Motorcycle Accident Statistics
by webBikeWorld.com staff
More: Comments on this article (below)
The mission of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is straightforward: "Save lives, prevent injuries, reduce vehicle-related crashes."
Although every Federal government agency seems overly politicized lately, and NHTSA quite often gets beaten up by various interest groups, the agency does publish relevant technical information.
It's too bad they haven't taken their mission just a little more seriously and spent the few million bucks it would take to update the "Hurt Report", which would have the potential of saving the lives of motorcyclists.
In any case, NHTSA has recently updated their "Recent Trends in Fatal Motorcycle Crashes" study. The 63-page .pdf file contains some interesting information for students of motorcycle accidents that we'll summarize here.
The updated report uses NHTSA's Fatality Analysis Reporting System, or "FARS" data.
The FARS was developed in 1975 by the National Center for Statistics and Analysis (NCSA) "to assist the traffic safety community in identifying traffic safety problems and evaluating both motor vehicle safety standards and highway safety initiatives".
Data in FARS includes motor vehicle traffic crashes that result in the death of an occupant of a vehicle or a non-motorist within 30 days of the crash.
FARS is used by researchers and other interested parties to run analyses on traffic, vehicle safety and road safety. No personal information is kept in the FARS database.
Some have criticized the FARS database because it depends heavily on the methods used by the "first responders" at the accident scene to report the incident. The quality control standards for entering this information can vary.
The NHTSA report shows that there is a greater involvement of riders in the 40 and above age group and larger (1,001-1,500 cc) engine motorcycles in fatal crashes.
This has been criticized by some who say that it only states the obvious; more riders over 40 are involved in fatal crashes because the rates of motorcycle ownership for riders over 40 have increased since the last time the report was issued. But not many people have actually seen the chart that is the cause of the controversy:
As the chart above shows, motorcycle ownership for riders between the ages of 40 and 49 grew from 16.3% to nearly 28% from 1990 to 2003 (the latest year for which statistics are available). Motorcycle ownership also increased by about 25% in the 50 and over age group during the same period.
The median age (50% over and 50% under) rose from 32 to 41 years old during the same period, and the average jumped from 33.1 years old to 40.2. Overall, between 1995-2004, the number of registered motorcycles rose by 1,883,679, an increase of 48%.
So the criticism has some validity, because it makes sense that, as older riders come to represent a larger proportion of overall riders, a greater percentage of accidents will occur among older riders.
Thus, many motorcycle writers have discounted the NHTSA data as a "sky is falling" mentality. It has been said that analysts who should know better are claiming all sorts of reasoning for why the motorcycle accident rate for over-40 riders is increasing.
But here's another chart from the NHTSA report that gives a better picture of the story. It is the "normalized" data, showing the number of registered motorcycles, the miles traveled per year and the corresponding fatality rates. In essence, it takes the age data out of the equation (although each age group still contributes to the rates):
The key figure here is the "Fatality Rate per 100 Million" (miles traveled), which has nearly doubled from 22.73 to 39.89 fatalities per 100 million miles traveled during the period of 1997 to 2004 (See Note 1 below). This is the chart that should be the focus of concern, because the numbers are sobering.
Compiling the rates as a "per 100 million miles traveled" normalizes the data (somewhat) by removing the age effect and the increase in numbers of registered motorcycles to make the comparisons relatively equal across the years. When you consider that motorcycle technology, tires (radial tires were rare in 1995, for example), brakes, helmets, clothing and even rider knowledge improve each year, it's obvious that motorcyclists have a serious problem.
The bottom line? Forget about the age issue, it's a non sequitur. The real issue is immutable: regardless of age categories, the motorcycle fatality rate has increased dramatically since 1997 and shows no signs of moderating in the future. What are we as motorcyclists going to do about it?
