WASHINGTON — Motorcycle deaths dropped 2 percent in the first nine months of last year, but the report by state transportation officials may signal just a blip, not a lasting improvement in safety.
There were 80 fewer motorcycle deaths from January through September of 2010 than in the same time frame the previous year, said the report, scheduled for release Tuesday by the Governors Highway Safety Association.
But fatalities had started to climb back up during the last three of those nine months. And that has safety advocates worried.
"The drop is all in the front half of the year," said report author Jim Hedlund, a safety consultant. "It looks very much as if we've hit bottom and may be starting back up again."
Fatalities were down 25 percent during the first three months of last year, and still down 1 percent in next three months after that. Then they went up 3 percent in the third quarter of the year, the report said.
Annual motorcycle fatalities have more than doubled since the late 1990s, peaking in 2008 at 5,312 deaths. But they plunged 16 percent in 2009 as the economy tanked. What caused the drop is a matter of debate.
Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the safety group that issued the report, said recreational motorcycle riding appears to have declined while the recession was at its worst, and that may explain why the number of deaths went down.
Now that the economy is showing signs of recovery, Adkins said he's concerned a rebound in recreational riding will lead to more deaths.
But Jeff Hennie, vice president of the Motorcycle Riders Foundation, disagrees. He said the economy — especially the recent rise in gas prices — appears to have increased, not decreased, motorcycle use.
"If I have a choice between driving a pickup or my motorcycle, I'm taking the motorcycle that gets 50 miles per gallon," Hennie said. "It's not sport, it's transportation."