Race cars and supersport motorcycles are both designed for the track, but you'll only find one of them on the highway. Supersport motorcycles have engines that deliver more horsepower per pound than a typical NASCAR vehicle, reaching speeds of nearly 190 miles per hour, and some of their riders treat public roads like private racecourses. The result is that motorcyclists who ride supersports have driver death rates per 10,000 registered motorcycles nearly 4 times higher than rates for motorcyclists who ride all other types of bikes. Supersports have the highest overall insurance losses under collision coverage among all motorcycle classes. These are the main findings of new analyses by the Institute and Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI).
Supersports are built on racing platforms but modified for the highway and sold to consumers (see "Super bikes: twice the danger of street cycles," Oct. 17, 1987). They're especially popular with riders younger than 30 who tend to outfit themselves with bright racing leathers and full-coverage helmets that give them a sleek profile as they hug these aerodynamic bikes. With their light weight and powerful engines, supersports are all about speed. They typically have more horsepower per pound than other bikes. A 2006 model Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R, for example, produces 111 horsepower and weighs 404 pounds. In contrast, the 2006 Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide, a touring bike, produces 65 horsepower and weighs 788 pounds.
Manufacturers are quick to tout supersports' horsepower and handling. Suzuki urges riders to "own the racetrack." Yamaha promises its bikes will "get you there first." Kawasaki's commercial for the Ninja ZX-6R is striking for its tagline: "Race ready. Street legal. Barely." It made HLDI's list of the 10 worst 2002-06 motorcycle models for overall collision losses and theft.
"Supersport motorcycles indeed are nimble and quick, but they also can be deadly," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research. "These bikes made up less than 10 percent of registered motorcycles in 2005 but accounted for more than 25 percent of rider deaths. Their insurance losses were elevated, too."
In an Institute analysis of deaths per 10,000 registered motorcycles, supersport drivers had a death rate of 22.6 in 2000 and 22.5 in 2005. Sport and unclad sport bikes, which are similar to supersports, had the next highest rates at 10.8 in 2000 and 10.7 in 2005.
Death rates for other types of motorcycles were much lower. Cruisers and standard motorcycles had a combined death rate of 5.6 in 2000 and 5.7 in 2005. The death rate for touring motorcycles was 5.3 in 2000, rising to 6.5 in 2005. Overall motorcycle driver deaths rose 59 percent between 2000 and 2005, and the overall death rate climbed to 7.5 driver deaths per 10,000 registered motorcycles from 7.1. Meanwhile, helmet use fell.
Motorcycle driver deaths per 10,000 registered motorcycles, 2000 vs. 2005
||Deaths per 10,000 reg. motorcycles
||Deaths per 10,000 reg. motorcycles
Note: Total includes all motorcycles except those identified as off-road (ATVs and dirt bikes).
Supersports are zooming in popularity, with registrations up 83 percent in 2005 compared with 2000, though cruisers and standard motorcycles made up the bulk of registrations. In 2005 supersports accounted for 9 percent of registrations, cruisers made up 47 percent, and standards 4 percent. Combined registrations of cruisers and standards climbed 59 percent from 2000 to 2005, while total motorcycle registrations rose 51 percent.
The average engine size in all classes of motorcycles and in fatal crashes overall has risen sharply. Among motorcycle drivers killed in 2005, 33 percent drove motorcycles with engine sizes larger than 1,200 cubic centimeters (cc), compared with 26 percent in 2000 and 17 percent in 1997.
"Motorcycle registrations are up, helmet use is down, and engine size is up for all types of bikes. It's no wonder that motorcyclist deaths have risen in the past 10 years," McCartt says. "Many riders, especially those on supersports, can't resist testing their bikes' performance capabilities. Pushing top speeds is fine for professionals on racetracks but not for wannabe racers who share the highway with people in other motor vehicles."
Among fatally injured drivers, those on supersports were the youngest, with an average age in 2005 of 27. Touring motorcyclists were the oldest at 51. Sport and unclad sport bikes drew younger riders, too, with 34 the average age of fatally injured drivers. Average ages were up for all motorcycle drivers killed in crashes, with the largest increases among riders of cruisers, standards, sports, and unclad sports. The average age of fatally injured riders of cruisers and standards rose to 44 in 2005 from 41 in 2000, while sport and unclad sport riders' average age rose to 34 in 2005 from 30 in 2000.
