Driving Motorcycles to Save Gas Motorcycle and scooter use is up, in part due to high gas prices. Is it a smart move to swap four wheels for two? Pete terHorst of the American Motorcyclist Association says yes.

Driving Motorcycles to Save Gas

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The gas math goes like this. At $4.50 or so a gallon, maybe it's time to cut your number of wheels in half. A motorcycle gets better mileage than a car. The next step is just to grow mossy beards, get tattoos, wear leather, live to ride and ride to live. Or, you know, not even go that far. One motorcycle industry group estimates that Americans bought more than a million motorcycles and scooters last year. Scooter sales have jumped nearly 25 percent in the first part of this year alone. Pete terHorst is the American Motorcycle Association fellow who's with me now. He rides and he's here to talk about it. Hello, Peter.

Mr. PETER TERHORST (President, SymPoint Communications; Strategic Communications, American Motorcycle Association): Good morning, Mike. How are you?

PESCA: I'm well. Give me - you know, lay out the difference in gas mileage between bikes and sedans. How much savings are we talking about?

Mr. TERHORST: It can be quite substantial. A motor-scooter, which has a relatively small engine, can get mileage anywhere from 60 to 120 miles to the gallon, depending on what size of scooter that you buy, and even a midsized motorcycle is probably going to get mileage in the range of 40 to 50, and - or better. Some of the bigger bikes' mileage may be, you know, a little lower, but anything under 40 is a little unusual. So, it's - they're quite fuel efficient.

PESCA: Huh. What about price, just in terms of buying it?

Mr. TERHORST: Well, often, we - you know, for people who come into the market for the first time, it's not uncommon for them to buy a used motorcycle, and you can get great deals on midsized used bikes, which are a good size for learning to ride in, say, the three-to-6,000-dollar range. If you are looking at a - what would be an entry-level motorcycle for, say, a sport-type machine or maybe a duel-sport bike, you're probably going to spend, you know, four to 5,000 dollars. So, they're certainly quite affordable, and financing is not difficult to get either.

PESCA: What are the hidden costs with motorcycles that cars don't have, like, beyond leather chaps?

Mr. TERHORST: Well, I mean, you want to be sure that you're going to have the right riding gear. And one of the things that we strongly encourage is, you know, all the gear, all the time, and that starts with a high-quality, DOT-certified helmet. Obviously, long pants, long sleeves, the gloves, eye protection, if you don't have a full face helmet, shoes or boots that cover your ankle. Those are all really important things to do.

PESCA: How much is the anti-weather gear? I know you shouldn't drive on, like, really snowy or icy days, but you can drive in the rain these days. How much is that stuff?

Mr. TERHORST: Oh, the - yeah, the riding gear for inclement weather, whether it's cold or wet, is really quite good. And you can get a high-quality rain suit for less than 100 dollars.

PESCA: Uh-huh. I mean, do you find that more and more people are driving in the rain, in bad weather, than they used to?

Mr. TERHORST: It depends on - honestly it depends on the individual. When you first come into motorcycling, we strongly recommend that you take training. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation is the industry group that created a curriculum, and it's available in virtually every state now, and they strongly encourage there - people to take training or just through their literature, to, you know, assess what your levels are risk are as you approach motorcycling.

You know, one of the interesting things is this, there's a lot of talk now about high gas prices and people moving to two wheels. We want to be sure that people think about, you know, the added exposure that you have when you get on a motorcycle or scooter, and to determine if that's for you. It's not for everybody, but it's certainly for people that, you know, that want the excitement of riding. And oftentimes, the justifications we make in our left brain with the high-cut gas prices are just kind of feeding the right side of our brain for something we've wanted to do for a long time anyway.

PESCA: Well, let's talk about that device that will keep the left side or right side of your brain together, the helmet. I know your group recommends them, but doesn't want laws that mandate them. That's in contrast to the American Automobile Association that actually lobbies for mandatory seatbelt laws. So why the difference?

Mr. TERHORST: Well, we strongly believe in voluntary use by adults, meaning, you know, 18 or older. Certainly we would support legislation where they're mandated for minors. But the difference for us is we feel that the emphasis really needs to be on preventing accidents and crashes. And resource dollars are such a - you know, tax dollars, there's never enough tax money to do the things that need to be done, and training programs around the country are valuable, but they're not nearly as widespread as they could be. And so, we strongly advocate training, wearing the right gear, education, and letting people make the choice to wear a helmet, for example.

PESCA: Well, it doesn't - I'm just thinking, it doesn't have to be an either/or, and I wonder, within your organization, is there even a debate about this? I would imagine that people who'd been riding bikes a long time are somewhat against helmets, or at least, not against helmets, but they don't want mandates on helmet. But maybe they're - an argument could be made that if helmets are mandated, then these fatality statistics go down, that more people will drive bikes than ever before. Is that a debate within your organization?

Mr. TERHORST: Not necessarily. There are certainly members that fall on either side of the question, in terms of whether they support or don't support mandatory helmet legislation, but again, we feel that that's kind of addressing the problem after it's happened. If - you know, by mandating a helmet and nothing else, we're really not doing what we need to do to address the causes of motorcycle accidents.

Interestingly, right now, there's a federal study that the industry and the federal government, through the DOT, have been trying to get off the ground to look at the causes of motorcycle accidents. There was a landmark study done back in the '70s that really defined the types of causes for motorcycle accidents. One of the most common is a car turning in front of you when you're on your motorcycle or scooter.

PESCA: Uh-huh.

Mr. TERHORST: So a lot of the preparation and training that helps us as motorcyclists is being aware of what the risks are, you know, in the traffic around us. But there are also skills that you need to have, and as the boomers age, so does the motorcycle population, and motorcycles have gotten larger over the last 30 years or so. So, you know, we need a study to tell us - to help us understand what are the causes today, because there's really not a direct correlation that's easy to tie motorcycle accidents and fatalities.

PESCA: We have to leave it there, but I want to you thank you, Pete terHorst, with the American Motorcyclist Association. Right on, sir.

Mr. TERHORST: Thank you so much, Mike.

PESCA: OK. And coming up on the show, the Al Gore opera. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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