By Alex Lippa
---- — There are more motorcycles on New Hampshire roads — and more motorcycle fatalities.
There were 76,431 motorcycles registered here in fiscal year 2011. That number jumped to 79,419 — nearly 4 percent — last year, according to Jim Van Dongen, public information officer for the New Hampshire Department of Motor Vehicles.
People offered a variety of reasons for the spike: lower fuel costs, motorcycles becoming more mainstream and some older riders returning after years off two wheels.
“It’s definitely becoming more mainstream,” said Matt Jones, general manager of Derry Cycle. “The attitudes have kind of changed, it’s not the bad appeal that it once was.”
In 2012, there were 28 fatalities statewide, double the number in 2011. The state had its first fatality this year in Manchester last weekend.
“The motorcycle season is only six months long,” N.H. State Police Sgt. Matt Shapiro said. “But it accounts for more than a quarter of our motor vehicle fatalities.”
Shapiro said the increase in deaths last year could partially be attributed to the weather. Unlike this year, March 2012 was unusually warm and bikers were out in force.
“That’s at a time when riders may be rusty from not riding all winter,” he said. “We also still have sand and debris in the roadways, and it’s not safe to drive.”
The numbers concern Peter Thomson, coordinator of the New Hampshire Highway Safety Agency.
“It’s very troubling,” he said. “A lot of these motorcycles are going speeds faster than 100 mph.”
The state isn’t likely to ever post speed limits at anything approaching that level, but the N.H. House did approve a 5 mph increase in the speed limit on a stretch of Interstate 93 between Concord and the Vermont border.
That bill still has to go through the Senate and, if approved there, across the desk of Gov. Maggie Hassan. In an editorial board meeting last week, Hassan did not appear inclined to OK the measure.
“There’s just too many fatalities,” Thomson said. “We are pushing up to 30 percent of the fatalities in the state being on motorcycles.”
Even if the state does raise the speed limit, former state Sen. Robert Letourneau, who runs a training course for new motorcycle riders in Londonderry, doesn’t think it would have much impact on motorcycle fatalities.
“The majority of crashes occur on roads where traffic is going in both directions,” he said. “Often times, it’s people crossing the center line either on a motorcycle or on a vehicle.”
Some motorcyclists cited factors other than speed.
“People don’t see us because people are texting,” said Tony Nappo, 52, of Derry, who was shopping at Derry Cycle yesterday. “We have to be more aware than ever.”
Letourneau said he believes many crashes are due to riders being ill equipped to properly handle their bikes.
“A lot of longtime motorcycle riders are older now,” he said. “They’ve lost some of their hearing and vision, and their range of motion is not as good as it was when they are in their 20s and 30s. It makes their reaction time slower.”
Sometimes, drivers just don’t see the motorcycles.
“The biggest issue is that motorcycles have such a low visibility,” Shapiro said.
Some riders try to counteract that by wearing higher visibility clothing.
“We sell a lot of the neon yellow clothing,” Jones said. “It’s become a bit of a trend.”
Then there’s the state’s lack of a helmet law.
Thomson said the number is about evenly split between riders who do and don’t wear helmets.
“I wish they did wear helmets,” he said. “Although sometimes, helmets wouldn’t prevent some of the deaths we’re seeing.”
Jones said he isn’t seeing a big rush in helmet sales.
“This is New Hampshire, so, ‘Live Free or Die,’” he said. “I think a lot of people only buy them because they know they’re going into Massachusetts.”
The increase in deaths isn’t helped by the many new motorcycle riders. Letourneau said he thinks some people have turned to motorcycles to save money.
“I think it has to do with people saving on fuel,” he said. “As gas approaches $4 a gallon, people are trying to make their dollar go further.”
Tim Johnston, 43, of Chester said the increase in motorcycles on the road is noticeable.
Johnston was at Derry Cycle yesterday to pick up his new CVO Harley-Davidson Road King.
“I see them everywhere,” he said. “A lot more women are getting involved now. I think TV shows like “Sons of Anarchy,” and “American Chopper” have popularized it more.”