Each year, hundreds of thousands of bikers come to Sturgis for the breathtaking views, the highway hairpin turns and scenic tunnels, the alcohol-fueled parties and concerts and the unique, two-wheeled camaraderie of the annual motorcycle rally.

But those same conditions also create a recipe for danger and, as a result, each year some bikers do not make it home alive.

An analysis by the Rapid City Journal found that at least 141 people on cycles died in Sturgis-related accidents between 1994 and 2012. Several patterns emerged when looking at how and where those fatal wrecks occurred. 

One common element is that more than three-quarters of those who died were not wearing helmets. Alcohol played a known role in about a fifth of the fatal wrecks. About eight in 10 of those killed were men, about 85 percent of those killed were driving the cycle, and the average age of those killed was 50.

The data on 85 fatal wrecks was compiled from state accident reports from July 20 to Aug. 20 over the time period of 2004 to 2012. The Journal also searched its newspaper archives and other news reports to document the remainder of the 141 fatal wrecks. Where possible, the Journal confirmed that the deaths were related to people attending the Sturgis rally.

The 2013 rally saw its first fatality around 5 p.m. Friday when a female passenger on a cycle was killed in a collision with a truck at the intersection of highways 44 and 385, authorities said. On average, about eight people die each year during the rally or riding to and from it. But as the rally has grown, the danger has risen.

About 450,000 people streamed into Sturgis for last year’s rally, the 72nd such gathering. At least 13 people on bikes died in accidents, or in transit to the rally — about one person for each 37,500 rallygoers. That may not sound like a lot, but if that death rate were extended to cover an entire year, it would total 35 deaths per 100,000 people, on par with the murder rate in the city of St. Louis last year.

Most accidents occurred on the winding roads of the Black Hills. Others claimed the lives of bikers as far away as western Montana and eastern Iowa. 

In most cases, riders realize there are greater risks at the rally, and most try to be cautious.

Melissa Brings Plenty, 33, of Daytona, Fla., said she tries to be especially diligent during the rally because of the crowds and the nature of the recreational activities.

"With all the drinking and partying people do, you have to be on the lookout," Brings Plenty said.

But bikers also point to other riders and car drivers for making the rally risky. Brings Plenty said she had a close call on Tuesday when her group first arrived in Sturgis.

"We were at a four-way stop. This girl looked right, but she never looked left. We had to slam on our brakes. She's a local, too, so she should know to watch out for motorcycles," Brings Plenty said.

Black Hills a challenging ride

Geography also plays a part in the deaths. A handful of roadways have seen multiple fatal accidents, including the interstate leading to and from Sturgis. But a select few highways in the hills hold curves or intersections where numerous people have died over the years. One treacherous stretch is the hilly, winding 14-mile run on Highway 14A between Sturgis and Deadwood where at least a dozen motorcyclists have died over the past 18 years.

Other danger zones were found at Cheyenne Crossing (the intersection of Highways 84 and 14); on scenic Nemo Road from Sturgis to Rapid City; on Highway 85 between Spearfish and Deadwood; and near Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park.

Many of those roads present riders with varying combinations of inclines, declines and steep curves, as well as narrow or non-existent road shoulders. Navigating such tight and treacherous roads is a challenge for any biker, but especially someone who may not have a years of experience or who is not used to riding with so many other bikes on the road.

“A lot of them come from out of state, and they may not have all these corners that we have here,” said Jiggs Cressy, the South Dakota state coordinator for ABATE, a motorcycle advocacy group.

About 90 of the 141 deaths, or 63 percent, took place in the Black Hills region: Butte, Custer, Lawrence, Meade and Pennington counties, as well as Weston County, Wyo. The roads that crisscross the Black Hills are littered with fatal accident sites: U.S. Highways 14, 85 and 385. Others line the stretch of I-90 between Rapid City and Sturgis. More accidents are strung out along the roads that wind through Spearfish, Boulder and Vanocker canyons.

The remaining 52 fatal accidents, or 37 percent of the total deaths, occurred as riders made their way to the rally, or home from it. The farthest recorded accident took place almost 650 miles from Sturgis, when Clifton Baldwin died in 2008 near Lolo, Mont., on his way to the rally.

Including Baldwin, at least six riders have died in Montana. At least four died in Iowa, all in one accident in 2010 near Little Sioux.

Age of bikers a factor?

Most rallygoers know that Sturgis breaks the stereotype that today's bikers are all young men on souped-up cycles riding as fast as they can.

