One man, with his wife on board, lost control of his motorcycle on July 4th, killing them both. Another veered off the road on a sharp curve and struck a road sign, dying. A Coon Rapids couple was killed when they crossed the centerline and collided with a pickup.

All were in their 50s.

Minnesota is on track for an especially deadly riding season this year, with at least 32 motorcycle deaths so far, and baby boomers are most often the fatalities. Since January, more than half of those killed in motorcycle crashes statewide were over the age of 45.

The toll last year also was bad, perhaps because of an early spring, authorities said. But despite May snowstorms that kept many hogs in the garage well into spring, this year appears worse. Total fatalities, so far, are up 60 percent over the Department of Public Safety’s tally at this time last year. (The 2012 number later grew once more reports were compiled.)

“People are just going crazy this year,” said Bill Shaffer, director of the state’s Motorcycle and Roadway Safety Programs. “It’s discouraging, to say the least.”

The number and nature of the crashes have safety officials, riding instructors and motorcyclists worried. Nearly half of this year’s fatalities were caused by a motorcyclist losing it on a curve. That’s way more than typical and speaks to a lack of skill, Shaffer and others said.

Meanwhile, fewer riders are getting trained. Despite a record number of licensed riders, sign-ups for state safety courses have fallen from their peak in 2008. This season, the Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Center canceled some classes because of low registration.

Rider coach Bill Gregor has never seen so many cancellations. “The economy is better than it was two years ago, gas prices are high. We should have 50 people trying to get in here,” he said, gesturing to his class of 15. “I can’t figure that out.”

His teaching partner, Ashley Delzer, chimed in: “It’s because they’re all out there, uneducated and dying.” They both got quiet, shaking their heads.

‘Makes you feel younger’

Some wore leather jackets and head wraps. Others sported suits. But the dozen customers at a Harley-Davidson dealership in Lakeville on an evening last week had one thing in common: their age.

Baby boomers have driven the last decade’s dramatic rise in motorcycle riders. In Minnesota, a record 237,000 motorcycles were registered in 2012 — a number that has more than doubled since the mid-1990s.

Roger Holmes, 59, perused Harley-logo shirts with Sue Kealy, his regular companion on rides. Many of Holmes’ friends were buying bikes, so in 2004 he did too. The Rosemount resident takes his Sportster to work on summer weekdays, an occasional band gig at night and, with Kealy as his passenger, on little trips on weekends. The couple’s most recent ride brought them south on Hwy. 61 to Wabasha, Minn.

“It makes you feel good,” Holmes said, of riding. “It makes you feel younger.”

“Maybe they don’t go to school because they rode when they were younger,” said Jed Duncan, owner of Rider Academy in St. Paul. “Maybe they don’t wear a helmet because they grew up with that image of ‘Easy Rider.’ Maybe they have a beer or two because they came along before M.A.D.D.”

Mark Koon is president of the St. Croix Valley Riders, which pays for its members to take safety courses. But Koon himself probably put 500,000 miles on his bike before taking a class last year. “I grew up in the country, riding dirt bikes,” he said. Braking techniques have changed since then, he said, and the class helped him correct some bad habits.

“Even if you’re an experienced rider,” Koon said, “it’s well worth the time.”
Holmes took a safety class at Dakota County Technical College and believes that riding has made him a more attentive driver. But four years ago he was in his truck when someone ran a red light, hitting him hard. If he had been on his Harley, he guesses, “I’d be dead.”

“It’s one of those things: You think, I better do this before I die,” Holmes said, laughing. “Then you get into it, and you think, ‘I’m going to die doing this.’ ”

Do classes work?

Already, it’s the deadliest July in four years. At least 11 people have died in motorcycle crashes — matching the total for the entire month in 2009.

“People! We must do something about this,” pleaded Koon, of the bikers rights group, in a note to members.

His organization touts classes as the solution, but some experts question whether they’re effective. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which conducts and compiles research on road safety, argues that “there is no evidence that safety training for motorcyclists reduces crashes,” said Russ Rader, the nonprofit’s spokesman.

The group also has found little difference in insurance claims between states that require all new riders to take courses and those that do not. Six states, including Texas and Oregon, have that requirement. Minnesota is among 19 states that order younger riders, only, to complete a safety class. Here, those under 18 must enroll.

Helmets are a flash point

But the Insurance Institute does advocate for another fix — helmets.

Helmets cut the risk of a motorcycle fatality by 37 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Two-thirds of motorcyclists who have died this year in Minnesota were not wearing helmets.

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia require helmets for all motorcyclists. Minnesota requires them only for riders under 18. Many rider groups, including Koon’s, oppose mandatory helmet laws.

Duncan believes that the cheapest way to cut down on motorcycle fatalities is to enact a mandatory helmet law. But he’s against that.

“Everybody should be able to choose,” he said. “At the same time, I wear a helmet every single time I’m on a motorcycle.”

A 2011 survey of 1,350 riders in Minnesota found that about half said they wear a helmet either “most of the time” or “all of the time.”

Those in their 40s were the least likely to report wearing helmets. The youngest and oldest riders — under 30 and over 60 — were the most likely to.

A different crowd

Greger stood before the half-full classroom, gray-haired and goateed. Many students appeared to be in their 20s and 30s. That’s not typical, said Greger, 59. But it’s this year’s mix.

Dennis Urabe, 42, had his motorcycle license for 20 years, until he moved to Minnesota from New York six years ago. His wife worries about him riding, so partly to assuage her concern, he plans to take both the beginner and the advanced safety courses.

“I’m getting older, so I definitely want to be as safe as possible,” Urabe said during a class break.

On Saturday, the group would get on bikes, practicing balancing, braking and turning. But the course’s first session was indoors. They worked through a thick rider handbook, answering questions on helmets, gear and controls. They watched short videos of attractive people checking their bikes before a ride. They also talked about crashes.

“OK, now for my least-favorite question,” Greger said. “Who’s got Number 6?”

“Describe one crash from your previous experience, or that you are aware of,” one man read from the book. “Briefly describe the circumstances.”

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168