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Bring on the bikers

Press Photo by Ashley Martin Bikers stop in Dickinson Saturday. Though they were headed to Montana, they planned to head to Sturgis Wednesday for the big Sturgis Motorcyle Rally.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) -- Baby boomers rumbling through South Dakota now outnumber their younger motorcycle comrades, shrugging off sports cars in search of motorized freedom. But they also account for the most accidents.

That's why safety groups are trying to persuade biker boomers to wear helmets and protective clothing as they roll into the Black Hills for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. The week-long event that attracted more than 400,000 people last year begins Monday.

Riders age 52 and older make up the largest block of motorcycle owners in South Dakota and many other states, said J.C. Carpenter, director of the state Office of Highway Safety.

"Instead of buying a red Corvette when they go through the time change, they buy the motorcycle they've always dreamed about," Carpenter said.

They also have the highest number of crashes -- many involving unskilled riders who didn't go through a safety course or wear the right gear, he said.

Nearly 39 percent of licensed bikers in South Dakota were 52 or older in 2008, and accounted for just more than 30 percent of the state's motorcycle accidents with 167 crashes, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

In comparison, riders between the ages of 42 and 51 made up nearly 28 percent of the licensed motorcyclists and were in one-fourth of the state's crashes last year. The numbers were smaller for age groups of younger bikers.

"We're seeing accidents and fatals with dealer plates," Carpenter said of the new motorcycles often involved. "They're in the prime of the their life looking at their retirement years and are seriously hurt or killed on a motorcycle."

Billboards and pamphlets greet riders as they ride into Sturgis, a town of about 6,000 residents near the Wyoming border. Roughly a third of all motorcycle crashes for the entire year in Meade, Lawrence, Pennington and Custer counties -- the area that hosts the rally -- happen during the event and on the few days before and after, Carpenter said.

A Brotherhood for Awareness, Training and Education, which is a group that promotes better training for motorcyclists, is distributing brochures that rate the twisting highways of the Black Hills from easy to difficult. They also warn bikers to watch out for wildlife, which causes a third of all accidents in the state.

The South Dakota Department of Public Safety is running a billboard and television ad campaign that urges boomer-aged riders to wear protective clothing.

Retired law enforcement officer Jim Pelle said he's living proof the gear is vital.

Pelle, 57, of Fort Pierre was riding last August in Kansas when he came over a hill and hit a deer. The animal careened over his motorcycle, hit him in the head and split his helmet in half.

Pelle suffered a stroke from the impact, cracked ribs, a punctured lung and ruptured spleen. He spent more than a month in an induced coma. Although he is still rehabilitating, Pelle said he has no permanent injuries.

He plans to ride his newly repaired bike to this year's rally.

"I'm here today because of protective gear and I've got very few scars on my body because of the protective gear I had on," he said.

Pelle is speaking to groups about his experience and said his message is clear: Safety gear doesn't take away the fun of riding.

"I'm not promoting the helmet law or anything like that," he said.

"Protective gear has really made me a firm believer in doing things right and not because the government said I have to," he added. "I did it because I made the right choice. Common sense will do a lot more than the law will. If you use it."