I bet it doesn’t take five minutes for motorcycles to come up in conversation between me and a stranger. As many readers here probably know firsthand, after discovering that I’m a motorcycle enthusiast, I’m often met with comments like “I just don’t think I could ever ride a motorcycle; with everyone texting and driving, drivers are too distracted and motorcycles are already dangerous”. I’m not going to discount that many drivers are less than attentive to the road, and while motorcycles are inherently more challenging than cars, I don’t think prospective riders should sell themselves short, motorcycles may not be as dangerous as you think.
Someone right now just read that last sentence and said “What do you mean they’re not dangerous!?!!?” followed by “statistics show that you’re 30% more likely to die riding a motorcycle than riding in a car”. Statistics are fun things to discuss, and the discussion can have merit, assuming you understand what conclusions you can draw from statistics, and what is still undetermined. Let’s talk about a few (United States) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics for 2013 shall we?
- In 2013, there were 247.4 million cars and 8.4 million motorcycles registered in the United States.
- Of registered Non-Motorcycles, there were 28,051 fatalities and 2.2 million (reported) injuries.
- Of those 8.4 million bikes (3% of all registered vehicles), the NHTSA claims that only 20.3 trillion miles were traveled on those motorcycles (2,423 miles on average; 0.7% of total miles traveled by all registered vehicles).
- 4,668 motorcyclists were killed on 2013, while an estimated 88,000 were injured.
- Of the 4,668 motorcyclists killed, 269 were passengers.
- That year motorcyclists made up 14% of all traffic fatalities, 4% of (reported) traffic injuries, while only 3% of all registered vehicles.
- Of 2013 motorcycle incidents, there were 2,182 two-vehicle fatal crashes involving a motorcycle and another type of vehicle (47%).
- In 42% (922) of these (2,182) crashes, the other vehicles were turning left while the motorcycles were going straight, passing, or overtaking other vehicles. Both vehicles were going straight in 456 crashes (21%).
- In 2013, 34% of all motorcycle riders involved in fatal crashes were speeding. (Note: The NHTSA considers a crash to be “speeding-related” if the driver was charged with a speeding-related offense or if an investigating police officer indicated that racing, driving too fast for conditions, or exceeding the posted speed limit was a contributing factor in the crash.)
- 25% of motorcycle fatalities were unlicensed riders.
- 28% of fatal motorcycle accident victims measured above 0.08% Blood Alcohol Content.
- 19.6% of motorcyclists killed had prior speeding convictions.
- 17.9% of motorcyclists killed had prior license suspensions or revocations.
- 55% of motorcyclists killed were over age 40 (42 was the average age of all riders involved in fatal accidents).
- California, North Carolina, and New York rank 3rd, 4th, and 6th (respectively) among states with the most motorcycle fatalities in 2013, all three of which have universal (mandatory) helmet laws.
- Lastly, in 2013, 4,735 Pedestrians were killed, vs. 4,668 motorcyclists.
Based on these statistics it seems very clear that if you don’t have a license you’ll most certainly be killed while riding a motorcycle… and it should also be illegal to purchase a motorcycle after your 40th birthday…
I think it’s apparent that the above statistics have led people to some less than accurate conclusions. Per miles traveled and as a percentage of overall “highway” fatalities, it is true that motorcyclists make up a disproportionate part of overall fatalities, however there are points ignored by simple numbers and other data that is not collected. I understand the intended premise of comparing motorcycles to cars based on average mileage, however I think that ignores that fact that in the United States motorcycles are essentially treated as toys. A large proportion of the U.S. population commutes to work every day in a car (about 10,000 miles annually for me, just going to work), while some riders only get the bike out on Sunday, and only when it’s sunny and 70. My point is merely that the statistics are ignoring the personality characteristics of who is riding a motorcycle, and who is frankly being killed on a motorcycle (same goes for cars honestly). The statistics also show that drugs, alcohol, and otherwise risky behaviors contribute to motorcycle fatalities (injury rates are similar); dare I suggest that these people behave the same way in cars, but survive crashes? On the same note, would it be plausible to believe that people who disregard their own safety gravitate toward motorcycles and therefore skew the statistics? A lot of people, including many motorcyclists, focus on other cars being the greatest threat, however the majority of accidents involve no other vehicles, only the motorcycle. That’s kind of the subtle irony that many people don’t realize, while traffic and conditions play a role in some fatalities, more often than not, the skill or choices of the rider have the largest impact on the fatal outcome. Ultimately I don’t see how motorcyclists, as such a small sample size, can be judged accurately, just by numbers, against such a large pool of drivers.