Characteristics of fatally injured motorcycle drivers by motorcycle class, 2005
"Although different types of motorcycles tend to attract riders in different age groups, we found that in each motorcycle class, fatally injured riders shared similar characteristics across all age groups," McCartt says. Speeding and driver error were bigger factors in fatal crashes of supersport and sport and unclad sport bikes compared with other classes of motorcycles. Speed was cited in 57 percent of supersport riders' fatal crashes in 2005 and 46 percent of the fatal crashes of sport and unclad sport riders. Speed was a factor in 27 percent of fatal crashes among riders of cruisers and standards and 22 percent on touring motorcycles. Sport and supersport riders were more likely to be speeding and also more likely to be wearing helmets than other motorcyclists. Seventy-one percent of supersport riders who died in crashes in 2005 wore helmets, compared with 52 percent of touring bike riders.
Alcohol also is a problem. In 2005 it was a factor in the fatal crashes of 19 percent of supersport riders and 23 percent of sport and unclad sport riders. Alcohol impairment was an even bigger factor in the fatal crashes of cruisers and standard bikes and touring motorcycles, particularly among riders 30-49 years old. Thirty-three percent of cruiser and standard riders and 26 percent of touring motorcycle riders had blood alcohol concentrations above the legal threshold for impairment.
Not only does motorcycle class influence driver death rates but it also has a major bearing on insurance losses. Supersport motorcycles had the highest overall collision coverage losses among 2002-06 model bikes, almost 4 times higher than losses for touring motorcycles and more than 6 times higher than cruisers, a HLDI analysis reveals. Nine of the 10 motorcycles with the highest losses were supersports. The Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R, a 1,000 cc supersport, topped the worst list, with collision losses more than 9 times the average. Five of the 10 motorcycles with the highest overall losses had engine displacements of 1,000 cc or larger.
Claim frequency is driving the high overall losses among supersport motorcycles, meaning that supersports are involved in more collisions in relation to their numbers on the road than other motorcycles. Supersports had a claim frequency of 9 claims per 100 insured vehicle years, compared with a claim frequency of 2.3 for all 2002-06 models.
Touring motorcycles had the most expensive claims. Average claim costs for the Harley Screaming Eagle Electra Glide, a 1,690 cc touring motorcycle, were more than 2 times the average for all other motorcycles. These heavy, powerful bikes aren't involved in fatal collisions as often as sportier motorcycles, but when touring bikes crash their insurance costs are high since they're pricier. Touring motorcycles had the highest average loss payment per insurance claim at $7,176. Supersports followed with an average loss payment per claim of $5,434 for 2002-06s.
"Supersport motorcycles have such elevated crash death rates and insurance losses because many people ride them as if they were on a racetrack," McCartt says. "Data show that speed is a big factor in their crashes. A combination of factors, including the motorcycle itself, may push up death rates. Motorcyclists presumably buy supersports and sport bikes because they want to go fast, and manufacturers are happy to oblige. Short of banning supersport and sport motorcycles from public roadways, capping the speed of these street-legal racing machines at the factory might be one way to reduce their risk."
Cruisers are the largest class of bikes. Riders typically are about 49, according to insurance data from the Highway Loss Data Institute. Cruisers mimic the style of American motorcycles from the 1930s to 1960s, such as Harley-Davidsons and Indians.
Standards have basic designs and upright riding positions, with low power-to-weight ratios that result in a user-friendly motorcycle. Their average driver is 46.
Supersports are consumer versions of racing motorcycles. Reduced weight and increased power allow for quick acceleration, nimble handling and high speeds. The average driver is about 36 years old.
Sport motorcycles are closely related to supersports. Sport bikes are capable of high speeds but don't have the acceleration, stability and handling of supersports. They generally have lower power-to-weight ratios than supersports. The average age of a sport bike driver is 40.
Unclad sport motorcycles are similar to sport bikes and supersports in design and performance but without plastic body fairings or windscreens. The average rider is about 42.
Touring motorcycles have big engines and fuel tanks plus room to haul luggage. They're often outfitted with antilock brakes, audio systems and cruise control. The average driver is age 54.
Scooters have small wheels, automatic transmissions and small engines, but larger scooters are becoming more popular. The average age of a scooter driver is 52.