A Vicious Cycle

In Colorado, insurance offers little protection to badly injured motorcyclists.

Yet the end of no-fault would likely have little impact on Colorado motorcyclists, who are excluded from the statute; the act considers motorcycles to be off-road vehicles not unlike minibikes and snowmobiles. This designation overlooks the many thousands of drivers who ride street cycles, but it's reassuring for insurance companies, which place motorcycles in a risk pool separate from cars because of the hazards inherent in riding them.

Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association (RMIIA), an organization supported by the insurance industry, feels there's plenty of justification for doing so. "Motorcycles are just much less stable than cars," she says. "The number of deaths on motorcycles is about fourteen times the number in cars when you look at per-mile travel."

The group responsible for this last statistic -- the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety -- has plenty of other damning digits concerning motorcycles. In 1999, for example, there were 57 deaths per 100,000 registered motorcycles as compared to 17 deaths per 100,000 registered cars. Furthermore, 91 percent of motorcyclists killed were males, with about a third of them between 16 and 29 years old -- the demographic that traditionally has the worst safety record.

Danny Hellman
"Beemer" Dan Levanthal is still recovering from a motorcycle accident last year.
John Johnston
"Beemer" Dan Levanthal is still recovering from a motorcycle accident last year.

Predictably, motorcycle enthusiasts counter these figures with information of their own.

Deb Craig, state coordinator for ABATE of Colorado, highlights one study demonstrating that motorcyclists rack up medical costs roughly equal to those of automobile drivers on a per-claim basis, and another showing that bikers are just as likely to have insurance as people with cars. She also presents data suggesting that automobile drivers are disproportionately to blame in car-against-motorcycle accidents -- a message ABATE of Colorado pushed during a May visit to Washington, D.C., to promote a new national safety campaign dubbed Motorist Awareness of Motorcycles.

Sean Maher, legislative specialist for the American Motorcycle Association (AMA), a Pickering, Ohio, organization, has similar stats. He points out that motorcycle fatalities declined 48 percent between 1990 and 1999 -- a greater dip than for any other form of transportation. In addition, he says, "Two out of every three motorcycle crashes are the fault of Joe Car Driver."

This last contention helps explain AMA's opposition to no-fault in general: The association believes that far more motorcyclists are compensated under a tort system in which blame is assessed than under one from which they're essentially barred. But in no-fault states, AMA and the insurance industry are on the same page regarding PIP coverage for motorcycles. Neither wants it -- insurers because they fear they'll be stuck shelling out millions more in claims than they bring in from the sale of motorcycle policies, AMA because its execs worry that their insurance rates will zoom skyward at a frightening pace.

"PIP just doesn't work," says Maher. "What's happened in the states that have tried mandating PIP for motorcycles is that insurance went up so much that folks stopped buying motorcycles, and insurance companies pulled out of the marketplace because they didn't want to have to offer it. In the end, they had to repeal it."

That was certainly the case in Hawaii, a no-fault state. According to Roy Gomez, the Hawaii director of Street Bikers United, the state's largest motorcycle organization, "The PIP that was quoted for us was really, really expensive. We were paying upwards of four or five thousand dollars a year. So we went down to the capital in Honolulu and let the legislators know what this was doing to us -- that a lot of people were riding illegally, without insurance, because they just couldn't afford it. And thank goodness they listened." Mandatory PIP on motorcycles was repealed in Hawaii in 1984, and drivers were allowed to ride legally after purchasing nothing more than basic liability insurance, just as their Colorado brethren can.

Gomez adds that he'd be willing to pay for PIP if it cost as much for motorcycles as it does for cars. But that could only happen if motorcyclists were put into the same risk pool as automobile drivers -- and the insurance industry is having none of that. Says the RMIIA's Walker, "The injuries of motorcyclists are just so devastating, and you have such a higher accident rate. That would raise prices for everybody."

Are there any alternatives? Many motorcycle advocates tout the no-fault law in Michigan, which doesn't require motorcyclists to pay for PIP yet allows them to benefit from such coverage if they're involved in an accident with an automobile. But since motorcycle drivers in Colorado don't have this option, they're left to purchase medical insurance that will pay hospitalization and other costs if they're injured on their bikes. And because of a recent federal ruling, doing so may get more difficult in the future.

The edict at the heart of this latest blow to motorcyclists -- the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, or HIPAA, which amends portions of the labyrinthine Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) -- initially had bikers cheering. Sponsored by Massachusetts Democratic senator Ted Kennedy and Kansas Republican senator Nancy Kassebaum, HIPAA contains language preventing employer-provided health-care plans from excluding individuals who participate in motorcycling, horseback riding, skiing or several other ordinary recreational activities as had been allowable under previous law. But after President Clinton signed the bill, bureaucrats still had to write the guidelines governing it, and doing so took the better part of four years. Worse, the final regulations, made public during the waning days of the Clinton administration, state that even though employer-provided policies can't reject workers based merely on their interest in motorcycling, the plans aren't required to offer benefits to people injured in this activity.

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