Motorcycle Safety Study - The Good, Bad And The Ugly

Quick note, warm weather is fun to ride in but can be deadly to motorcyclists. This and other interesting trends are seen in the latest motorcycle safety study recently released.

The study’s findings lends itself to a mantra bikers might want to learn, ‘it’s not you, it’s me.’

There’s something for every motorcycle discussion and biker argument in the latest Governors Highway Safety Association’s (GHSA) annual forecast of motorcyclist fatalities. Featuring ‘Motorcyclist Traffic Fatalities by State: 2015’ this preliminary data is GHSA’s sixth annual motorcyclist fatality Spotlight report.

It should be said, the devil is in the details. This is a forecast with some numbers being assumptions based on what’s known so far, but the results are all considered conservative which means the final figures will be higher when said data does come in. Preliminary data provided by state highway safety offices indicates that more than 5,000 people were killed on motorcycles 2015, up ten percent from the year prior.

“These sobering findings provide a stark reminder of how susceptible motorcyclists are to fatal and life-threatening injuries,” said Richard Retting, an author of the study. “The risk of motorcycle crashes and fatalities is compounded by factors such as alcohol and drug use, increased speed limits, the repeal of state helmet laws, and a record number of vehicles on U.S. roads. Concerted efforts are needed to reduce this tragic loss of life.”

Before reviewing the areas this study found were deadly to motorcyclists, a look at matters out of our leather-gloved control.

Motorcycles only have two wheels compares to the four or more found on other vehicles making a bike inherently less stable. Add to this, motorcycles have no protective cage to minimize the injuries of riders and bikers start with the proverbial deck stacked against them.

Cars and trucks enjoy safety features which are continuously improved. While this minimizes injuries and deaths for drivers, generally speaking riders don’t have this luxury. To quote the study, ‘By contrast, motorcyclists remain just as susceptible to injuries when involved in a crash’.

Between having perfect weather in 2015, when it rarely rained on a weekend, and a significantly longer riding season, there were more bikes on the road for a longer period of time. More motorcycles leads to more opportunities for fatalities.

Speaking of more motorcycles, two-wheeled registrations doubled, going from 3,826,373 in 1997 to 7,752,926 in 2008. Fatalities were expected to increase if not due to the sheer numbers of bikers on the road. Unfortunately there are pages of areas the riding community needs to work on to stop a fatal trend from continuing to grow.

A shocking conclusion that sums up most of the next few paragraphs, ‘Per mile driven, fatality rates for motorcyclists were 26 times that of passenger vehicle occupants in 2013’. Whether comparing the number of registered vehicles or the miles driven, both pointed to the same result.

Adding to the impact of these facts, motorcycle riders appear to be riding fewer miles. But the same can’t be said for other vehicles which saw an increase of 3.5 percent, translating to 107 billion more vehicle miles and simply more congested streets.

While motorcycles comprise only three percent of registered vehicles, they currently account for nearly 15 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities. This is a familiar phrase to anyone who has read this or similar studies. However, the numbers are getting worse.

Understanding the journey is more important than the destination, bikers have ridden an interesting road to get where we currently are. Motorcyclist fatalities rose between 1975 and 1980, and then declined steadily to a low of 2,116 in 1997. Fatalities began to rise in 1998 and increased by 151 percent, from 2,116 to 5,312, through 2008. Since then and up to 2014, the average annual number of motorcyclist fatalities has been 4,644. During the 1997 — 2014 timeframe, motorcyclists’ share of total motor vehicle deaths rose from 5 percent to 14 percent.

As mentioned earlier, as cars and trucks continue to improve their safety features, the portion of motorcycle fatalities could continue to grow.

Deadly States

Motorcyclist fatalities increased in 31 states, decreased in 16 states, and stayed the same in 3 states plus the District of Columbia.

There are several ways to look at motorcycle fatalities in the different states. The most obvious would be the number of fatalities, but that would paint heavily populated states and those with warmer climates in an unfair light. Both facts lead to more riders on the road more often.

An example of this would be Florida, California and Texas. Not only do all three offer the best year round riding, they also collectively enjoy 27 percent of the U.S. population according to the 2015 U.S. Census. Not surprising then the same states accounted for 31 percent of the total motorcyclist fatalities in 2015.

Just for the record, Florida comes in at number one with 550 fatalities, California number two at 489 and Texas in third with 455. Just to show how many more riders die in those three states, North Carolina is ranked fourth with 185.

Another method of evaluating how well, or badly a state is doing with motorcycle fatalities is whether they are increasing or decreasing. This could be an indication of safety initiatives, helmet laws or how licenses are issued.

However, Maine tops this chart with a whopping 183% increase but that only totaled to 32 deaths overall. Second place was Vermont with 71% more motorcycle fatalities but that number detailed a total of 17 motorcycle fatalities. Both these states saw more motorcycles on the road for additional months due to the warm year the United States enjoyed in 2015.

To further show this ‘ranking’ method has its own issues, Florida was further down the rankings with 22 percent increase, but that translated to one hundred additional fatalities in 2015 compared to the year before.

The final way to evaluate motorcycle deaths state by state would be the percentage of all motor vehicle deaths that are bikers. In 2014, the range was from 7 percent in Mississippi and North Dakota to 26 percent in Hawaii. In two other states, 20 percent or more of the deaths were motorcyclists: Connecticut (22%) and Nevada (22%). In addition to Mississippi and North Dakota, in four other states, motorcyclists represented fewer than 10 percent of all deaths: Alabama (8%), Maine (8%), Nebraska (9%) and Oklahoma (9%).

Who and why?

Some of the reasons behind which riders are more likely to become a victim of a motorcycle accident are pretty familiar. But there were also some surprises that go against popular views.