That's our take on this issue; if you have an opinion or comment or if you have other motorcycle accident information that you feel may be useful for others to see, feel free to send it to us at
NHTSA reported it correctly, if only the scribes would interpret the results. The report states that "Motorcycle rider fatalities decreased each year from 1995 to 1997, reaching a historic low of 2,116 in 1997. Beginning in 1998 this trend was reversed and motorcycle rider fatalities have increased each year.
Since 1997 motorcycle rider fatalities have increased by 89 percent from 2,116 to 4,008 in 2004. NHTSA previously released a comprehensive report in 2001 based on increases in motorcycle rider fatalities for two consecutive years (1998 and 1999). The latest 2004 data show that motorcycle rider fatalities increased for the seventh year in a row since 1997. This report is an update to the previously released report in 2001 along with more recent data from 1995 to 2004.
If the patterns seen in the analyses continue as seen from the combination of data sources, there is the likelihood that the increase in motorcycle rider fatalities will continue in the future years also."
These findings could aid in the design of crash prevention programs:
UPDATE: The National Transportation Safety Board recently held a public event in Washington, D.C. entitled "Public Forum on Motorcycle Safety" (September 12-13, 2006). The agenda and many interesting presentations are available for download on this page. Some of the presentations were webcasts and are archived and available for viewing on this page.
UPDATE #2: November 30, 2006 - The American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) has announced that it has committed $100,000 to help fund a comprehensive nationwide study of motorcycle crashes, and encourages individual motorcyclists, organizations, and businesses in the motorcycle industry to contribute to the effort through the AMA's new "Fuel the Fund" campaign.
In 2005, Congress approved federal funding to study the causes of motorcycle crashes, the first such research in the U.S. in more than 25 years. The $2.8 million pledged by the government calls for another $2.8 million in matching funds from the American motorcycling community before the entire federal grant will be released.
The AMA, in addition to spearheading the effort to secure federal funding and committing the first matching funds, has launched "Fuel the Fund," a national campaign allowing individuals and businesses to contribute matching funds necessary to take full advantage of the federal funding.
"After declining for more than a decade, motorcycling fatalities have increased in recent years, prompting much speculation about the reasons why," said Edward Moreland, AMA Vice President for Government Relations. "Last year, Congress agreed that we need answers, not theories."
"Now, we're confident that American motorcyclists, rider groups, motorcycle dealers and industry leaders will come together to raise the matching funds required to get the crash study underway," said Moreland. "This is about saving lives, and we need the help of everyone in the motorcycling community to 'Fuel the Fund.'"
Contributions to "Fuel the Fund" can be made online.
UPDATE #3: Motorcycle Industry for Funding New Motorcycle Crash Study July 3, 2007 - The American Motorcyclist Association today praised the motorcycle industry for committing $2.8 million to make a new study into the causes of motorcycle crashes a reality.
The motorcycle industry announced that it will provide the money through the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. The funding will go to the Oklahoma Transportation Center, which is an independent and respected research center at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.
That industry money will be used as matching funding for a federal grant previously approved by Congress. The terms of the federal grant required the motorcycling community to come up with 50 percent of the funding for the study. The AMA has also committed funding to the project, and the association has been collecting additional money from riders through its Fuel the Fund program.
Since 1973, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation has set internationally recognized standards that promote the safety of motorcyclists with rider-education courses, operator licensing tests, and public-information programs. The MSF is a not-for-profit organization sponsored by BMW, BRP, Ducati, Harley-Davidson, Honda, Kawasaki, KTM, Piaggio, Suzuki, Triumph, Victory and Yamaha.
"This commitment by the motorcycle industry is a vital ingredient in getting the first comprehensive study of the causes of motorcycle crashes in more than 25 years," said Ed Moreland, AMA vice president for government relations. "We recognize and appreciate the investment the motorcycle industry is making in its customers. Without this financial support on their part, we could not have taken advantage of the federal funding we worked so hard to secure."
The last major study into the causes of motorcycle crashes was the so-called Hurt Study, completed in 1980. That study provided a wealth of data that has been used by organizations and individual motorcyclists to help keep riders safer on the road.
