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A middle-aged Canadian man died on Labor Day when his motorcycle struck a car near the Oregon coast. In Central Oregon, a middle-aged couple from Aloha suffered injuries when their Harley Davidson collided with a Jeep.

The incidents were the latest in what has become a sharp, if little-noticed, rise in the number of motorcycle accidents in Oregon.

More than 550 motorcyclists were killed or injured in crashes last year, a 38 percent increase from 2000, according to statistics from Oregon Department of Transportation.

The jump in serious crashes is partly explained by a 30 percent surge in the number of registered motorcycles in Oregon over the same time period.

Some transportation officials credit the rising popularity – and the increase in crashes – to financially secure baby boomers looking for adventure.

“They raised their family and they always wanted to ride a motorcycle, or (they) want to get back into it,” said Steve Garets, director of the motorcycle safety program Team Oregon. “It’s the over-40 crowd that is fueling the resurgence of motorcycles.”

At Team Oregon, the average student’s age is about 37, but it’s not uncommon to have riders in their 50s or 60s enrolled in the class, Garets said.

In its first year, the program drew 432 students in 1984. Last year, the program trained nearly 6,000 people, Garets said.

Still, rider-safety classes are not required to obtain a motorcycle endorsement, and some experts say the increase in serious crashes results from the inexperience of rookie riders combined with increasingly powerful bikes and older riders’ decreasing motor skills. Initial investigations into the Labor Day crashes indicate that neither motorcyclist was at fault.

Rob Hitchcock, 42, of Sublimity said his experience as a youth riding dirt bikes gave him the basic skills necessary for motorcycle riding. He bought a Suzuki V-Strom in late August and passed his motorcycle driver test last week.

Buying the bike and passing the test fulfilled a dream that he shares with his wife.

“She told me I could get a bike as long as I teach her to ride,” he said.

The sensible side of Hitchcock says he’s going to save money by commuting to Salem on the motorbike. The mechanic also has a less practical side.

“It’s the open road, you know? You’ve got the open road, the sun shining down or the stars – you’re free.”

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