First the tried and tested.

Riding drunk is indicated as one the major contributing factor in many fatal motorcycle crashes. Drivers and riders are considered alcohol-impaired when their blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) are .08 grams per deciliter (g/dL) or higher. Based on national estimates of alcohol-involved crashes generated by NHTSA in 2016, the percentage of operators with BACs of .08 g/dL or higher in fatal crashes in 2014 was highest for motorcycle riders at 29%, compared to drivers of passenger cars with 22%. Light trucks and large trucks were at 22% and 2% accordingly.

Does this mean there are more drunk riders on the road than drunk drivers? Not necessarily. Bearing in mind a drunk driver stands a better chance of surviving a crash than their riding counterpart and the numbers can be lessened.

However, if only one biker dies from riding impaired, that’s one too many.

The study concluded the change most likely to produce the largest reduction in motorcyclist fatalities would be restoration of helmet use laws covering all motorcyclists in the 31 states that lack such measures. Even in states with helmet use laws, not all specify that helmets must comply with U.S. Department of Transportation standards. This additional requirement could also improve enforceability of helmet laws and the level of protection offered by helmets.

Currently, only 19 states and D.C. require all riders be helmeted. Another 28 mandate helmet use by riders younger than age 18 or 21, and three have no requirement. According to a 2014 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study, the use rate of helmets in universal law states was 89 percent, compared with 48 percent in all other states.

With all the familiar reasons for motorcycle fatalities reviewed, the promised twist. For over a decade, a widely reported story has been the disproportionate number of middle-aged riders that fill studies such as this.

This is still a concern. Numerous states reported that motorcyclists killed in traffic crashes are often middle aged. Florida noted significant increases in motorcyclist fatalities in both the 35-44 age group (50%) and 55-64 age group (47%). Wisconsin noted the average age of motorcyclist fatalities was 47 in 2015, versus 30 in 1995.

Giving reason to the numbers, New York suggested that crashes/fatalities among older returning riders may be due in part to rusty skills and the increased power of today’s motorcycles.

But despite the prevalence of middle aged riders in fatal crashes, states also identified concerns with younger riders. In Alabama, young adult (21-25 years) motorcyclist fatalities rose from 9 in 2014 to 15 in 2015. Forty percent of motorcycle fatalities in Maryland involved younger males, ages 21-35. And in Texas, 20- to 29-year-old males comprised the majority of motorcycle deaths.

Aside from the risky riding associated with younger motorcyclists, a related finding could point towards more looking to bikes for their everyday commute. One area where Michigan found an increase in 2015 is related to the urban environment. Urban crashes rose from 30 fatalities in 2014 to 44 fatalities in 2015. Another increase in 2015 involved intersections, where motorcyclist fatalities increased from 16 in 2014 to 33 in 2015.

These indicators suggest more people are riding motorcycles in the urban environment.

Riding smarter

This article should leave riders asking themselves what they can do to avoid becoming a statistic.

All the recommendations from the study make perfect sense and are aimed at state officials and authorities who manage highway safety programs as well as individual riders. There are some suggestions bikers may feel are against their particular style of riding leading to the question, is personal freedom or perceived ‘coolness’ worth your life?

Always wear a DOT-compliant helmet, even when not required by state law. Again, the numbers bear out that helmets save lives, both for the rider and passenger. The study makes a detailed argument for states to ensure their helmet laws mandate this safety tip, but also notes that riders always have the choice of wearing one.

Wear bright-colored clothing to make it easier to be seen by other drivers. One of the more alarming facts this study presented was just how crowded the roads and highways have become. Add to this many of these drivers are distracted and motorcyclists need to do what they can to be seen. Aside from what’s being worn, where bikers position themselves in lanes as well as riding defensively all add up to being seen by drivers.

Never ride impaired by alcohol or other drugs. Motorcycles are less forgiving than other vehicles. Impairing motor skills and riding abilities with alcohol or other drugs starts any journey off to the sound of a ticking bomb.

Obey posted speed limits. One of the best motorcycle tips is to never ride beyond your skills, abilities and the road. Speed is a key factor in this advice.

Look for safety features when buying a motorcycle. While motorcycles may not enjoy the cutting-edge safety features of its larger cousins, the study noted one important vehicle factor that can reduce motorcyclist deaths is the antilock brake system (ABS). ABS prevents wheels from locking up, reducing the likelihood of ejection from the motorcycle. In one study, the rate of fatal crashes was 31 percent lower for motorcycles equipped with ABS compared with same-vehicle models without ABS.

ABS is becoming increasingly available as standard or as an option on recent model year motorcycles. In a national telephone survey of motorcyclists, 58 percent said they thought ABS enhanced motorcyclist safety, and 54 percent indicated that they would get ABS on their next motorcycle.

Clutch and Chrome looked closer at the growing number of countries around the world that is mandating ABS as a standard feature on motorcycles in this report.

Other crash avoidance features for motorcycles are possible, such as traction control, which is being introduced in some motorcycle models. Traction control helps mitigate the loss of traction by correcting rear wheel slip as it starts to occur during acceleration. Bosch markets a system called motorcycle stability control, which optimizes ABS to improve stability in curves.

Finally, motorcycle safety courses. The study gives this advice to state officials and authorities who manage highway safety programs in the sense they should improve the methods motorcycle licenses are issued. Riders can take this on at an individual level by being shown how to ride and learning life-saving skill sets through a recognized motorcycle safety course.

Bikers who took an accredited course to initially get their license could look into and advanced or refresher course. What better excuse to get together with other riders who enjoy the open road, as well as expand the number of biker buddies?

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