But the fact that Sturgis bikers tend to be middle-aged or older may be a contributing factor to the relatively high fatality rate, said Rick Kiley, director of the motorcycle safety program for the South Dakota Safety Council. In fact, the average age of bikers who died was 50.

“There are often comments that Sturgis is getting older every year,” Kiley said. “Unfortunately the aging process has a direct effect on our riding ability."

A rider’s vision and reaction time get worse with age, according to Kiley.

Kiley also notes that a generation of middle-aged bikers who ditched their bikes or rode less while raising their families can lead to a lack of experience behind the handle bars. In addition to having time off their bikes, those same riders also returned to the hobby to find far more heavy, powerful and technically advanced motorcycles on the market, Kiley said.

In terms of power and acceleration, “motorcycles today, their performance level is much higher than they were in previous years,” Kiley said. “People who have gotten out of it, had a family and come back … they need to be careful of what they buy initially.”

Under the influence?

Combining riding with knocking back a few beers or bourbons is also a recipe for disaster, the Journal analysis showed.

In 88 accidents where conclusive data was available, 20 of the drivers killed, or 23 percent of those cases, had alcohol in their system. Alcohol at Sturgis “is kind of a culture thing,” said Cressy of ABATE.

"It's a peer pressure thing," Cressy said, adding that riders shouldn’t feel badly about turning down drinks when they have to drive.

Whether they drink and ride themselves, most rally riders acknowledge that alcohol is a part of the rally experience, whether drivers are impaired or suffering the after-effects of the previous night. 

Chris Shanklin, 59, of Leawood, Kan., has been riding for 40 years and says he knows better than to drink before hopping on his bike.

Shanklin and his two friends from Kansas were stopped Wednesday outside of Cheyenne Crossing in Lead, a noted danger spot for wrecks. They said they are riding 200 to 250 miles a day during the rally, and have often seen bikers drink and then ride.

"A lot of people think two beers and it is OK to ride," Shanklin said. "I see a lot of people on long rides that will stop and have two beers at one place, and then get back on their bikes and ride for a while and stop at the next place and have two beers."

Drugs, however, may not play as large a role. Of the 66 accidents where conclusive data was available, only one driver who died tested positive for drugs.

Wind in their hair

The most common element among the fatal wrecks studied by the Journal is that about three-quarters of the fatal wrecks involved a rider without a helmet. In the 100 accident reports that had data on helmet use, 77 of the people who died were not wearing helmets.

Kiley said he’d like to see more people wearing helmets.

“Helmets may not necessarily prevent an accident from happening, but it helps prevent and reduce the seriousness of the accident,” he said.

Contact Joe O'Sullivan at 394-8414 or joe.osullivan@rapidcityjournal.com

(21) comments

Bad Betty

I feel as a seasoned rider of 48 years, own and ride my own, and a lady I have seen and been around a lot of different bikers in my time. 19 trips to Sturgis, and this year I left the bike and drove my car...Too many new riders both genders,Not a place to learn to ride curves, in heavy heavy traffic.. Just too crazy over the past years with two week new riders. I have seen some awful accidents over the years..I think my car at least gives me the edge, maybe not true to being a true die heart biker, but at 63 and never gone down or any accidents hey..to me it's all good...I think I have lived my point, and will everyday enjoy my ride on but of course my Softail...


I believe helmet use should be a choice, and I occasionally ride without mine. But, having broken 3 helmets in my riding career (37 years) I am confident saying they have saved my life at least once. by the way none of the 3 accidents would have been avoided had I not had my helmet on. Do as you please, but statements hinting that wearing helmets is more dangerous than not are just foolish..


As a local biker, I choose to NOT wear a helmet, because I find that I can see/hear and therefore react better without one on. There are no statistics that show how many times accidents are avoided by not having a helmet on. You are NEVER going to convince me that wearing one is safer than not having one on. Yes, If my head hits the pavement, a helmet would sure be great, but having this cumbersome "thing" on my head, cuts down on my vision, ability to hear and move my head. All of which are pretty handy to have when riding.


So 75% of deaths aren't wearing helmets? Doubtful, but let's say it's true. That means 25% of deaths WERE wearing helmets. Since by looking around you can estimate only 25% are wearing helmets, wearing one clearly does NOT increase your chance of surviving an accident.


Not sure what kind of math you're doing but it's your head, if you open it on the road you're just another footnote in the journal. Your choice.