But the traffic environment has changed enormously in the decades since, prompting the AMA to begin campaigning for a new study several years ago. That process continues with the Fuel the Fund program, designed to finalize the budget for the study, which is expected to begin this fall.
"With funding from the federal government and the industry in place, the motorcycling community is nearing completion of the long process leading to a new study of motorcycle crashes," Moreland said. "This is a tremendous example of the entire motorcycling community-businesses, organizations and individual riders-working together to secure this vital research designed to help prevent crashes and save lives on the highway."
From "T.B." (August 2011): "In an editor's reply (to a comment below) concerning Vehicle Miles Traveled, you stated "I'm also not sure how they capture this information, but there it is."
The answer comes directly from the NHTSA, and the answer is: they don't capture them with accuracy...
1) VMT's for motorcycles are fictitious - the DOT/NHTSA/FHWA admits it. I quote, "Even for those States that reported motorcycle VMT, it often was only estimated as a standard proportion of total VMT rather than collected directly through surveys or roadside counters.
FHWA estimated motorcycle VMT for States that did not report based on data from States that did report. The accuracy of these estimates was thus quite speculative." See the NHTSA .pdf report "Traffic Safety Performance Measures for States and Federal Agencies".
2) States don't agree on what constitutes a "motorcycle." So in 2010, the FHWA has set about the task of defining them. Note, however, while the FHWA is changing the rules, states will still not be forced to comply!
I quote, "The FHWA recognizes the wide variation of vehicles that are primarily described as motorcycles, and does not want to impose rigid definitions." So much for standardization!
3) The methods used to count vehicles can't effectively count motorcycles - if they can count them at all. These issues remain, today. Reference this U.S. DOT, NHTSA paper: "Detecting Motorcyclists and Bicyclists at Intersections" by David R.P. Gibson, Bo Ling, and Spandan Tiwari.
4) Reporting by states was optional prior to 2007, therefore, anything prior to 2007 is very suspect. Considering states can make-up VMT's after 2007 (e.g. "standard proportion of total VMT" whatever that means, since there's no definition), VMT's are still suspect.
The Motorcycle Safety Foundation went on record saying, "The Motorcycle Industry Council's Owner’s Survey suggests that FHWA’s data may under-represent actual VMT by over 100%."
From "C" (02/11): "Other things being equal riding a motorcycle is not dangerous and has a low risk of serious injury. Risk increases with WHERE you ride and how FAST you ride. Improving bike technology makes riding more dangerous because it encourages riding in more dangerous environments at higher speeds.
Before WWII all bikes were used off pavement because there wasn't much pavement. Bikes had smooth tires, poor suspensions, sketchy power and spent a lot of time on dirt and gravel roads where speeds are slower and the ground a bit more forgiving to flesh.
The only thing that has "improved" safety since the pre war days is better protective gear. Put modern helmets on those pre war riders and they would have lower fatality rates but just as much enjoyment as the modern riders going faster in more hazardous environments."
From "T.D." (3/10): "It is interesting to note, in 1995 the average miles ridden per registered motorcycle was 2,514. In 2004, it was 1,738 miles. This 31% decrease in the number of miles ridden per cycle means a decrease in the number of hours of experience on average that each cyclist has on the road. This is just another factor to consider, among all the other factors previously mentioned, when looking at the rising fatality rate.
On another note, fatalities have continued to increase every year since 2004. According to FARS (here), the fatality rate from 2005 to 2008 was:
From "M.B." (3/10): "I’ve read most of the comments to this article and I am somewhat surprised that so many motorcycle riders call for increased awareness for the car drivers. Please understand that this will not happen and act accordingly. It’s better to assume that you are invisible to car drivers.
A short while after I got my motorcycle license (about 4 years ago, when I was 55), I was riding on a busy city street when the car on my left moved left into my lane, without seeing me. I was lucky to be able to break and sway left into the emergency parking lane, just in time to avoid being run over. “Was he trying to kill you?” yelled one fellow driver. “No, he just did not see me”, I thought.
