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North Dakota motorcycle crash fatalities highest in five years

More than half were not wearing a helmet at the time of their fatal crash.

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GRAND FORKS — North Dakota motorcycle crash fatalities are the highest they’ve been in at least five years.

As of Nov. 12, there were 21 motorcycle crash fatalities statewide in 2022. About two thirds — 67% — were not wearing a helmet.

“It's unfortunate,” said Sgt. Wade Kadrmas of the North Dakota Highway Patrol. “You think of 21 individuals’ families. … How many other people's lives are touched because 21 individuals died in the past year? I mean, that's quite a few people.

There have been five deaths in Cass County, four in Williams County, three in Richland County, two in Burleigh County, two in Rollette County, one in Walsh County, one in Grant County, one in Barnes County, one in Kidder County and one in McKenzie County.

Overall, there have been 97 crash deaths in the state as of Nov. 12, so motorcycle deaths make up more than 21%.

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According to Lauren Wahlman, safety public information program manager at the North Dakota Department of Transportation, 2021 was an “anomaly of low motorcycle fatalities,” with a total of eight for the year. There were 17 motorcycle crash fatalities in 2020, 11 in 2019, 16 in 2018, and 13 in 2017.

The Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Office cannot easily track motorcycle crashes, but Capt. Joel Lloyd does not believe crashes have had a significant increase in the county in recent years.

According to Wahlman, it is typical for 60% to 65% of motorcyclists to not have a helmet on at the time of a fatal crash. In 2021, that number was 62% and in 2020, it was 64%.

“When you have the larger number of fatalities, that’s a large majority of them not wearing a helmet,” Wahlman said.

The number of fatality crashes — of all kinds — can fluctuate, according to Kadrmas.

There are many possible reasons for the increase in motorcyclist fatalities but, ultimately, “there's just no way to know what these crashes are stemming from,” Wahlman said.

“Maybe it’s just the fact that more people got out in 2022 rather than 2021, with the pandemic,” said Kadrmas. “Or maybe more people took up riding motorcycles. … It’s hard to tell.”

Other potential contributors are general inexperience and lack of motorcycle safety education. ABATE of North Dakota offers motorcycle safety courses, but they are only required for motorcyclists under the age of 16.

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According to Executive Director Lonnie Bertsch, in his roughly 18 years at ABATE’s North Dakota Motorcycle Safety Program, he has seen fewer than 10 of his students die in a motorcycle crash.

The safety course not only teaches motorcyclists the basics of riding, but also the importance of “wearing all the gear — all the time,” Wahlman said.

Recommended motorcyclist gear includes a DOT-compliant helmet, eye protection and protective clothing — such as a riding suit, boots and gloves.

According to Wahlman, “many people view it as their personal freedom and their choice not to wear a helmet.” However, the more gear you’re wearing, “the better protected you’ll be.”

Though there is inherent risk in operating any motor vehicle, the risk is elevated for motorcyclists.

“I think motorcyclists are one of the most vulnerable motorists out there,” Kadrmas said. They lack protective structures, so a crash such as a T-bone “could be a lot more devastating” for motorcyclists than it would be for other vehicles.

Helmet use decreases chances of serious injury to the head and brain, “but it’s not going to take much for somebody's neck or back to break,” Kadrmas said.

Fatalities typically increase in spring and decrease significantly in the colder months. Few motorcyclists ride through North Dakota winters.

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“Hopefully, there won't be any more fatalities for motorcyclists through the end of the year,” Wahlman said.

According to Kadrmas, drivers tend to be distracted. Awareness among drivers could reduce the risk for motorcyclists.

“It's everyone's responsibility to be a defensive driver on the road and to look out for all users — whether it's a motorcycle, a vehicle, a bicyclist, a pedestrian. It’s all of our responsibility,” Wahlman said.

Sav Kelly joined the Grand Forks Herald in August 2022.

Kelly covers public safety, including local crime and the courts system.

Readers can reach Kelly at (701) 780-1102 or skelly@gfherald.com.
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