Unfortuantely the biking community tends to focus on automobiles "cages" as the problem rather than taking accountability for their own driving habits. Looking back at rally statistics shows overwhelmingly that bikers are their own worst enemy. Local and visiting bikers alike need to be made aware that traffic laws apply to them as well. Even during the rally.


To dopcop; I am glad you came away from your accident okay. But from someone who works in the medical field, I can tell you that the bikers who get to stay in the beautiful Black Hills the longest are the ones who were not wearing a helmet at the time of their accident. Unfortunately for them, they are not enjoying their stay as they are in the intensive care unit, and most of the time on life support with massive head injuries. Your accident (and your friends) are actually the exception, and it seems a little irresponsible to promote riding without a helmet based on your experience only. Regardless, everyone must make their own choices, and hopefully be able to live with them in the end.


And they would bet here even with the helmet. DOT rating is for 5 miles per hour. OK that is how hard you will hit if standing still you fall over and strike your head. A helmet is is good for those who CHOOSE it, but it is only the difference between open and closed casket in most cases. We are human beings. And as such free as so deemed by our Creator. If we bubble wrap us all we will suffocate. We all do things that inherently are risky to ourselves or others. Perhaps we should prosecute those who say run a stop sign and hit a car causing minor damage as sever as we treat those who have an accident with a firearm and it goes off and some one feels threatened. Do not cars kill more than guns? should then the driver of a car not get a ticket but jail time? Well, more bikers are killed by drivers of cars and yet the paper always ends the story with, " he / she was not wearing a helmet".


I would like to see the statistics on how many motorcycle accidents are caused by cars verses self imposed. As a former motorcycle racer road and dirt I can attest to helmets saving my head on many occasions at speeds well above 5mph. It's your choice to wear or not, but don't spread false propaganda.


Today in the journal. How many were caused by autos and how many were self imposed.

Roberto L. Gasbar, 56, of Edmonton, Alberta, died Saturday after the motorcycle he was driving east on Nemo road one-half mile west of the intersection with Westberry Trailsm drifted onto the south shoulder and overturned, according to the South Dakota Highway Patrol. He was not wearing a helmet.
Carolee Weaver, 49, of Luckey, Ohio, died on I-29 near Elk Point after being thrown from a motorcycle just before noon, according to the Highway Patrol. Her husband, Brent Weaver, was taken to a Sioux City, Iowa, hospital with serious injuries. Neither rider was wearing a helmet.
Tiffany Lynn Nelson, 25, of North Mankato, Minn., was identified as the woman who died in the fatal motorcycle crash Friday night at the intersection of U.S. Highway 385 and West Highway 44. Nelson was riding on a motorcycle when a truck struck the bike while attempting to turn south onto Highway 385 from West Highway 44, according to the Highway Patrol.

A motorcycle driven by Robert Kazlauskas, 62, from Hickory Hills, Ill. swerved to avoid a herd of deer on state Highway 240 about 15 miles south of Wall. Kazlauskas lost control of the bike and he along with his wife, Sharon, 60, were thrown from the motorcycle. Both sustained serious but not life threatening injuries.
A motorcycle driven by William Berry, 57, of Medina, Ohio, crashed while traveling north on U.S. Highway 16A, also known as Iron Mountain Road. Berry failed to negotiate a curve and the bike crossed the center line and went off the west side of the road. Berry sustained serious but not life-threatening injuries.
A motorcycle driven by Bruce Bennett, 46, from Grand Island, Neb., struck a deer while traveling west on Nemo Road. Bennett and his passenger, Sonja Brockman, 46, also from Grand Island, were thrown from the bike. Both received serious but not life-threatening injuries.
A motorcycle driven by Walter Plesniak, 65, from Orland Park, Ill., was hit from behind by a truck while traveling east on I-90. Plesniak, who wasn't wearing a helmet, received life-threatening injuries and was transported to Rapid City Regional Hospital.
A motorcycle driven by Stuart Shuler, 66, from Beaver Creek Ohio, failed to make a curve while going northbound on state Highway 87, also known as Needles Highway. Shuler's bike crossed the center line, and hit two motorcycles. The riders one of the bikes, Joseph Yonan, 55, and his passenger, Donna Yonan, 52, of Cypress, Texas, sustained serious injuries.
A motorcycle driven by William Werner, 58, of Appleton Wisc., failed to handle a turn while heading south on Norris Peak Road. Werner sustained minor injuries.
Heather Trebesch, 22, of Pierre failed to handle a curve while driving north on Deadwood Avenue. She suffered minor injuries.
A motorcycle driven by Kevin Keogh, 44, of Medina, Ohio, failed to handle a curve while traveling south on 132nd Avenue near the Buffalo Chip Campground. The motorcycle traveled into a ditch, collided with a sign, continued through the ditch and through a barb-wire fence before stopping on the edge of a field. Keogh received serious but not life-threatening injuries. The passenger, Miranda Greseth, 24, of Rapid City, received minor injuries.
A motorcycle driven by Jason Oefstedahl, 42, of La Crescent, Minn., hit a truck while trying to pass a motorhome on the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park. Oefstedahl and passenger Jennifer Oefstedahl, 39, received minor injuries.
A motorcycle driven by Steve Hansen, 58, from Oakland, Iowa, locked its brakes and skidded while traveling south on U.S. Highway 385. Hansen and his passenger, Ann Vorthmann, 58, also from Oakland, Iowa, sustained minor injuries.