This was a very useful experience. I am now riding with the assumption that all cars are there “to get me”. I never stay in a car’s blind spot for more than a few seconds, watching all the time that the car does not come into my space. I am always assuming I am invisible to all cars. My riding skills have improved dramatically since my first close encounter, and I have never been in a similar situation.
Editor's Reply: Many states in the U.S. are indeed building motorcycle awareness into their car driver training courses. It's not "the" answer but it is definitely part of the solution.
I believe the other readers who have commented do know that they should ride like they are invisible, always on the lookout for other traffic. But I think they are saying that in addition, it would also be very helpful to make sure other vehicle drivers are aware of motorcycles too.
It is important to continuously promote the message "Look Out For Motorcycles" as often as possible. Like any message, it takes a repeated effort using many different channels of communication before it will sink in, and this should be a continuing part of the education for all drivers, just as "riding like you're invisible" should be a continuing message to all motorcyclists.
From "G.F." (6/08): "I have a comment regarding the article Motorcycle Accident Statistics by webBikeWorld.com staff.
The article states that from 1990 to 2003 motorcycle ownership increased by 28%/ This is an incorrect statement. Ownership went from 16.3% to 28% therefore it INCREASED 71%.
It's more than a question of semantics, since the author(s) go on to say that motorcycle ownership increased by 48% between 1995 and 2004. In that instance, however, he used the correct calculation.
So while it may seem like nit-picking, if the whole premise of the story is to clarify the statistics, then it's critically important that the calculations be consistent and accurate..."
Editor's Reply: Thanks for the tip - the information was taken from a Motorcycle Industry Council press release, I'm surprised no one has caught this until now.
From "S.L.": "After 20+ years of motorcycle riding, I can tell you from personal experience that cell phones have got to play into the mix of recent years' motorcycle fatalities.
You don't have to look hard to find a statistic about alcohol related accidents but I haven't been able to find any statistics on cell phone related accidents. It would be interesting to find an analysis of accidents where cell phones were involved and their relationship to the recent increase of motorcycle accidents/fatalities."
Note 1 (From Ben V.): "I'm not sure that it is totally accurate to state the removing the age effect is part of normalized here, although I think I understand you to mean that this second chart does not take age into account in any way, which is of course correct.
Just to play devil's advocate though, I could assert that you can't rule out causality between accidents and age, since accidents per 100VMT increased during the same time period that age is now skewing older. But, there's no proof of causality either.
Anecdotally speaking, I think we would both expect reaction times and overall driver ability to diminish slightly over time as a person ages, with a speeding of ability loss after some age point (i.e., the sep- and octogenarians driving around out there that clearly shouldn't be, but then again very few of them are on bikes!)."
From "J.W.": "Thanks for posting the useful info. I am an aerospace engineer a little bit like Mr. Hurt. I study the statistics on motorcycle accidents out of concern for my own life and my son's life. I thought you might want to look for a study that identifies the "silent majority" of motorcyclists that DO NOT suffer a high fatality or injury rate.
They are: non-drinkers (less than three per week average), they are licensed, they have sought training in safe riding, they DRILL avoidance maneuvering, they wear a real helmet and (usually) a real jacket. If you rake through the statistics for these guys, you'll find their accident rate per mile ridden is stunningly low, as compared to their more cavalier riding brothers.
I tell my son that riding is like crop dusting -- it has a low margin for error; with preparation, discipline, training and sound equipment being the keys to survival.
A large portion of your article probed for the root cause of increased accident rates. I minored in sociology. American culture has CHANGED.
Cell phones usage is staggering. Caffeine intake is up by a factor of TEN from 1950. Fast food, television, video games and the web have made the last two generations very impulsive. Since 1950 mothers have become working super-moms, taking on more than any human should be expected to handle. This "new" American is much more likely to have accidents, whether on a bike or in a car.
