OLYMPIA, Wash. — Daryl Ruff's earliest childhood memory is climbing aboard his father's parked Harley-Davidson — and struggling to pick it up again when the kickstand gave out.

He survived that first crash unscathed, and his life's been punctuated by the throaty roar of a powerful hog ever since.

So last November, with his kids out of the house and having children of their own, the 55-year-old put some cash into one of the quintessential baby boomer luxury purchases.

"I bought the biggest, baddest most expensive Harley that they make," he says with a chuckle from his home in Federal Way. "It's kind of the Winnebago of motorcycles, so they don't get any bigger or heavier than what I'm riding."

When Ruff fires up that beast, he's hardly alone — people 40 and older have become the largest single group of motorcycle owners in America, and they're also riding bikes with larger engines.

Ruff's customized Harley Ultra Classic, which weighs about 800 pounds and produces about 90 horsepower, certainly fits that bill.

But as they hit the road in record numbers, riders 40 and older also have been getting killed more often than their younger counterparts. That's spurred state governments to re-examine their motorcycle regulations.

The effort is in its infancy, but officials from the Washington State Patrol and the Department of Licensing already are discussing ideas, including refresher training courses for experienced riders or a requirement to show a motorcycle license before buying a bike.

"What we think is happening with this older group is that they rode a motorcycle when they were 18-20 years old, then they hit their 40s and realized, 'Hey, I can afford a bigger, better bike,' " said Gigi Zenk, a licensing spokeswoman.

Statistics show state motorcycle fatalities on the rise, with most involving riders 40 and older on bikes with the largest engines.

Nationwide, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's projected 2004 figures have motorcyclists 40 and older involved in about 47 percent of 3,900 fatalities. They're also expected to account for more than 60 percent of the yearly increase in deadly crashes.

"If it keeps going, we're going to be in trouble. We're already in trouble," Patrol Capt. Jeff DeVere said.

Industry and rider groups, however, caution that tightened regulation should not be based solely on raw crash statistics and speculation about causes.

"When the fatality numbers come out each year . . . special interest groups tend to react to that and speculate on solutions without having anything more than data," said American Motorcyclist Association spokesman Tom Lindsay.

Tim Bouche, president of the cycle manufacturers' Motorcycle Safety Foundation, said officials should consider that older riders' large share of fatal crashes results mainly because they're the largest group of riders.

"It's not really saying there's a cause and effect there, or that it's a key factor. It's simply that the average rider is older, and they're on larger bikes," Bouche said.

Few would argue that physical capabilities and reaction times tend to deteriorate with age. The safety foundation, which offers several types of training programs, has developed a special "seasoned rider" package to address those particular problems.

For Ruff, getting older has meant the obligatory purchase of reading glasses. But he hasn't noticed any deterioration in his riding skills.

Nevertheless, he does give himself more space on the road than when he was 20 and still regularly takes experienced riders' courses.

"I've been riding for 30 years, and I always learn something," he said.

Bret Tkacs, who emphasizes brush-up training courses at his Puget Sound Safety motorcycle schools, agrees that older riders often need to polish their skills.

"I've seen these people ride, and I know that they really need to be there," Tkacs said.

But forcing them into special courses won't guarantee that rebellious riders will follow the rules once they have a certificate, Tkacs said.

Industry and rider groups are now looking forward to a planned national crash study — the first of its kind in decades — which they think will show the real reasons behind rising motorcycle fatalities.

"We're focused on finding out the cause of crashes so we can take the best approach long-term to saving lives," Lindsay said.

Washington state officials say they're just beginning their work, and plan to include motorcycle interests before they begin writing safety regulations.

"We just don't want to assume that we have the answers," Zenk said. "It's not about taking anybody's rights away. It's about ensuring that everybody's safe."

For Ruff, who serves as chief road safety officer for Tacoma's Harley Owners Group, ramped-up training regulations might not be such a bad idea.

"I'm not opposed to some way of making sure they at least have basic skills," he said. "There are a number of them that'll go out and say, 'Oh yeah, I used to ride a dirt bike,' and they'll go out and buy a Harley.

"If it keeps one person from killing themselves, all the better."


On the Net:

Motorcycle Safety Foundation: www.msf-usa.org

American Motorcyclist Association: www.ama-cycle.org

Washington Licensing Department: www.dol.wa.gov/ds/mtrcycle.htm