COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – It’s a deadly time for motorcyclists in Ohio.

With fewer riders opting to wear a helmet or take a safety course, motorcycle fatalities are on the rise in the Buckeye State, jumping by 42% from 2017 to 2021, according to data from the Ohio State Highway Patrol. Motorcycle-related crashes over the five-year time period rose slightly by 4%.

"Anytime we see an increase in motorcycle crashes or an increase in risky driving by motorcycles, obviously that's concerning because motorcycles have inherently more risk than a car with a protective cab and everything else," OSHP spokesperson Sgt. Brice Nihiser said.

Ohio ranks No. 3 for most fatalities involving non-helmeted motorcyclist

Helmets are estimated to be 37% effective in preventing fatalities of motorcycle operators and 41% effective in preventing fatalities of their passengers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But helmet use remains largely unpopular among motorcyclists in Midwest states like Ohio, with just 45% of riders in 2021 opting to wear one in the region – down from the 53% of riders who chose to do so in 2020, according to data from the NHTSA.

While Ohio law requires riders under 18 and novice license holders to sport a helmet, the choice to wear one is up to adult motorcyclists, Nihiser said.

“You should always be wearing a helmet because that’s going to protect you that much more in a crash,” Nihiser said. “It’s going to prevent serious injuries, possibly death.”

Of the 223 motorcycle fatalities recorded in 2021, 156 involved riders who weren’t wearing a helmet – positioning Ohio as the No. 3 state when it comes to the highest number of non-helmeted deaths, the NHTSA found. 

Michele Piko, statewide coordinator for Motorcycle Ohio, said for some older generations of motorcyclists and advocacy group ABATE (American Bikers Aimed Toward Education) of Ohio, mandatory helmet laws are seen as infringing upon riders’ freedom of choice.

“If Ohio would go out and say, ‘No, we need to be a mandatory helmet state,’ ABATE would push back with, ‘No, it’s our right; it's our freedom,’” Piko said.

Less training? Higher risk of casualties, Piko said

Motorcycle Ohio, a subdivision within the Ohio Traffic Safety Office, is tasked with investigating fatal motorcycle crashes throughout the state, Piko said. Those investigations uncovered that the great majority of riders who died in a crash never took a motorcycle safety course.

Safety courses, while not mandated for adult riders under Ohio law, are required for motorcyclists under 18 to obtain a license, Piko said.

“We can teach them how to negotiate a curve and possibly save their life,” she said.

Of the 223 motorcycle fatalities recorded in 2021, Motorcycle Ohio found that just 16% of riders who died took a motorcycle safety course – a statistic Piko said may have been impacted by Covid-19.

“We weren’t able to train as many students in the past, and now those students are out there on the road not trained,” she said.

Although that percentage dropped to 10% in the first seven months of 2022, Piko said enrollment numbers in this year’s training courses are up 16% from last year – a hopeful sign that more motorcyclists are committed to staying safe on Ohio’s roadways, she said.

The onus of safety training and awareness isn't solely on motorcyclists, Piko said. Motorists driving in a car are also responsible for keeping the roads safe, as many motorcycle crashes and fatalities result from drivers who fail to yield for motorcyclists.

"If they would've taken that other second to look again, they may have saw them and wouldn’t have hit them," she said. "That's somebody's loved one out there on the road."

Alcohol involved in over 30% of fatalities in 2021

Ohio nearly topped the charts in terms of the highest rates of alcohol-involved motorcycle fatalities, ranking No. 6 relative to other U.S. states for the greatest percentage of motorcycle fatalities – 32% – that involved someone who was legally impaired (a blood alcohol content over 0.08) in 2021, according to data from the NHTSA.

And with 21% of motorcycle deaths in 2021 involving someone who was “severely impaired,” a blood-alcohol content over 0.15, the Buckeye State tied for sixth place with Nevada.

Nihiser encouraged all motorists to choose a sober driver, whether that's a rideshare or a friend, to prevent future fatalities.

"That's going to keep you safe," Nihiser said. "That's going to keep everyone else safe on the roads as well."