For seven days in August, a host of bikers swarm the small town of Sturgis (population: approximately 6400 people) in the picturesque Black Hills of South Dakota. Unfortunately, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally--a famed motorcycle mecca since 1938, featuring shows, rides and partying for bikers and tourists alike--has a tragic side. With roads full of revelvers (roughly half a million per year), this festival can be a deadly time of year. Many emerge scrape-free from accidents, but other accidents result in injury or death.
The official Travel South Dakota website says the influx of traffic into South Dakota usually starts two weeks before the rally and begins to taper back down to normal about two weeks after the end of the event. This inundation of traffic is where the trouble begins.
The 75th year of this biker festival was bursting at the seams with its highest number of participants yet: Over 750,000 participants were among the official count. Of course, this translated into heavier traffic on the roads surrounding Sturgis. Officials estimated that the amount of traffic entering the rally was 40 percent higher than in the previous year and in these crowded conditions, at times, it took an hour to traverse a mile.
With more vehicles on the streets, more fatal accidents often naturally follow. In fact, before 2015, 1990 had the record for the highest number of deaths at 11, but the death toll in 2015 increased that record high to 15.
In one fatality included in that count, a biker from Minnesota was traveling seven miles north of Sturgis. His life ended almost instantly, when, while trying to pass two pickups towing campers, his bike collided head-on with a southbound semi. Unfortunately, the man was not wearing a helmet.
And that’s not the end of the mess at the 2015 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally: 152 crashes ending in injury were also reported.
Although there were certainly plenty of attendees (an estimated 448,000), one festivalgoer mentioned that he felt the crowds were large, but not overwhelming.
It follows that the news out of 2016 is mainly positive. The first good piece of news of the year was that only three accidents had ended in death by the time the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was over.
Secondly, there were nearly 100 fewer accidents, compared to last year’s numbers.
In the last piece of good news, there were nine fewer DUI arrests (for a total of 187).
The only bad news to be had this year was arrest-related: Misdemeanor drug arrests went up by two and almost 200 more citations had to be issued.
I’ll start with the good news here: 46 people were arrested on felony drug charges (slightly lower than last year’s tally). The number of those charged with DUIs was also lower by 26, for a total of 161.
As you already gathered from the sub-title, though, that doesn’t mean that everything on the streets went smoothly. There were eight traffic fatalities.
The amount of crashes resulting in injury went up as well by 18, for a total of 68 crashes, and there were also 55 accidents where the parties were lucky to walk away unscathed.
The last fatalities of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally this year stole two very young lives: An 18-year-old man and a 29-year-old female. The male was traveling west of Sturgis and wearing his helmet when he lost control of his bike while attempting to make a right hand turn. He ended up careering into a guardrail. Later on that same day, the female, who wasn’t wearing her seatbelt, lost control of the pickup she was driving. The vehicle ran off the road, flipped over, and she was thrown from the truck.
In a welcome turn of events, traffic deaths this year dropped to a total of four. There were also 56 accidents resulting in injury, compared with 69 from last year and 50 accidents where none of the parties were injured, compared with 55 from last year.
Now, to let you in on a lesser-acknowledged fact, all of the counts I’ve been referencing until now have been restricted to the accidents occurring from the first Saturday morning of the rally to the Sunday morning on closing day. Also, the count only includes accidents within western South Dakota. With that in mind, we know there could definitely be more accidents happening on the road when participants are traveling to and from the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
Take this year, for example: While the official death toll was four, the unofficial traffic fatality count was at least nine.
Two of the fatalities associated with the rally, but not counted in the official tally, happened on August 2. The two bikers involved failed to stop at a stop sign and crashed into the side of a semi truck. This accident wasn’t counted because it took place a couple of days before the official count starts. It was rumored that the truck driver was assaulted after the collision, and, later, it was reported that one of the deceased bikers was a Hells Angel with a 2013 conviction for gang activity and criminally threatening subcontractors.
Economically-speaking, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally represents roughly $786 million per year to the state of South Dakota, but the cost of human life has been significant over the years. One newspaper, the Rapid City Journal, analyzed the fatalities occurring from 1994 to 2012, and calculated 141 deaths associated with the festival during that time period.
Judging by the record breaking crowd and fatality count for the rally’s 75th anniversary, one can only speculate about how the 80th year in 2020 will roll out, especially given the excitement of such a historic anniversary.
So, if you’re at the 80th anniversary, take care of yourself, and don’t let that ride be your last.
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