It is also interesting to note that insurance companies regard auto drivers as extremely threatening. To ensure a driver runs $1,000 to $3,000 per year. The SAME DRIVER, asking for motorcycle insurance, will get quoted $100 per year, if the the bike's pounds/HP ratio is less than that of a 400Hp corvette. The insurance analysts are very sober guys. They know who is doing the damage.
A recent accident: Fortunately, I was driving a truck. Ahead of me was a woman in a Sentra, driving distractedly. I gave her some room, but she would often loose track of what she was doing and slow down, so I kept loosing my buffer.
We were on a wide street with a central turning lane. I could see she was on her cell phone and thought, "she can't hit her turn signal". She had a 1 year old in the car. Finally she swung into the central turn lane and I thought, "thank God, she's turning left". She went completely into the central turn lane, ...and then TURNED RIGHT, right across my bow. I hit her at about 4 mph.
She had been trying to swing wide so that she could get into a narrow driveway that accesses ...a Starbucks.
Caffeine, working mom, distracting passenger, cell phone, under thirty. We parked and she apologized profusely. Her husband showed up ten minutes later, a fine young man. He said, "Gee, honey, one more corner and you'll have got 'em all". He was referring to the fact that she had had three accidents in that Sentra within the last two years. He loved her and offered her good comfort, but he knew this was a huge problem with no easy answers.
I can tell you the answer, though. Pass a law that you cannot even obtain an automobile license without first becoming a trained and certified motorcyclist and riding for at least one thousand miles.
Tell the major motorcycle manufacturers that. They'll lobby the law through, realizing that their sales will go up an hundred-fold. The insurance companies will likely help push it through, ...along with the motorcycle magazines."
From "R.M.": "I recently came across your article on motorcycle accident stats. The trend towards increasing fatalities is troubling. Perhaps a partial explanation can be found in many of the comments following the article. Despite the statistics that cite, alcohol, failure to negotiate a curve, and a high percentage of single vehicle accidents; the comments all seem to blame four wheel driver inattention, SUV's, and cell phones.
News flash: Distracted drivers have been around forever.
What's different since the mid nineties? How about the disparity between the ability of the rider and the power and speed of the bikes? I rode a lot in the mid to late seventies. Back then a 400 was mid-sized, 750 large and a 900 or 1000 GIANT. Now a 500 to 600cc is a "starter bike" and a 1200 is not big deal. 1500 and 1800cc bikes are common.
I recently "re-entered" the world of motorcycling. I bought a late model Kawasaki 750 Vulcan. The dealers considered it a small bike. The largest bike I'd owned in the 70's was a 650, so I thought this would be fairly comfortable.
I'm continually amazed at the power and acceleration of this bike compared to a 70's era 650. I expect that the 1200 and up bikes are proportionately quicker and more powerful. The new bike also has outstanding handling and braking ability.
But what of the riders?
I've spent the last three weeks diligently trying to get the "feel" of my new bike. That means hours on a practice range turning ever tighter and faster figure eights, running weave patterns, and driving lots of miles at moderate speeds on secondary roads. Believe me this takes some discipline because it's hard to put away those 20 year old memories of wheelie contests with my buddies. But the truth is, my skills aren't what they were, and the bike is still unfamiliar. I fully expect to do some wheel stands in the future (closed road / practice range - of course), but not until my skills return and the bike feels like it's just an extension of myself.
On the other hand, the few new riders I've met in recent weeks seem completely baffled by my obsession with riding skills. One is a 40 something female that owns a 800+cc Harley, and the other is a late 40's contractor that owns a 1000+cc Harley.
Both of these bikes are spectacular machines capable of obscene speeds. Neither of these two people have more than 1000 miles of riding experience, and one just got a license. They ride about once a month, and don't see any need for additional "practice" or "training". I believe that it is unlikely that their level of skill and experience could allow them to avoid a crash in an abnormal situation.
It seems this trend started in the boom years of the 90's when many people made a great deal of money, and risk taking adventure became popular. Motorcycles became "cool" for an aging generation of baby boomers desperately trying to hold on to their youth.