Beyond my anecdotal comments, and what the statistics do show, there is information that is clearly lacking. The NHTSA stats don’t delineate (exactly) which riders are wearing helmets, wearing safety gear, and have had rider safety training. The statistics do discuss day or night (and the coincidental connection with alcohol…), but they do not describe the weather conditions. I’m curious how many fatal accidents happen in the rain, and general time of year; like what’s the accident frequency in January? I assume summer time is the “deadliest” time for motorcyclists, certainly there are more bikes on the road, but how does it affect survivability? Considering that many riders won’t brave the rain, I suspect that statics will show that most accidents occur during bright sunny days (or drunk evenings…); if so, does that mean that skilled pilots riding in inclement weather are underrepresented in statistical data? I’m also curious how many motorcycle fatalities are a result of motorcycle on motorcycle collisions, or “chain reaction” crashes where several bikes blow a curve following the lead bike, all riding beyond their ability. Similar to bikers demonizing “cagers”, I think many riders don’t realize the threats of group riding. Groups of motorcycles are certainly more noticeable to drivers, but I find that many riders begin riding in groups before they’re truly ready, and find themselves sucked in by the “I have to keep up” mentality, or “it’s just a couple beers”, which is even worse. Considering my car insurance went down after age 25, I’m forced to assume that with age comes experience and experience tends to thwart accidents. Naturally the statistics can only tell us the average miles traveled per motorcycle (assuming it’s accurate), but the statistics do not tell us how many motorcycles a given rider owns, or how many miles that rider puts on a bike annually. While American motorcyclists don’t ride enough in general, I suspect there is a correlation between annual mileage and (relative) rider safety. They say “with age comes experience” (and wisdom) but that may a misnomer with regard to motorcycles considering that the majority of fatalities happen in the 40 plus age group, however I think there’s a generational factor there; again, the stats can’t explain that.
Statistics are one thing, but many people don’t realize that becoming a motorcyclist changes the way you traverse the roads. It goes without saying, I’ll ride ten minutes out of my way if that means I avoid traffic lights or simply get a few more twisties. I have a feeling most riders “take the back way” more often when riding; my uncle used to say “on a motorcycle, everything is on-the-way.” Now, taking the back-way is actually a double edged sword, while on the backroads you may have reduced the amount of traffic you compete with, intersections are virtually the most dangerous place for a motorcycle. Unlike the freeway, where we’re all going the same way, the backroads have more intersections, increased road debris, and hidden driveways. I also don’t think people realize how mentally demanding riding a motorcycle is. I suspect that many people are flat out bored when riding in the car (maybe it’s just me?); I can only assume this is true considering all the stereos, DVD players, and cell phones used while driving. On a motorcycle I’m so focused on what’s happening all around me, time goes by very quickly, and I don’t feel distracted by the mundane activity of commuting (another reason I avoid the freeway, it lends itself to distraction of all parties involved). Beyond the feeling of the roadway ripping past your feet, many motorcyclists I’ve spoken with talk about a heightened sense of awareness or “being in the zone”. I don’t think that motorcyclists have super powers (or do I?…), but it’s merely that motorcyclists by the nature of the activity are almost completely engaged in the ride, feeling the engine, the road, the smell of burning brakes emanating from that car just ahead, and so on. Generally I believe this focus on survival forces many riders to notice subtle changes in traffic behavior, noticing pattern changes much further ahead, watching not only the car in front of them, but the two cars on front of that one. Obviously not every rider’s experience is the same, but I suspect the NHTSA might want to look into the overall habits of riders, not just the dead and injured. On a similar note, I also suspect that an increasing number of riders are getting their endorsement through the Basic Rider Course (BRC) vs. taking the old school BMV exam. At the same time, I also suspect that more and more drivers are doing just the opposite, especially considering I paid $200 to go to driver’s education in 1999, but these days BRC in Ohio is only $50. In twenty years it will be interesting to see if the accident statistics are at all related as a result of training, and the lack thereof.
