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DETROIT -- U.S. Motorcycle deaths spiked 10 percent last year, topping 5,000 for the first time since 2008, according to a study done for a highway safety group.
The annual study for the Governors Highway Safety Association attributes the increase mainly to increased travel nationwide and better weather leading to a longer riding season in many states. Low fuel prices also contributed to a 3.5 percent rise in motor vehicle miles traveled last year over 2014, according to federal data.
But study researchers from Sam Schwartz Consulting say the biggest change that could cut motorcycle deaths would be restoring mandatory helmet laws in 32 states that don't have them for all riders.
The study used preliminary state data to count 5,010 motorcycle deaths last year, up 450 from 2014. The increase is consistent with preliminary numbers from the government that show traffic deaths overall rising an estimated 8 percent last year after trending downward for the past decade. That was the largest year-to-year percentage increase in a half-century.
The National Safety Council says about 38,300 people were killed on U.S. roads last year, and 4.4 million people were seriously injured. That would make 2015 the deadliest driving year since 2008.
"State and national data illustrate that motorcyclists are far more likely to be injured or killed in a crash than motor vehicle occupants," said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the association, a nonprofit group representing state highway safety offices. The group will support evidence-based motorcycle safety measures, he said.
The association suggests that motorcyclists cut the risk of death by wearing government-approved helmets and bright clothing to be more visible. It also says to obey speed limits and never ride while impaired by alcohol or drugs.
There were 4,586 deaths in 2014, which the study authors said was abnormally low for recent years.
Motorcycle deaths increased in 31 states, fell in 16 and remained the same in three states and Washington, D.C., the study found.
The number of deaths last year is about double the annual number through the 1990s.
Helmet-wearing motorcycle riders are less likely to hurt their heads in accidents, but end up with more injuries to other parts of their bodies, suggests new research.
Researchers write in JAMA Surgery that the results may be due to helmeted riders being more likely to survive high-force crashes than people who don't wear helmets, and ultimately end up with more extensive injuries.
"The fact that injury patterns are different makes a lot of sense, because the helmets are going to help you survive," said Dr. Adil Haider, of the Center for Surgery and Public Health at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
"A lot of people have all these torso injuries because their head is saved," said Haider, who wasn't involved in the new study.
While researchers knew helmets decreased injuries and death related to motorcycle trauma, they didn't know whether or how the protective head gear might affect injuries to other body parts.
The authors write that loosening restrictions on helmets in some U.S. states allowed them to study how wearing head protection may influence other injuries.
For the study, they used national data from 2007 to 2010 on almost 86,000 people with some sort of motorcycle-related trauma. The researchers paid particularly close attention to the number and extent of injuries to people's heads and necks, torsos, spines and extremities.
Overall, the researchers found helmeted motorcycle riders were about half as likely to end up with head injuries, compared to those who weren't wearing protection. Helmeted riders were also less likely to die.
Helmeted riders were more likely to have injuries to the chest and extremities than riders who weren't wearing helmets, however.
Other than saving the lives of riders during high-force accidents, another explanation for increased injuries to other body parts could be that helmeted riders feel more secure and end up driving at higher speeds, the researchers, led by Indiana University's Dr. Jeff Lastfogel, write.
There was no difference in the time people spent in a hospital regardless of whether they were helmeted.
Dr. David Ripley, who was not involved in the research, cautioned, though, that the study can't really say if people ended up going home after being in the hospital. Some may, for example, have been transferred to a long term care center.
"These people are still hospitalized, but they are not in the acute care hospital," said Ripley, who is medical director of brain injury medicine and rehabilitation at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
He said that policymakers should consider the cost of additional care for people who don't wear helmets and likely end up with head injuries.
"From a public health perspective, policymakers should recognize the increased cost associated with these individuals and respond with the appropriate public policy," he said.
Additionally, Ripley said, he recommends as much protective gear as possible - including helmets.
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Motorcycle injuries requiring a trip to the hospital have increased in recent years among older male riders, while injury rates for women and younger men haven't changed, according to a new study from Canada.
The spike in injuries among men over 45 suggests that more male Baby Boomers are taking to two wheels as a leisure activity, and they may need training and other injury prevention strategies, say the researchers.
"We were surprised by the extent of the increase in injuries among older men motorcycle riders," said Mariana Brussoni of the British Columbia Injury Research and Prevention Unit, who led the study published in the BC Medical Journal.