So should we ban them, too? These groups sounds somewhat self-mutilating -- "Motorcycle groups opposed to helmet laws point to the changing face of bikers." e ------------------------------------------- Motorcycle fatalities nationwide have surged to their highest levels since 1987, even as overall highway deaths continue to decline. Last year, 4,008 motorcycle riders were killed in highway accidents, up 7.9% from 2003 and 89% higher than in 1997, according to a new National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report. Meanwhile, passenger car deaths dropped 3.2% to 19,091 last year. The increase in motorcycle deaths has spurred Congress to add $3 million to a federal transportation bill for a study on motorcycle crashes. President Bush is set to sign the measure this week. "What we need now are answers, not theories," said Tom Lindsay, spokesman for the American Motorcyclist Association. Possible causes: a sharp rise in motorcycle ownership, rollback of mandatory helmet laws and an increase in inexperienced bikers riding powerful machines. Americans bought an estimated 734,000 new on-highway motorcycles last year, up from 230,000 in 1995, said Tim Buche, president of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. But more motorcycles don't account for the entire increase. The fatality rate is also on the rise. In 2003, the most recent year for which statistics are available for motorcycles, the fatality rate was 38.38 per 100 million miles traveled. In 2002, that figure was 34.23. By contrast, the fatality rate for all highway drivers has improved for decades and in 2004 was 1.46 per 100 million miles traveled. Rae Tyson, spokesman for the highway administration, said blame may lie partly with states that have scaled back helmet laws. A study released by the agency Monday showed an 81% rise in motorcycle deaths in Florida in a three-year period after the state repealed its law in 2000. Motorcycle groups opposed to helmet laws point to the changing face of bikers. Jeff Rabe, lobbyist for the Modified Motorcycle Association of California, said more "middle-aged executives" are riding powerful machines without training. "There's a huge group of people ages 35 to 50 who have purchased motorcycles," Rabe said. "But they're still beginning riders."