Q&A: Motorcycles — general
- 1 Do motorcyclists have high crash death rates?
Yes. According to the federal government, per mile traveled in 2010, the number of deaths on motorcycles was about 30 times the number in cars. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 2012. Traffic safety facts, 2010: motorcycles. Report no. DOT HS-811-639. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation. Motorcycles are less stable than cars during maneuvers such as emergency braking and swerving and are less visible on the road. Some motorcycles have high performance capabilities that can encourage riders to speed, accelerate quickly or engage in other risky driving maneuvers. When motorcyclists crash, they lack the protection of an enclosed vehicle, so they're more likely to be injured or killed.
- 2 What are the most common types of motorcycle crashes?
Nearly half of all motorcycle driver deaths involve just the motorcycle and no other vehicle. This proportion has remained largely unchanged over time. Speeding and alcohol use contribute to many of these fatal single-vehicle crashes. In 2011, 48 percent of the 1,880 motorcycle drivers killed in single-vehicle crashes were speeding, and 42 percent had blood alcohol concentrations (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher.
Crashing into a fixed object is a bigger problem on a motorcycle than it is for other vehicles. In 2011, 23 percent of motorcycles involved in fatal crashes collided with fixed objects, compared with 16 percent of passenger vehicles in fatal crashes.
In 2011, 39 percent of two-vehicle fatal motorcycle crashes involved a vehicle turning left while the motorcycle was going straight, passing or overtaking the vehicle.
- 3 Are rider deaths increasing?
Yes. Fatalities among motorcycle drivers and passengers in 2011 were more than double those in 1997. They reached 5,112 in 2008, accounting for 14 percent of total highway crash deaths. This is the highest number of motorcyclists killed in one year since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began collecting fatal motor vehicle crash data in 1975. After declining 16 percent to 4,286 in 2009, motorcyclist deaths increased slightly, to 4,324, in 2010 and again to 4,388 in 2011. In contrast, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 marked record lows for passenger vehicle occupant deaths.
- 4 Is motorcycling becoming more popular?
Yes, but the recession may be slowing the rise in popularity. About 560,000 motorcycles were sold in 2010, down sharply from the 1.1 million motorcycles sold in 2008, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. The record was 1973, when Americans bought more than 1.5 million bikes. Sales cooled in the 1980s before starting to climb again in 1993 as baby boomers took up motorcycling as a hobby or returned to riding after breaks to raise families, industry representatives say. Bikes also have become more specialized with more than 300 models appealing to a broader range of potential riders.
The Motorcycle Industry Council notes that many riders now are using motorcycles for transportation and not just for fun. Recreation is the top reason people cite for riding, but transportation climbed to second place, ahead of short-distance touring in the council's 2008 owner survey. The group cites high fuel costs, environmental concerns and convenience as possible explanations for the change. Motorcycle Industry Council. 2009. Press release - Motorcycling in america goes mainstream says 2008 motorcycle industry council owner survey. Published May 18, 2009. Irvine, CA.
- 5 Have rider demographics changed over time?
Yes. The typical motorcycle owner in 2009 was 41 years old, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council's Motorcycle/ATV Owner Survey. Motorcycle Industry Council. 2011. Statistical Annual. Irvine, CA. That was up from 1998, when the typical owner was 38, and a leap from the typical 24-year-old owner in the 1980s. Motorcycle Industry Council. 2009. Press release - Motorcycling in america goes mainstream says 2008 motorcycle industry council owner survey. Published May 18, 2009. Irvine, CA.
Women continue to take up riding, making up 10 percent of owners in 2009, compared with 6 percent in 1990. Motorcycle Industry Council. 2011. Statistical Annual. Irvine, CA. Only 4 percent of the 4,105 motorcycle drivers killed in 2011 crashes were women, while 93 percent of the 278 passengers who died were women.
- 6 What are the most common types of street-legal motorcycles?
Street-legal motorcycles can be grouped into 10 different classes: cruiser, standard, chopper, dual-purpose, supersport, sport, unclad sport, sport-touring, touring and scooter. Most motorcycles are designed with the same fundamental components — chassis with two wheels, engine, handlebars and open riding position. Motorcycles are classified according to riding position, body style, design features, usability and driving dynamics. Cruisers and standards together form the largest group of bikes. They accounted for nearly half of registrations in 2000 and 2003-08.5
- 7 Is engine size increasing?
The average engine size in all classes of motorcycles involved in fatal crashes has risen. Among motorcycle drivers killed in 2011, 29 percent drove motorcycles with engine sizes larger than 1,400 cubic centimeters, compared with 9 percent in 2000 and 2 percent in 1997.
- 8 How do fatality rates differ by motorcycle class?
Registration-based death rates indicate that drivers of cruisers, standards, touring and sport-touring motorcycles have the lowest death rates. These motorcycles, which are very similar and together form the largest group of registered motorcycles on the road, are most often driven by people age 40 and older, according to data from the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI).