These adventure seekers are more familiar with the illusion of risk however, as in downhill skiing, guide assisted game hunting, scuba diving, boating, etc. In each of these activities, a potentially dangerous activity has been purged of most of the danger by supervised conditions.
Perhaps the above rationale is mistaken, but for whatever reason, my observation is that bikes more powerful and capable than ever, and riders are less capable than their 1970's counterparts. I believe the strong trend toward relatively inexperienced riders with extraordinarily powerful bikes is the leading cause in the increasing rate of motorcycle crashes and fatalities.
We've got to stress that motorcycle riding isn't just a recreational activity like skiing or golf. It requires high levels of skill, and the consequences of failure are often fatal."
From "M.": "I have been riding 35+ years. I agree that there are way too many accidents. I think that some minor things done up front could help in the long run.
1) Sell /rent no bike to an unlicensed rider.
2) Make the basic MSF course mandatory to obtain a license.
3) Make Motorcycle Awareness part of the standard drivers exam in ALL states, (some states already do).
4) Make State "Motorcycle Awareness" week a Federal requirement (Here in Washington, our governor refuses to recognize Motorcycle Awareness week. She feels motorcycles are too dangerous).
5) Make "putting on Makeup", "shaving", "talking on the phone", "eating" while driving a motor vehicle illegal (we should do like Europe does, both hands must be on the wheel or you get ticketed).
6) Make the excuse "I didn't see them" a good reason to suspend the driver's license, reason, they either didn't bother looking "reckless driving" (which happens more and more) or they are just plain blind.
What I would like to see is a report that breaks down the accident by type of bike, and type of accident. Then more can be done to zero in on the accidents and their causes. And one thing I would like to know, is why police officers seem to always write "failed to yield" tickets to the motorcycle rider, even when it obvious that the other vehicle caused the accident!"
From "M.H.": "I wanted to thank you for your article and just wanted to throw in my two cents. I believe the problem of motorcycle accidents is about awareness. In my humble opinion accidents are caused by 4 wheeled vehicles putting motorcyclists into difficult situations that they lack the ability to recover from. We need to get the word out regarding motorcycles and what simple consideration they require from their fellow motorists.
In the 70's the most effective ad campaign I have ever witnessed took place. An American Indian is looking at people throwing garbage out of their car, on the floor etc., and the camera pans up to him as a tear rolls down his face. Anyone who has ever seen this commercial remembers it as it has a tremendous impact on the social conscience.
No one wanted a dirty community but the awareness was just not there. Pointing out to people that motorcyclists are on the road and that the actions they take may imperil another human being is very powerful as a message. But the fact of the matter is that the only activity I have ever seen that addresses this is the occasional bumper sticker here and there.
I know this is not the only issue. We must get motorcyclists to stop doing foolish things on the road - to name a few, stunting and driving drunk. But as we raise the awareness and responsibility of everyone on the road this will automatically get better.
We will still need to address these issues but I believe the awareness part of the the equation will have the largest impact on accidents. Case in point, when I lived in Boulder, Colorado, everyone rode a bicycle or had a family member who did.
In all of the riding that I have done none has been as easy and safe as when I lived there. The awareness of the vehicle operator of other vehicles on the road raised the safety factor measurably. You were seen, recognized and give the benefit of the doubt by the motorists."
From "K.C.": "I got back into motorcycling about four years ago after many years of non regular riding. No matter where I go on my touring bike ( U.S.A. and Canada) I see drivers locked on cell phones, distracted by everything you could imagine. I think we as motorcyclists are more attentive ( basic survival technique) and notice this trend.
So we have to account for that and watch for that constantly. The big one I really think is speed. Lots of people speeding , and not just a little over but well over the limit.
We, and other motorists have the horses to do it. How many of us have passed not one, but three or four cars in a row on a highway and exceed 90 or 100 miles per hour by the time we pull in? Try throwing in a wandering deer or moose into the thick of that!!
