
34 Vermont 30,955 13 4.20
35 Oregon 142,738 57 3.99
36 Idaho 63,297 25 3.95
37 Ohio 410,187 157 3.83
38 New York 392,178 145 3.70
39 Delaware 27,810 10 3.60
40 Rhode Island 30,914 11 3.56
41 Washington 231,401 80 3.46
42 Massachusets 168,931 51 3.02
43 Iowa 194,603 48 2.47
44 Wisconsin 324,670 77 2.37
45 North Dakota 51,941 12 2.31
46 Minnesota 241,556 55 2.28
47 New Hampshire 78,798 15 1.90
48 Alaska 31,859 6 1.88
49 South Dakota 117,461 16 1.36
50 Montana 306,655 23 .75
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Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian

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