Motorcyclists who drive supersport motorcycles, which make up a small fraction of registered motorcycles, are overrepresented in fatal crashes. The driver death rate per 10,000 registered motorcycles for supersports is about 4 times as high as the rate for motorcyclists who ride cruisers or standards. Teoh, E.R.; and Campbell, M. 2010. Role of motorcycle type in fatal motorcycle crashes. Journal of Safety Research 41(6): 507-12. Supersport motorcycles are built on racing platforms modified for the highway. A combination of light weight and high-horsepower engines means many of these motorcycles can quickly reach speeds of more than 160 miles per hour. For example, a 2012 model Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R produces 163 horsepower from a 998 cubic centimeter engine and weighs 437 pounds. In contrast, the 2012 model Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide, a touring bike, produces 66 horsepower from a 1,690 cubic centimeter engine and weighs 889 pounds. The driver death rate for sport motorcycles is about twice as high as the rate for drivers of cruisers or standards. Teoh, E.R.; and Campbell, M. 2010. Role of motorcycle type in fatal motorcycle crashes. Journal of Safety Research 41(6): 507-12. Sport bikes are similar to supersports but generally have lower power-to-weight ratios.
- 9 Do rider characteristics differ by motorcycle class?
Yes. Different types of motorcycles tend to attract riders in different age groups. Riders of supersport, sport and unclad sport bikes tend to be younger than riders who chose standard, cruiser and touring motorcycles.
Fatally injured rider characteristics are similar within each motorcycle class, but differ across classes. Speeding and driver error were bigger factors in fatal crashes of supersport, sport and unclad sport bikes compared with other classes of motorcycles. Speeding was a factor in 60 percent of supersport riders' fatal crashes in 2011 and 53 percent of the fatal crashes of sport and unclad sport riders. Speeding was a factor in 25 percent of fatal crashes among riders of cruisers and standards, 26 percent of riders of sport-touring motorcycles and 23 percent of riders of touring motorcycles. Sport and supersport riders were more likely to have been wearing helmets than many other motorcyclists. Seventy-five percent of supersport riders who died in crashes in 2011 wore helmets, compared with 52 percent of cruiser and standard riders.
- 10 Is alcohol use among motorcyclists a problem?
Alcohol is a factor in many fatal crashes of motorcyclists. Thirty percent of fatally injured motorcycle drivers in 2011 had BACs at or above 0.08 percent. By comparison, 33 percent of fatally injured passenger vehicle drivers had BACs at or above 0.08 percent in 2011. Alcohol is a bigger problem in single-vehicle crashes of motorcyclists than in crashes with other vehicles. Forty-two percent of fatally injured motorcycle drivers involved in single-vehicle crashes in 2011 had BACs at or above 0.08 percent. Alcohol impairment (BAC of 0.08 percent or higher) was a factor in the fatal crashes of 26 percent of fatally injured supersport drivers and 32 percent of fatally injured cruiser and standard motorcycle riders in 2011.
A 2007 study by NHTSA carefully measured rider performance under different BACs on a closed course. It found that BAC levels as low as 0.05 percent significantly increased riders' reaction times and the likelihood of lane departure, compared with zero BAC. Creaser, J.I.; Ward, N.J.; Rakauskas, M.E.; Boer, E.; Shankwitz, C.; and Nardi, F. 2007. Effects of alcohol on motorcycle riding skills. Report no. DOT HS-810-877. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
- 11 Do motorcycles have safety features commonly found in passenger vehicles?
Motorcycles lack most of the safety technologies found in passenger vehicles. Electronic stability control, for instance, isn't designed for two-wheel vehicles. The technology helps prevent sideways skidding and loss of control that leads to rollovers and other types of crashes among cars and SUVs.
Traction control, available on some motorcycles but not common, prevents the rear wheel from slipping if the rider applies too much engine power. Daytime running lights make motorcycles more visible to other drivers. Since 1979, most motorcycle manufacturers have equipped their motorcycles with automatic-on headlamps. Advanced brake systems, such as antilocks and combined braking systems, can shorten stopping distance and improve stability in hard braking situations. Creaser, J.I.; Ward, N.J.; Rakauskas, M.E.; Boer, E.; Shankwitz, C.; and Nardi, F. 2007. Effects of alcohol on motorcycle riding skills. Report no. DOT HS-810-877. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Antilock brakes are increasingly available as an option on motorcycles, including bikes produced by Aprilia, BMW, Can-Am, Ducati, Harley-Davidson, Honda, Kawasaki, Kymco, Moto Guzzi, Suzuki, Triumph, Victory and Yamaha.
Some manufacturers are exploring ways to adapt other safety advances to motorcycles. Airbags are one such feature. A frontal airbag is optional on Honda's Gold Wing touring motorcycle.
