Motorcycle riding offers high excitement and risk. Motorcyclists face five times the chance of car riders of being injured for the same number of miles traveled and 26 times the risk of death. A report by the Insurance Information Institute gives detailed information on how the risks break down.
Alcohol is a big contributing factor. The NHTSA reports that 29% of riders in fatal accidents had blood alcohol levels of 0.08% or more in 2014. This is an even higher percentage than for automobile drivers. Factors increasing the risk are that riders who are drunk are less likely to wear helmets and that driving a motorcycle requires more coordination than driving a car.
Speed also figures heavily in fatalities; 34% of motorcyclists in fatal crashes were found to be speeding in 2013.
What about crashes in general, including non-fatal ones? Legal resource site HG.org offers some statistics. Three-quarters of motorcycle accidents involve hitting another vehicle. In two-thirds of these cases, the other vehicle violated the motorcycle’s right of way. Usually, this is a matter of not seeing the motorcycle in time, rarely of deliberate hostility. Very often sunlight or vehicles obscure the motorist’s view. The single most common situation is a car making a left turn in front of a motorcycle.
Riders from 16 to 24 are especially likely to be involved in accidents, while those from 30 to 50 have a relatively low accident rate. This suggests inexperience as a contributing factor, and perhaps the willingness of young riders to take risks.
However, the III report says that most motorcycle fatalities are among riders over 40, and the trend toward higher fatalities among older riders is increasing, especially in the over-60 group. Brown University researchers have cited slower reaction time and poorer vision as contributing factors. Decreased ability to recover from injury may also contribute. Or perhaps it’s just that older people are getting on motorcycles.
Unfamiliarity with the rider’s current vehicle, whether it’s associated with overall lack of experience or not, appears to be a factor. More than half of the riders involved in accidents, according to HG, had been using their current vehicle for less than five months.
Training beyond the basic level may or may not contribute significantly to safety. A Dutch study indicates that training results in safer riding and that the benefit persists for at least a year. However, the New York Times reported a study which found that training doesn’t significantly reduce accident rates. The latter covered mandatory training, so perhaps training is more effective when people are personally motivated rather than required to take it. People who don’t have even the minimum of training to qualify for a license, including riders licensed for cars but not motorcycles, have a high accident rate.
Lack of a helmet contributes heavily to the fatality rate but not the accident rate. Wearing a helmet may slightly increase the risk of a non-fatal accident by reducing peripheral vision. Improperly designed helmets are especially prone to obscure vision without offering much protection in a collision.
Three-quarters of riders in accidents didn’t have eye protection. Irritants blown into their eyes could be a factor in these cases.
The good news is that motorcycle fatalities per rider mile are declining significantly. The III study reported that in 2004 there were 40 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles and that in 2013 it had fallen to 23. Safety features, especially antilock brakes, have contributed greatly to the decline. Motorcycle use has gone up significantly, so total fatalities are slightly up, but riding is safer than it was a decade ago.
Every accident has multiple causes, but if we’re going to name one factor as the biggest contributor to motorcycle crashes, it has to be automobiles. However, riders can greatly improve their chances of safety by avoiding other risk factors, especially alcohol and excessive speed.
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