A total of 4,553 motorcyclists died in traffic accidents last year in the United States, but more than 700 of them would have lived if they had been wearing helmets, Mary E. Peters, the new U.S. transportation secretary, said Thursday in Milwaukee.
Peters, during a visit to the Harley-Davidson plant in Milwaukee, talked about the "alarming rise" in fatalities and injuries involving motorcyclists since 1997.
Peters, an ardent motorcyclist, said she will "never, ever ride without a helmet."
She said a helmet last year saved her from more serious injuries in an accident in which she hit her husband's motorcycle and suffered a broken collarbone.
She does not, however, think that the federal government should order mandatory helmet use.
"We don't believe that it's up to the federal government to mandate helmets," she said, adding that was something for the individual states to decide.
She deplored that only about 58% of motorcyclists wear helmets today, down from 71% from 2000, according to surveys.
She urged motorcyclists to wear helmets and protective gear, drive sober and take classes on safe motorcycling.
Motorcyclists make up 2% of the vehicles on the road, yet last year they accounted for more than 10% of the fatalities, she said. About 40% of motorcyclists who were involved in accidents had been drinking, she added.
In 1997, traffic accidents killed 2,116 motorcyclists, and that increased to 4,553 fatalities last year, a 115% increase in deaths. Peters said the number of registered motorcycles had risen from 1997 to 2005 but said the frequency of accidents per 1 million miles driven also had grown significantly.
"Cyclists have a lot of responsibility to take care of themselves," she said, but motorists also have to do a better job of sharing the road with motorcycles.
Peters commended Harley-Davidson Inc. for its efforts in motorcycle safety programs and cycle maintenance.
On Sept. 30, the U.S. Senate confirmed Peters' appointment, and the Harley-Davidson tour was her first public event since she was sworn in. Nicole Nason, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, also took the tour.
They visited what is called Harley-Davidson University, where the 660 dealerships in the United States that sell Harley-Davidson motorcycles learn how better to service the vehicles.