- 12 Are motorcycle antilock braking systems effective at reducing crashes?
Yes. Studies by the Institute and HLDI compared crash rates for motorcycles equipped with optional antilock braking systems (ABS) against the same models without the option. The rate of fatal crashes per 10,000 registered vehicle years was 37 percent lower for motorcycles equipped with antilocks than for those same motorcycles without them. In crashes of all severities, the frequency at which collision claims were filed was 23 percent lower for the antilock models. Teoh, E.R. 2011. Effectiveness of antilock braking systems in reducing fatal motorcycle fatal crash rates. Traffic Injury Prevention 12(2):169-73. Highway Loss Data Institute. 2012. Insurance report - motorcycle antilock braking system (ABS). A-84. Arlington, VA.
In a separate study, HLDI found that ABS was even more effective during the first three months of an insurance policy. These new policies represent a number of different scenarios – for example, when a person is new to motorcycling, when an experienced rider buys a new motorcycle, when a rider changes insurance company or when a rider restarts coverage after pausing it based on seasonal riding habits. During the first 90 days of a policy, ABS motorcycles were 30 percent less likely to have a collision claim than the non-ABS versions of the same bikes. When policies were in effect 91-720 days, ABS motorcycles were 19 percent less likely to have collision claims than non-ABS versions. Highway Loss Data Institute. 2012. HLDI bulletin - motorcycle abs and time to claim. Vol. 29: 4. Arlington, VA.
- 13 Do motorcyclists need special licenses?
All 50 states and the District of Columbia require motorcyclists to pass a written knowledge test to obtain a license or endorsement to operate a motorcycle on public roads. Licensing requirements vary. Baer, J.D.; Baldi, S.; and Cook, A.L. 2005. Promising practices in motorcycle rider education and licensing. Report no. DOT HS-809-852. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. NHTSA recommends that people hold learner permits for at least 90 days before becomming fully licensed to operate a motorcycle. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. November 2006. Uniform guidelines for state highway safety programs: motorcycle safety. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation. Despite state requirements, about 1 out of 5 motorcycle drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2011 didn't have a valid license to drive a motorcycle. In comparison, 15 percent of passenger vehicle drivers involved in fatal crashes didn't have valid licenses in 2011. One study found that properly licensed motorcycle riders are less likely to be involved in fatal crashes than unlicensed riders. Billheimer, J.W. 1998. Evaluation of the California motorcyclist safety program. Transportation Research Record 1640:100-09.
- 14 Are rider safety training and education effective in reducing crashes?
Although rider education courses can teach novice motorcyclists basic operating skills and help experienced motorcyclists refresh their skills, they don't appear to reduce the risk of crashes. Most states offer rider education programs based on courses developed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Creaser, J.I.; Ward, N.J.; Rakauskas, M.E.; Boer, E.; Shankwitz, C.; and Nardi, F. 2007. Effects of alcohol on motorcycle riding skills. Report no. DOT HS-810-877. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Riders in some states are offered the incentive of automatic licensure in lieu of a state-administered written knowledge test or road test once they successfully complete a rider education course. Six states – Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Rhode Island, Texas and Oregon – require all new riders to complete a rider training course, and 19 states require training for license applicants younger than a specified age, usually 18 or 21. Laws requiring training for new riders younger than 21 do not reduce the rate at which collision insurance claims are filed for riders younger than 21. Highway Loss Data Institute. Bulletin - motorcycle collision coverage claims in states with required motorcycle rider training. Volume 26: 12. Arlington, VA.
A 1996 review of the effects of motorcycle rider training in the United States, Canada and Europe on crash risk concluded that there is "no compelling evidence that rider training is associated with reductions in collisions." Mayhew, D.R. and Simpson, H.M. 1996. Effectiveness and role of driver education and training in a graduated licensing system. Ottawa, Ontario: Traffic Injury Research Foundation. The New York Department of Motor Vehicles conducted a large-scale analysis of motorcycle rider training between 1981 and 1985. New York State Department of Motor Vehicles. 1987. Motorcycle rider education evaluation project. NHTSA Contract no. DTNH 22-80-C-0512. Albany, NY. In the NHTSA-sponsored study, motorcycle operator's license applicants were randomly assigned to one of four groups. One group took the state's existing knowledge and driving test and another took a skills test developed by NHTSA. The two remaining groups were assigned to rider training courses, plus the skills test. Riders who took the state's standard knowledge and driving test had fewer motorcycle crashes in the subsequent two years than riders in the three experimental groups. A 2010 review of international research also found no established link between motorcycle rider training and crash risk. Kardamanidis, K.; Martiniuk, A.; Ivers, R.Q.; Stevenson, M.R.; and Thistlethwaite, K. 2010. Motorcycle rider training for the prevention of road traffic crashes (Review). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2010, Issue 10, Art. no. CD005240. Oxfordshire, England: The Cochrane Collaboration.