Article written by Lee Parks for ASKAPRO Column published in BMW Owners News, August 2016
Q: My friends and I occasionally argue on how dangerous motorcycles actually are. As an experienced motorcyclist, I feel safer on my bike with its excellent maneuverability versus my car. Can you shed any light on who is right?
A: When it comes to motorcycle danger, the numbers tell us some of the story, and the rest of the picture must be drawn with some deductive reasoning. According to NHTSA, “motorcycles comprise only 3% of registered vehicles and less than 1% of vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Despite their limited presence, motorcycles currently account for nearly 15 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities. This percentage has grown in recent years. Motorcyclist fatalities rose between 1975 and 1980, and then declined steadily to a low of 2,116 in 1997. Fatalities began to rise in 1998 and increased by 151 percent (2,116–5,312) through 2008. Since then (2009–2014), the average annual number of motorcyclist fatalities has been 4,644. During the 1997–2014 timeframe, motorcyclists’ share of total motor vehicle deaths rose from 5 percent to 14 percent.” This makes motorcycle riding 27 times (2700%) more dangerous than driving a car per mile ridden verses per mile driven as far as fatalities go!
One of the things I do to help better manage the danger of riding is volunteer as a Consulting Motorcycle Expert to the National Motorcycle Institute (NMI). NMI is a nonprofit think-tank, research organization and safety advocacy group. Its mission is to reduce the fatality rate and morbidity (disabling-injury) rate for motorcyclists. To help better understand the “Societal Danger” that motorcycling represents, NMI has put together its DangerOmeter. (http://www.
The NMI DangerOmeter is a weighted fatality rate that allows us to rank the states. We use All-Fatalities per Population to model Societal Danger. The DangerOmeter rank is set by using the current 4 year (2011–2014) averages of the All-Fatalities Motorcycle per Population (AFMC/Pop) rate and weighting these with the All-Fatalities Passenger Vehicle per Population (AFPV/Pop) current averages. The results are then sorted from low to high and the state is assigned its number, from 1 through 50.
To try to understand the relative danger of motorcycling as well as why some states are more dangerous than others requires analyzing lots at data and making some informed hypotheses that can be tested. As a start, we can all agree that the more riders in the population, the more fatalities we can expect. Even if the percentages of fatalities goes down, the raw numbers may still go up. In Figure 1, you can see the new motorcycle sales in the U.S. as reported by WebBikeWorld.com. You will notice the “boom years” of 2004–2005, when nearly 1.1 million motorcycles were reported sold in the U.S.A. This had a lot to do with the housing bubble when many Americans (including yours truly) used the rising equity of their homes as their bank. This allowed folks to take cash out and buy things like motorcycles.
When the housing bubble burst, there was a similar crash in new bikes sales, exactly as one would expect. Figure 2 shows the total of what NHTSA calls “Motorcycle Driver Fatalities” from 1991–2014. Motorcycle “Drivers” is NHTSA-speak for the person operating the vehicle, and does not include deaths to passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists, car drivers, etc. The reason I think this is a good way to look at danger is because by limiting the fatalities to “drivers” allows us to look at the success rate of licensing programs from state to state. Licensing programs include rider training (the major contributor to new licensed riders by way of a “license waiver” offered for successful completion of a riding course). They also include DMV testing and to a somewhat lesser extent, contributions by law enforcement and the judicial branch of government.
As you can see total Motorcycle Driver Fatalities has just about doubled from 2000–4000 in the last decade! Unfortunately, even though sales are significantly down from the boom years, fatalities have continued to stay at extremely high levels. In fact, with the latest data now coming in from the Governors Highway Safety Association, there was another 10% average increase in motorcycle fatalities in 2015 nationwide. The good news is there were some interesting outliers I’d like to look at.
For many years I have postulated that the more beginner rider training a state does, the higher the fatality rates will be. I believe this is due to 1) Increasing the total rider population 2) The kinds of incentives that state programs initiate to attract the wrong kind of riders and 3) Lower quality training/standards verses countries like Germany, Japan and England. With my company currently the program manager and curriculum vendor for California, these factors weigh heavy on my mind and we have gone to great lengths to change the culture of safety in our state.
To understand the first point let’s compare two states who had extremely high and low training and fatality rates this year. Florida had a “record” year of 550 motorcycle fatalities—an increase of 100 fatalities from 2014. This is second largest training program in the country (behind only California) and is one of the few with mandatory beginner rider training to get your license. Florida trained more new riders in 2015 than in any previous year.
By contrast, due primarily to program management changes, Indiana trained approximately 33% fewer riders in 2015 verses 2014 and had a 17% decrease in fatalities (21 fewer deaths). This is with the same curriculum but significantly less training available.
As you’ve previously read in BMWON, in my state of California we had a complete change in management, standards, curriculum and philosophy of training last year. The new philosophy includes being honest with prospective students about the danger and difficulty of riding, and the importance of follow-on training and wearing protective riding gear. I’m proud to say we experienced the largest reduction of fatalities in the country—38 fewer deaths—for a 7% decrease in the first year.
We are the only state besides Idaho that requires motorcycle instructors to wear a motorcycle-specific (or any other type) of jacket as part of their protective gear any time the students see them riding. This includes riding to and from the range as well as riding any demonstrations. We feel it is hypocritical and sends a mixed message to talk about the importance of riding gear if the instructors don’t practice what they preach. Actions always speak louder than words. We also trained a record number of civilian instructors and students in the state in intermediate and advanced training courses on their own bikes.
What makes this even more remarkable is that this all happened the same year total traffic safety fatalities (including cars, trucks, busses, etc.) in California increased 4%, according to the National Safety Council. This means the relative societal danger of riding became significantly safer compared to previous years. And we have plenty more safety initiatives that have us working closer with DMV, law enforcement and the judicial system to decrease fatalities even further.
Of course, I’m the first to admit that rider training is only one piece of the safety puzzle and that rider behavior is influenced by many factors. Similarly, one-year fluctuations mean less than three-plus year trends, so stay tuned for more data as it becomes available.