So we can't point fingers can we? The bike makers build them and we buy 'em. Lots of great rides out there. They give them great brakes, lots of power and good handling. Or, maybe not even good handling or brakes but a sweet chopper that is an art project on wheels. Not like bikes from the 60's or 70's.
What is the answer? Don't know really, could be that there are a lot of older riders like me entering the bike hobby with cash to buy a nice one, and don't spend enough time on the bike building skills or drink and ride. Try to obey the rules of the road and be very defensive. That goes a long way."
From "S.P.": "I know this could be a gross over-simplification of the results but there has been an obvious trend over the past 13 years that shouldn't be overlooked.
Granted, motorcyclists are to blame for many single-vehicle accidents and that aside, I believe one has to look at the trend in vehicle sales and what's going on behind the wheel of everyone out there...
All you conscientious motorcyclists have your eyes and ears open and tuned to your surroundings (no iPods while you're riding, please), but over the past 13 years SUV's have become the one of the most popular new vehicles, cellular phone use is ubiquitous, and the car interior looks more like a video game console than a car.
What does this mean? More people in bigger cars with more distractions and paying less attention.
I wish there were some way to correlate this to the new statistics because hearing the addage "I just didn't see him" is becoming absurd.
I wouldn't want a surgeon to be talking on his cell while taking out my appendix... or a fireman taking a call from his 'Boo while putting out a fire... People need to get the message. Safely driving a car, SUV or motorcycle should be your only priority behind the wheel.
Thanks guys, keep up the good work."
From "C.M.": "Actually I think that the statistics about the number of miles ridden vs. the number of registered MC's might make sense and actually support other comments submitted (below).
More people are buying and registering MC's but are not frequent riders. As infrequent riders they are more likely to have their skills be rusty or slow to develop at all which may contribute to a higher likelihood of misjudgment and accidents."
From "E.C.": "Thank you for the insightful article about motorcycle accident statistics. All too often meaningless statistics are plastered in the media, so it is good to read an author that is trying to translate what the numbers actually mean.
I actually just graduated from Johns Hopkins with a BA in Public Health - where I got to write a lot of papers about health and motorcycles. So... let me tell you what I've found.
I believe the two contributors to this increase are helmet use and drunken riding.
Many public health officials are saying that it is quite obvious to them that repealing helmet laws is wrong, whereas motorcyclists are saying they want the choice to wear their helmet or not. While I agree that perhaps helmet laws are unethical, wearing a helmet is still a really good idea, and the people in states where its not required would go back to wearing their helmets, then the fatality numbers would probably go back towards normal.
However, helmet use cannot account for all of the accidents, and I believe that alcohol use is the other main contributor.
First of all, there is a lot more hubbub about helmet use than alcohol use. There are an increasing number of states not requiring helmets, though helmets seem to only alleviate injury and fatality statistics among non-alcohol related accidents, where as alcohol-related accidents are usually so bad that drunk riders are statistically just as likely to get hurt or die, with or without helmet.
The most common destination for a ride is the bar, and motorcyclists who end up in the hospital, tend to have ridiculously high B.A.C. (blood alcohol content) levels, which can signify alcohol abuse. And yet there is much more discussion about riders who ride with leathers or not, versus riders who drink before riding or not.
Of course many motorcyclists tend to blame car drivers first for accidents, and car drivers blame helmets for accidents - remember the public reaction to that football player?
While car drivers need to be more aware of motorcyclists in general, I don't think there has been a decrease in the quality of car driving (If anything, the quality should be getting better, since they are adding more motorcyclists to the mix of auto drivers, and according to a survey of simulated car driving, motorcyclists are safer car drivers).
Lastly and most annoyingly, the statistics, even the ones I am remembering from my research in the last year, are hardly thorough or conclusive. In fact, many research papers recycled the same speculation made by a paper more than a decade old, that drunk riders crash due to lack of balance.
Whereas, if they had asked any motorcyclist, "Is it hard to balance your motorcycle when you are riding?" they would have found that is really hard to tip over your motorcycle when you are going more than 10 mph - unless you are pretending to be Nicky Hayden.
