Arkansas roads are growing increasingly dangerous to motorcyclists, according to state data that shows that the number of motorcycle riders who died in crashes rose 23% in the past five years, with a 51% jump from 2019 to 2021 alone.
Last year, 85 people died in crashes on motorcycles in the state, according to data from the Department of Public Safety provided by Arkansas State Police. A year before that, the toll was 79, up from 56 deaths in 2019.
The increased fatality numbers broadly reflect an increase in speeding and reckless driving on the state's roads since the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic, state police spokesman Bill Sadler said, but the number of motorcyclists pushing higher and higher speeds is a trend that predates the pandemic.
Often, the less-protected motorcyclists seem to be taking the brunt of the increase in reckless driving, even if they are following the law, Sadler said. Riders are simply less likely to survive than someone in a car when it comes to a collision.
For example, on May 12, three motorcyclists were killed and four more were injured when a pickup driving the wrong way in traffic on Interstate 40 near Dyer struck a group of motorcycle riders, according to a preliminary fatality report from Arkansas State Police.
"Those [riders] were doing exactly what they were supposed to do," Sadler said.
However, there are a small subsection of motorcyclists, mainly those riding sport motorcycles fitted with larger engines, who have been recorded reaching speeds of 90-100 miles per hour, Sadler said.
Sadler couldn't directly say how many of those speeding incidents led to fatal crashes, but the danger of riding at those speeds is clear.
"Those [riders] are placing themselves in greater risk and danger, and why? We don't know," Sadler said.
As of Aug. 10, 48 motorcyclists have died in crashes on Arkansas roads, preliminary fatality reports show. By that same date last year, 41 riders had been killed, and August and September frequently contribute a dozen or more deaths to the yearly totals.
Nationwide, Arkansas and other southern states that have warmer weather for riding rank high in rider fatalities, according to a study done by QuoteWizard, an insurance marketplace that analyzes factors such as fatal wrecks that can affect insurance costs.
In 2020, the nationwide fatality rate was 6.7 deaths for every 10,000 motorcycles, but the rate in Arkansas was up to 11 in 10,000, not far below Texas and Mississippi, which had 12 deaths per 10,000.
Motorcycle deaths in America aren't just on the rise after the pandemic. They appear to be at the highest levels since statistics began being kept in the 1970s, QuoteWizard analyst Nick VinZant said.
QuoteWizard's study relied on data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"When we look at it across the board, motorcycle fatalities are at the highest they have ever been," VinZant said.
QuoteWizard's study looked only at deaths involving motorcycles, but state police data shows that a further 27 people died in crashes on mopeds or scooters from 2017 to Aug. 10, 2022, and so far in 2022 alone, 11 people have died in wrecks involving all-terrain vehicles of various types, preliminary reports show.
State police did not provide data from 2017-2021 involving ATV wrecks, but moped and scooter fatalities mirrored the rise in motorcycle deaths, jumping from four in 2017 to nine last year, a 125% increase.
The fatality increases reflect more than just better reporting on fatal crashes, VinZant said, but it's hard to pinpoint what exactly is causing the deaths.
One theory is that America's drivers became accustomed to driving faster on less-congested roads during the pandemic and haven't changed their ways as more and more cars returned to the road, VinZant said. But he acknowledges that this idea doesn't address the long-term increases that predate the pandemic.
One added concern is that helmet usage by motorcyclists is on the decline, something that has a direct correlation with fatal crashes, he said.
Nationwide, helmet usage was down 3%, but in some areas of the country, that decrease was as high as 9%. In southern states, helmet usage hovered around 70% from 2020 to 2021, QuoteWizard's report showed.
It wasn't clear why helmet usage seemed to be falling, VinZant said. The company's report found 18 states with helmet requirements for all riders and 29 that require them based on the rider's age. Just three had no helmet laws at all on the books.
It's hard to say where Arkansas falls in helmet usage. Arkansans 21 years old or older are not required to wear helmets on motorcycles, so there would be no reason for state troopers to collect data on it, Sadler said. The number of violations to the state's helmet laws in recent years was not immediately available.
Data shows helmets can reduce the risk of injury in motorcycle wrecks by 70% and the risk of death by 42%, VinZant said.
"The research is absolutely clear that helmets do save lives," he said.
And it goes without saying that alcohol is often a factor in motorcycle wrecks, as much as in any other crashes.
Nationwide, motorcyclists in 32% of fatal crashes in 2020 had some level of alcohol in their system, even if they weren't above the legal level, with 26% involving someone who had a blood alcohol content over the legal limit of 0.08 and 15% involving someone considered severely impaired, with a blood alcohol content of 0.15 or more, the study reported.
In Arkansas, 28% of motorcyclist deaths in 2020 involved alcohol in some way, with 21% involving a rider over the legal limit.
National and local authorities have absolutely taken notice of the increase in deaths, especially of motorcyclists, VinZant said, but it can be hard to pin down a solution, especially when also attempting to tackle the wider issue of motorists speeding and driving unsafely.
For example, in the NHTSA's Region 6, which includes Arkansas, traffic fatalities related to speeding were up 26% in 2020, the sharpest increase in the nation.
While it's hard to say for certain if there's a direct correlation between the higher rates of speed, lower levels of helmet use and the uptick in motorcyclist deaths in recent years, it paints a picture of increased danger to riders who may not be doing anything wrong themselves.
"The concern is that we have a dangerous combination," VinZant said.