For you who really know, I am alive because I did not have my helmet on. It would have caught and snapped my neck as I have seen as a former Law Enforcment officer and a good friend of mine did. Yes, I was scalpped and it hurt! But, I am alive and my daughter and I ride together because I did not have it on!


Speculate much?


Sturgis is a great opportunity for the state and community. It brings in thousands of dollars and tax money for the state. It is a pain for local commuters but its only 1 week. Keep in mind there are alot of begineer bikers out there and it is everyones responsibility to help this money in sd. Take care of them and they will take care of us. Give the bikers room and take your time. Sturgis is a great little town and can profit off tourism 1 week a year. I think this is great for Stugis and SD, lets keep it local. If possible the state should have better motorcycle training and safety measures for tourists. I will be in sturgis after work and enjoying the festivities with the tourists. Stay safe.

Joe Citizen

I've been driving in rally traffic for over 30 years and EVERY one of those years I experience the same thing....Most (not all) riders that some in from around the world, believe that they own the roads during this event. I am a route driver and my business really picks up at this time of the year. The added congestion of traffic is bad enough but then to have to deal with; Riding the center line, Groups that ride 2 or 3 across the lane, Bikers that weave in and out of traffic, and The ones trying to take pictures WHILE driving 75 mph. EVERYONE needs to pay attention!


It should aggravate all South Dakotans about the rally AND the no helmet law is the our car insurance rates are higher than they would be because of the rally and the no helmet law.
The motor vehicle death and injury statistics factor into how much we pay for car and truck insurance and the lack of a helmet law also increases the risk of death, serious injury, or long term disability. We all socialize the costs for the nonsense of the rally and the no helmet law.


Last I checked, South Dakota HAS a helmet law. SDCL 32-20-4. Minors wear helmets and adults make their own choices. Judging by your rambling comment, you should have made that choice a little sooner. But are you seriously blaming your auto insurance rates on the rally? If there was even an ounce of logic in what you've said, then the highest insurance would be paid by the states with the largest automotive-based events, correct? I bet the rest of Michigan hates Detroit for the North American International Auto Show, and New Yorkers must be pretty upset when so many people attend the New York International Auto Show and cause their auto insurance rates to skyrocket.


This is an excellent article examining many of the factors contributing to the accidents. I have found that wildlife (turkeys, deer, cows/buffalo) and tourists in minivans are some of the most unpredictable scenarios as well.


Do you have any stats on how many accidents are caused by tourists in minivans? There is another article on this site about two riders being killed by a minivan after they crossed over into it's path.


In regards to the comment that locals should know to look out for motorcycles...Sturgis is a small town all year long until rally. If we wanted to live in the city, we would. Visitors come to vacation and have a good time, but the locals still have jobs to go to...everyday life to live. The rally changes the dynamics of our town for the majority of our summer. Roads are closed and people cannot get to the destinations they need to. Our town changes from a small town to a city within a matter of weeks. Simply put...we are not accustomed to this kind of traffic and its very overwhelming for most. Visitors need to be respectful of the townspeople and try to understand the transformation that takes place and it's obviously overwhelming nature to the people of Sturgis. Respect and understanding goes a long way for visitors as well as locals!


Watch out for that big black Ford excursion, came around a corner in Keystone on the wrong side of the road. Thankfully we were going slow. Please don.t drink and drive...my kids are out there.


I ride my own bike and always wear a helmet and even when on the back of someone else's I have my helmet on. Not that it will save my life but at least if I do die in a motorcycle accident they won't be able to put in the story that she didn't have her helmet on.

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