Finally, a paper (I think that one of my professors had published) corrected that assumption with the idea that drunken riders usually crash due to inattentiveness or simply blacking out - scary.
It is exciting that there are so many new riders, I am actually technically one of them, having learnt last summer and putting 17,000 miles and one crash into my YZF600R since then. But hopefully we all can remember to do what keeps us alive - and encourage others to do the same. Safety first - right guys?"
From "P.S.", who first inspired this article: "I would like to thank you for your web site. I consider your ratings of helmets and safety gear to be very helpful. I also think that the reviews of helmets and other safety gear on your web site have the effect of encouraging riders to take a constructive attitude toward safety.
It would be nice to think that motorcyclists are committed to making motorcycle riding as safe as possible, but traffic statistics do not support that view. A couple of years ago, in 2004, the US Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a report analyzing data on all motorcycle accidents nationwide (which is the topic of the article on this page - Editor).
NHTSA's statistics indicated that a large number of motorcycle fatalities and accidents involved motorcyclists who were not wearing helmets, were driving while intoxicated, and/or were speeding. Many motorcyclists died in one-vehicle accidents by losing control of their motorcycles and crashing into fixed objects. Among other things, the report indicated that:
While recognizing that driving a motorcycle involves some inherent hazards that require taking a responsible attitude toward driving, I found some of the statistics mentioned above to be startling. I appreciate the things you are already doing to promote safety. If you can think of any additional ways in which your web site could promote safer attitudes toward driving among motorcyclists, I would encourage you to do so."
From "N.O.": "These are very poor statistics. It seems that the older folks that ride need to be retrained on safety and take some safety courses. I am in the military and all bases have banned cell phone use on military installations. I feel that this is a great step forward in preventing accidents.
It has been proven that cell phone use while driving creates a huge distraction and diverts driver attention from the road and surroundings. If state and local governments would follow suit with a similar law I feel that accidents of all kinds would decrease. I feel that they should also outlaw eating while driving, looking at a map or (doing) paper work, changing clothes, and putting on make-up.
Too many times I have been riding or driving and seen people swerving all over the road while doing something stupid (cell phone etc etc). SOMETHING NEEDS TO HAPPEN - MORE TRAINING AND BETTER LAWS."
From "M.C.": "I'd be interested in knowing the numbers for the following: State-by-state breakdown for the accidents. Seasonal variations. Animal-related accident rates.
I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that more accidents occur earlier in riding season and again later in riding season...also fewer accidents/miles traveled where riding season is longer or all-year-round.
There has to be some correlation to skills getting rusty over winter; also riders who ride fewer miles per year are probably also at higher risk due to poorly exercised riding skills. Finally, has the ratio of single-vehicle accidents to multi-vehicle accidents changed significantly?"
Editor's Note: All of that data is (I believe) captured in FARS and if someone would like to do the research and write an article for us, let me know! Regarding the ratio of single- to multi-vehicle accidents, it went from 45% to 55% during the time period shown.
From "P.L.": "Let's remember to inject some common sense into the changing statistics. Of course the age of the motorcyclists dying is going up and that those who die are riding larger displacement. Just look at who is buying which motorcycles: Over 40, buying over 1000cc cruisers.
In my MSF basic rider class last year, 1/2 the students were Harley owners who couldn't pass the Illinois license test. It was clear that they owned large motorcycles and had very limited skills. It's easy to predict the statistics when you observe who is on the road.
Just a comment on the fatality rate. The number of motorcycles went from 3.8 million to 5.7 million between 1997 and 2004 yet the number of miles traveled went down? Sounds pretty questionable."
Editor's Note: Thanks for the feedback, I thought we were injecting some common sense into the statistics! ;-) Not sure why the drop in number of miles traveled, and now that you mention it, I'm also not sure how they capture this information, but there it is. And finally, the 20-29 year old age group at 22% of the total number of riders has the largest number of fatalities, not the over 40 year olds.
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