There have been more deadly motorcycle wrecks in Yellowstone County in the past two months than over the past three years combined.
At least four people have died in motorcycle crashes in the county since June 4 and, according to the Montana Department of Transportation, there were three in 2008 and none in 2007 and 2006.
Those numbers come after an all-time high 36 motorcycle fatalities were reported across Montana last year and despite the fact that overall traffic fatalities across the state were down 20 percent during the same time. The numbers don't include an accident in Billings earlier this month in which a 4-year-old was killed when the car he was riding in and a motorcycle collided.
"The bottom line is, when you fall off a motorcycle, you either fall off sideways or over the front," Montana Highway Patrol Capt. Keith Edgell said. "Typically the impacts are always projecting people forward, and your head's leading and there's a good chance it will hit something."
As more people are licensed to ride motorcycles and the number of registered bikes on the street has increased, so have the number of deadly crashes.
According to the Montana Title and Registration Bureau, 14,266 highway-legal motorcycles were registered in Yellowstone County and 112,055 statewide at the end of 2008. Those figures represent increases of about 37 and 40 percent, respectively, for the county and state from 2006.
State figures show that as of the end of 2008, there was one licensed motorcycle for every 8.6 Montanans.
From Jan. 1 through last week, the Billings Police Department had responded to 18 motorcycle crashes. Yellowstone County had 91 crashes in 2008.
Police Chief Rich St. John said he's watched the number of bikes and serious crashes increase over the last few years as more people come to Billings.
"We've got a growing population," he said. "There are more people, more cars and now more bikes. Sometimes when they interact, the results aren't good."
More people may be choosing gas-friendly motorcycles because of the economic downturn and last year's high gas prices.
"It definitely helped last year, when gas was $4 to $4.50 a gallon," said Edgell, who is in charge of the MHP's District IV, which includes Yellowstone County. "When you can go 60 miles on a gallon of gas, that sounds pretty good."
Edgell said he hasn't seen any one reason for the rising numbers of bikes and deadly crashes, but the riders' demographics tell part of the story. At one end of the spectrum, there are young, inexperienced riders buying sport bikes, who are more prone to be "risk takers," he said, and more likely to be driving in urban areas.
At the other end are older riders.
"What we're seeing right now is a lot of baby boomers going out and buying the biggest bike they can find, and they may not have the experience yet to handle the bike," Edgell said.
Sue McCombs, co-owner of Hi-Tech Motor Sports in Billings, agreed that boomers are buying more motorcycles, but said that age isn't as important a factor when it comes to crashes.
"One thing that I think is so vital is that everybody who's out there riding should take a motorcycle safety course," she said. "They're amazing and so necessary, even for people who have ridden their whole lives."
By the end of the year, the Montana Motorcycle Rider Safety program will have trained more than 1,600 Montana riders in 10 cities around the state. It offers two classes - for beginner and experienced riders - from spring until the end of the summer.
Roger Swearengen, the program's interim director, said the course provides valuable training in the three areas a national study identified as the most absent in motorcycle crashes - braking, swerving and cornering.
"We're teaching those three basic skills, plus the mental skills of recognizing hazards before you get to them," he said.
Another important aspect of safety is helmet use, St. John said. According to the Montana Department of Transportation, only 46.1 percent of motorcyclists involved in crashes wore a helmet.
Montana does not have a helmet law, but wearing one can mean the difference between life and death in a crash, St. John said.
"It is a choice," he said. "But sometimes that choice comes at a great cost. We're appealing to people's good sense to take whatever safety measures they can."
One thing law enforcement, safety experts and riders agree on is that riding a motorcycle presents unique dangers not faced by other motorists.
"A lot of it falls back to the fact that people just don't see you," Edgell said. "That's still the biggest thing. A rider has to drive twice as defensive because you're not just driving for yourself."
McCombs also said she hopes other drivers will help to keep everybody safe on the road.
"For a lot of motorists, even though there are a lot more bikes on the road now, they're still not used to looking for bikes," she said. "It's almost like it doesn't register sometimes. It's really important to learn to make a conscious effort to try and look for motorcycles."
Contact Zach Benoit at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1357.