Motorcycle Death Rates Are Improving, But Can They Go Lower?

Honda Shadow

Source: Honda

Riding a motorcycle is dangerous. As much as riders would like to believe they’re the exception to the rule, even the most experienced riders can’t stop someone else from doing something stupid. Even if traffic is sparse and no other drivers are attempting to commit homicide, seasoned riders occasionally make mistakes as well. Advancements in motorcycle technology have been made recently, but a lot of bikes don’t have ABS, much less the seatbelts, airbags, crumple zones, and electronic safety features that make modern cars so safe.

The great news, however, is that according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, motorcycle fatalities have dropped for the second year in a row. There were still an estimated 4,584 fatalities in 2014, but that’s 2% lower than in 2013. 2013, meanwhile, had 6% fewer fatalities than 2012. Those numbers are still 26% higher than they were ten years ago, but there are also twice as many motorcycles on the road now as there were in 1997, so the numbers are difficult to compare.

“We are glad to see a continued decrease, but the number of motorcyclist deaths on our roadways is still unacceptable,” Kendell Poole, GHSA chairman and director of the Tennessee Office of Highway Safety, said in a written statement. “While we support technology advances such as antilock brake systems and traction control, state laws and behavioral changes are critical to saving more motorcyclist lives.”

Even with fatality numbers trending downward, riding a motorcycle is still exceptionally dangerous. The GHSA says “recent statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that ‘per mile driven, fatality rates for motorcyclists were 26 times that of passenger vehicle occupants in 2013.'” Texas and California took the two top spots respectively for most motorcycle fatalities, followed by Florida. Pennsylvania and North Carolina were in fourth and fifth place, but both states’ numbers were significantly lower than Florida’s.

Skully AR 1

Source: Skully

When it comes to reducing fatalities even further, the most important step is increasing helmet use. Riders should all be wearing helmets regardless of whether they’re required in that state. “By far, helmets are the single most effective way to prevent serious injury and death in the event of a motorcycle crash,” stressed Poole.

Wearing appropriate safety gear isn’t the only way to reduce fatalities, though. About 28% of riders who died in motorcycle accidents had a blood alcohol level over 0.08%, making them legally intoxicated. As dangerous as drinking and driving is, drinking and riding is just as bad. Motorcycle culture may revolve around heavy drinking, but riders looking to stay alive need to hold off for their own safety.

Another often-overlooked danger is the inexperience that comes with failing to get properly licensed. A quarter of rider fatalities were unlicensed, which is almost double the percentage of unlicensed drivers. Acquiring the skills and taking the time to get properly licensed may be a little inconvenient, but the skills they require riders to have in order to get a motorcycle license are incredibly important.

As inconvenient as it may be, it’s also probably a good idea to slow down. A big chunk — 34% — of riders involved in fatal crashes were speeding, much higher than the 21% of drivers killed in passenger vehicle accidents. Speed limits are often arbitrary, so assuming that speeding caused all of those accidents would be a stretch, but everybody has at least one story of a motorcyclist riding past them recklessly fast.

Finally, motorcycle riders can only do so much to increase their own road safety. “According to NHTSA, when motorcycles crash with other vehicles, the other driver is often at fault,” the GHSA’s report points out. “Many states conduct ‘share the road’ campaigns to increase awareness of motorcyclists.”

When a motorcycle and a car crash into each other, the car is going to win every time. Motorcyclists know this and have to stay infinitely aware of what’s going on around them, but unfortunately, people behind the wheel of an automobile don’t feel the need for that level of awareness. The only way to truly make the roads safer for motorcyclists is for drivers to pay more attention.

Even with the danger from other drivers, it’s encouraging to see fatalities headed in the right direction. Whether riders are making better decisions, drivers are being less homicidal, or both, seeing fewer deaths year-over-year is a good thing. Hopefully over the next few years, those numbers will creep even lower.

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