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Motorcycle Accidents on America’s Roads: An Overview

More than 95% of transportation deaths in the United States occur on the road. Motorcycle accidents can be the most devastating of road accidents. The rider’s protection from harm is minimal – at most a leather jacket, protective pants and helmet. Because of this, a motorcyclist is likely to suffer far greater injury in an accident than would a car driver. More than 95% of motorcycle accidents result in injury to the rider.

Motorcycle Accidents by the Numbers

The number of deaths from motorcycle accidents is rising steadily. More and more people are taking up motorcycle riding, not only for transportation, but also as a hobby or sport. In 2006, 4,810 motorcyclists died following motorcycle accidents on American roads and highways. Of all vehicle accident victims in the United States that year, one in nine was a motorcycle rider. Other sobering statistics:

  • Rider fatalities from motorcycle accidents rose from 1,742 in 1997 to 4,155 in 2006, an increase of 138%. During the same period, passenger vehicle driver fatalities dropped 1.2%, from 21,782 in 1997 to 21,527 in 2006.
  • 11,573 motorcycle riders were involved in two-vehicle fatal accidents in 2006. In 95% of these motorcycle accidents, it was the bike rider who died. In comparison, of the 11,573 passenger vehicles involved in motorcycle accidents that year, only 108 drivers died, or just 1%.
  • Between 1997 and 2006, 13,883 motorcycle riders died in motorcycle crashes involving no other vehicle. Many of these motorcycle wrecks could be attributed to weather and road conditions that would not have caused fatalities to automobile occupants.
  • Riders killed in motorcycle accidents are far more likely to have been operating their vehicles without proper licenses than were drivers of cars or trucks – 25% versus 15% for automobile drivers. This suggests that more people driving motorcycles are less adequately trained for the task than are passenger vehicle drivers.

Motorcycle Accidents by Motorcycle Types

Reflecting the trend toward recreational riding, today’s most popular motorcycles are sportier and less utilitarian than were earlier models. Unfortunately, many of the features that make them fun to ride also increase the danger of motorcycle accidents.

  • Cruising and touring motorcycles. A cruising motorcycle is large and takes concentration and coordination to control. These bikes put the rider in a reclining position that can lead to a relaxed attitude. Although this might make it more pleasant to drive, it can lead to motorcycle accidents when the driver becomes too complacent, particularly on long trips.
  • Sport and performance bikes. Sometimes called “crotch-rockets,” these bikes are built to maneuver easily and reach high speeds. These attributes encourage recklessness. At the same time, they can allow an alert rider to avoid a motorcycle accident by quickly accelerating out of harm’s way. Because of their smaller size, their riders are less protected in motorcycle accidents than riders on larger bikes.
  • Pocket bikes. These tiny motorcycles, generally weighing between 50 and 100 pounds, look like toys. State laws often do not require them to have the same safety features as full-sized motorcycles, such as brake lights and turn signals. Because they seem like toys, many riders treat them that way. Motorcycle accidents and severe injury are common. The danger of a motorcycle accident on a pocket bike is particularly acute for a child or unlicensed rider. Some states, such as California, bar pocket bikes from public roads. Careless riders sometimes drive them on sidewalks, leading to motorcycle accidents involving pedestrians and objects.
  • Mopeds and motor scooters. Riders are sometimes uncertain about whether a moped should be ridden like a bicycle or like a motorcycle. Their smaller size makes riders take them less seriously than they might a full-sized motorcycle. Because mopeds and scooters are easily maneuvered, quick movements that seem natural to the rider may take other drivers by surprise and result in a motorcycle accident.

Avoiding a Motorcycle Accident

The motorcycle driver is at fault in only one third of motorcycle accidents, according to a leading European study, the Motorcycle Accident In Depth Study (MAIDS). Motorcycle accident attorneys find that half of motorcycle accidents are caused by other vehicles’ drivers. Another 20% of motorcycle accidents occur for other reasons, such as bad road conditions or faulty motorcycle design.

The average motorcycle rider today is older and earns more than ever before. This reflects the trend in motorcycle use from basic transportation towards recreational activity. Greater maturity among riders might suggest greater responsibility and therefore fewer motorcycle accidents. But these riders often purchase motorcycles in search of excitement. The older rider, therefore, is not necessarily the wiser one.

Among motorcycle accidents where the rider was at least partially at fault, common causes are:

  • Excessive speed. Younger riders are more likely to exceed speed limits, but even older riders sometimes drive too fast. From 1996 to 2005, one in five riders between the ages of 50 and 59 involved in a motorcycle wreck was cited for speeding.
  • Lack of concentration and fatigue. Long-haul road trips with other cyclists are popular among motorcycle riders. To avoid motorcycle accident and injury, riders should know their limits.
  • Driver inexperience. One in 10 riders over age 50 is not licensed to drive a motorcycle. One in five riders between 40 and 49 has no license. Lack of training exposes a rider to greater risk of a motorcycle accident.
  • Alcohol or drug use. In 2004, 41% of motorcycle riders involved in single-vehicle motorcycle crashes had blood alcohol levels above .08%, the legal limit in most states.
  • Failure to wear helmets and protective gear. Helmets would prevent 37% of motorcycle accident fatalities, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says. The costs of motorcycle accidents are approximately four times higher when riders do not wear helmets.

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