Despite all of my previous points, I suspect prospective new riders will be met with comments about the inherent dangers of motorcycles, simply considering the lack of protection. While it is true that motorcyclists are harshly exposed to the elements (and potentially the pavement…), the “anti-motorcyclist” may be discounting the maneuverability and power to weight advantages of the motorcycle. While cars are forced to slam on the brakes and potentially skid into an object, motorcycles may have opportunities to swerve or split lanes to avoid a crash. At the same time, Motorcycles have the ability to accelerate away from danger in a way that few cars can; it may be overly idealistic, but I suspect that sharp riders have huge advantages over cars in many situations. Beyond lack of protection, I suspect some will say the in inclement weather, two wheels is simply not as good as four. Again, I can’t completely disagree, but modern motorcycle tires provide almost 80% grip in the rain as they do in dry conditions; I suspect that a competent rider with steady hands and a cool head can handle the worst conditions just fine. I will go on to say that I know riders who have legitimately traversed snow on a motorcycle; I also know people born and raised in Ohio who cower in fear of the “great white death” and refuse to drive in the snow; I’m just saying. I suppose I would also be remiss not to mention that most driver’s response to hitting a motorcyclist is “I never saw them”. As I said earlier, there are currently no statistics that I know of that describe the rider’s gear in an accident situation; was the rider wearing black leather, shorts and flip flops, or armored hi-visibility gear? On the same note (pun intended), there’s the whole “loud pipes save lives” crowd that is adamant that you can get drivers’ attention with the sound of your exhaust; while I won’t start that debate here, I will say we cannot prove or disprove the method based on these statistics. I’ve also heard the whole “wearing a helmet is just the difference between open and closed casket”; while I won’t spout statistics about helmet safety, I suspect that “the great unwashed” underestimates the durability and protection of modern motorcycle safety equipment. I also understand that leather jackets and helmets won’t protect you from a stop sign or a ravine, but an SUV won’t protect you from a semi, it’s just silly logic to dismiss riding under these premises.
From my perspective, the key to survival is vigilance, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself. I assume that some riders see helmets and armored jackets as a hassle or constraining. Obviously I’ve worn bullet proof vests with ceramic armor plates in 120 degree heat, so a motorcycle jacket is a small sacrifice to avoid skin grafts. That said, honestly the right gear is no inconvenience at all, but you have to make the investment and take the time. It’s understandable that taking ten minutes to get your gear on before each ride may be a hassle for some, but I suspect that choice may go (nearly) hand in hand with riders who drink, ride, and leave the helmet at home. Taking it a step further, imagine the benefits of taking a safety course on top of being a geared-up, seasoned rider? More than anything else, I honestly think that the average driver does not realize that they drive, and are surrounded by, two-ton killing machines; it’s not about the danger they pose to motorcycles, it’s that fact that I believe many people are naive to the dangers of the roadway, especially when it comes to passing SUVs and semi-tractor-trailers. What does that have to do with motorcycles? Savvy riders learn very quickly that riding next to another vehicle is potentially deadly, and therefore avoid that behavior, moreover often search for multiple escape avenues in the event of a “pinch”. It shocks me how often I watch traffic just ripping along, essentially “shoulder-to-shoulder” on the highway. As I said, this feeling of high alertness is of no consequence to me, but I suspect I may be jaded from my time in the military, where is becomes second nature. Motorcycling has been one of the greatest experiences in my life, but with that experience I accept the responsibility of constantly watching my back.
Ultimately I respect someone’s choice to ride or not, but I don’t think it’s right to condemn an activity under the premise that “statistics prove…” I suspect that in reality, the vast majority of motorcycle fatalities are careless young speed demons and old drunk guys. In the end, motorcycles may seem dangerous, but other daily activities are more deadly; as I said 4,735 pedestrians were killed in 2013, crosswalks are obviously “Death machines”.