The Monday death of Sandy's police chief when he hit a mule deer on his Harley Davidson punctuates a national increase in the number of motorcycle fatalities.
Sandy Police Chief Sam Dawson was obeying the 55 mph speed limit when he crashed on Wolf Creek Highway at the border of Wasatch and Summit counties, according to the Utah Highway Patrol.
He was not wearing a helmet, and Utah law does not require riders over the age of 18 to wear helmets. Dawson had served in Utah law enforcement for 35 years and took over as Sandy police chief in 1994.
A national study released Tuesday shows that fatal motorcycle crashes increased 17 percent from 1997 to 1999.
In 1999, 2,472 people died in motorcycle wrecks, the largest number of fatalities since 1991.
Motorcycle deaths in Utah fluctuated during the 1990s from as many as 26 in 1996 to as few as 11 in 1995. Safety officials say the small number of deaths makes it hard to spot a trend.
According to the national study, released by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, almost 42 percent of the motorcyclists who died in 1999 were speeding. About 38 percent had at least some alcohol in their systems when they died.
Dawson wasn't speeding or drunk, but like 44 percent of the riders who died, he was not wearing a helmet.
The percentage of alcohol-related motorcycle deaths was down from more than 50 percent in 1990 to 38 percent in 1999.
Speeding has remained relatively constant as a factor in fatal motorcycle wrecks, according to the study.
Most people who died in motorcycle crashes in 1999 — 53 percent — were wearing helmets. But highway safety officials in Utah say wearing a helmet is still the best way to reduce the severity of injuries and number of fatalities.
"I think anybody in the highway safety field would tell you it makes sense," said David Beech, director of the state's highway safety office.
The national study identified several possible causes for the increase in motorcycle fatalities.
For one thing, there are more motorcycles on the road. There were 4.2 million motorcycles registered in 1999, up 9 percent from 3.8 million in 1997.
Older riders — Dawson was 56 — are involved in more fatal accidents.
In 1990, fewer than 6 percent of the people killed on motorcycles were over age 49. By 1999, that figure had increased to more than 16 percent.
And bikes with bigger engines are playing a larger role in fatal crashes. Larger motorcycle engines, with piston displacements of between 1,001 and 1,500 cubic centimeters, were involved in 16.4 percent more fatal crashes in 1999 than in 1990.
It was the only engine-size group to show an increase in fatal accidents.
In 1999, more than 20 motorcycle crashes involved wild animals in Utah. One of them was fatal.
The most common cause of motorcycle crashes in Utah has consistently been collisions with other vehicles, according to the Utah Highway Safety Department.