COLUMBIA - Recent studies show for the first time in a decade, the number of traffic deaths across the country is on the rise.
MoDOT Highway Safety Director Leanna Depue told KOMU 8 News that in 2012, preliminary data shows that there were 102 motorcycle fatalities in 2012, compared to 81 in 2011.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a shift away from laws requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets could be to blame for the nationwide rise in fatalities.
Last year was the first year that deaths rose since 2005, and it marked the highest number of people to die on U.S. roads since 2008. The total number of fatalities rose 5.3 percent to 34,080, according to the NHTSA estimate.
The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) is projecting that approximately 5,000 motorcyclists died in 2012: a 9 percent increase from 2011. This would represent 14.7 percent of overall traffic fatalities, the highest percentage ever.
Motorcycle fatalities are up for several reasons: unseasonably warm winter weather early last year drew more riders out; high gas prices have led to an increase in motorcycle sales and more riders; and states continue to overturn laws that required helmet use.
"If you remember back in 2012, in February and March, we had like, 80 degree days. Um, certainly wasn't that way this year. So, um, I think it's more of people haven't been riding as much this year as they were last year based on weather," Mid-America Harley Davidson Asst. Sales Manager Ron Schieferdecker said.
However, the focus on motorcycle fatalities is hard to escape in May, which is National Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month. Proponents of mandatory helmet laws point to the fact that motorcycle traffic fatalities went up in 34 states and decreased in 16 states.
Right now only 19 states require them of all riders, down from 26 states that did so in 1997. Several states repealed mandatory helmet laws in recent years, including Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Schieferdecker said he believes it should be up to the person riding the motorcycle to choose if they want to wear helmets.
"I, personally, myself, I would wear a helmet regardless of whether there's a helmet law or not. But that's because it's my choice, it's not because someone is telling me to do that," he said.
Every region of the country saw motorcycle fatality numbers rise last year, including jumps of 32 percent in Oregon, 29 percent in Indiana, 18 percent in Michigan and 8 percent in Pennsylvania.
Those who oppose having helmet laws said fatality levels are influenced by several other factors, including an increase in motorcycle riding, alcohol impairment and road deterioration.