People are dying on the streets and roads of Allen County at a faster pace than in any year since at least 2005.
Much of the difference can be attributed to the large number of motorcycle riders and passengers who've died in crashes this year, likely because the early arrival of warm weather and the many days without rain created inviting conditions for motorcycle riding.
“We had more rideable weather this year. It began a month earlier,” said Jerry Foust, who tracks traffic deaths as part of his job as senior transportation planner at Northeast Indiana Regional Coordinating Council.
Eleven of 24 deaths in Allen County traffic wrecks so far this year have been motorcycle riders or passengers, according to the NEIRCC statistics. Foust's records date to 2005, and the toll this year already is higher than the total deaths in every year except 2005, when 31 died, and 2006, when 28 died.
The 11 deaths of people on motorcycles are more than in any of the years in Foust's database. Eight people died in motorcycle crashes in 2009; for 2005-2011, an average of 4.5 deaths of motorcycle riders was recorded each year.
The emerging trend of increased motorcycle-crash deaths prompted the Fort Wayne-Allen County Board of Health to issue a bulletin on motorcycle safety earlier this summer.
“Preventing debilitating injuries and deaths from motorcycle crashes is a growing public-health concern,” it said. It cited figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that said motorcycle-related deaths have increased by 55 percent since 2000.
Foust's figures show that since the beginning of 2005, 41 people have died in 37 motorcycle wrecks in Allen County. Another motor vehicle, such as a car or truck, was at fault in 11 of the crashes – for example, by pulling out in front of a motorcyclist, Foust said.
In the other 26 wrecks, the motorcyclist or motorcycle was at fault, by riding too fast, for example, or losing control and not making a bend in a road. Mechanical problems, such as tire failure, also are grouped among those 26 wrecks in which the motorcycle was at fault.
Among those 41 people killed in motorcycle, mo-ped or scooter wrecks in the last eight years, only one was wearing a helmet, according to the NEIRCC figures. Seventeen of the 41 who died were under the influence of alcohol or drugs, as were two of the drivers of other motor vehicles involved in crashes between motorcycles, mo-peds or scooters.
Foust, who looks for trends in traffic accidents of all types, not just fatalities, is hard-pressed to see any cause for this year's spike in deaths beyond better weather bringing out more riders for more miles. An increase in vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, is the key measure of motorists' risk on the roads.
“Since 2008, we've seen a decrease in VMT,” he said. “Gas prices are up, employment is down, it's an economic thing. Now VMT is starting to pick up a little bit,” he said, adding that more miles traveled are not enough to explain the higher fatalities here.
Dr. Deborah McMahan, commissioner of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health, sees encouraging helmet use and safety training as the best answer for reducing the number of deaths among motorcyclists. The health department bulletin on motorcycles this summer cited figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration saying that wearing a helmet reduces a rider's risk of death by 37 percent.
“I don't understand the helmet thing,” she said. “If you want the wind in your hair, stand in front of a fan.”