By Logan Quirk
Head out on the road in any town in America and you’re likely to see at least one motorcycle, often many more. Sadly, however, motorcycle accidents account for a large percentage of deaths on the road–about 14 percent of all motor vehicle crash fatalities in 2017.
When a motorcycle is involved in a traffic accident, there is a greater likelihood of the rider dying than there is with crashes between other types of vehicles. Here’s a look at the main causes of motorcycle accidents, as well as tips to avoid becoming a statistic if you’re out on the road enjoying your bike.
Why Are There So Many Fatalities in Motorcycle Accidents?
There are multiple reasons why there is such a high number of deaths associated with motorcycle crashes.
The disparity in Vehicle Size
One major reason is the size of a motorcycle in comparison to other vehicles on the road. Even compact cars are significantly larger than the biggest bike. When two vehicles collide, the physics involved mean a large force is transferred to the smaller of the two objects–in this case, the motorcycle.
Lack of Restraints
Once a collision occurs, the person riding a motorcycle is much less protected than someone in a car or truck. They are in an open vehicle, with no seat belt to keep them restrained, and can easily be thrown off the bike.
You may not be aware of this, but your car’s windshield is considered your primary restraint in a motor vehicle accident. Obviously, motorcycles don’t offer riders the kind of windshield found in a car. This is another reason motorcyclists can suffer greater injuries and fatalities in accidents.
Without a real dashboard, motorcycle riders have no airbags either. Airbags are considered to be a third type of safety restraint in other types of motor vehicles. Without these three types of protection, motorcyclists are at greater risk during the impact of an accident.
Poor Personal Protection
Many people equate riding on a motorcycle with fun and freedom, but sometimes that freedom comes with a cost. Some motorcyclists feel constrained by wearing a helmet and so they forego protecting the head by refusing to wear one. Sometimes motorcycle owners don’t have a second helmet for a passenger so the other rider goes unprotected.
Sadly, only 19 of the 50 US states, plus the District of Columbia, require motorcyclists over 21 years of age to wear a helmet. Luckily, California does have a universal helmet law, meaning people of all ages, not just young riders, as well as passengers, are required to wear a helmet at all times on public roadways. However, the neighboring state of Arizona, for example, has only a partial law, putting riders who aren’t required by age, license longevity, or medical insurance coverage to wear a helmet at risk.
Although head injuries account for a large percentage of fatalities in motorcycle accidents, there are other causes related to lack of protection. Some bikers wear little to cover the body, preferring to soak up the sun or stay at a comfortable temperature on hot days. However, this leaves little coverage in an accident, and motorcyclists can die from blood loss, puncture wounds, and blows to the chest and vital organs, among other causes.
Mechanics of Motorcycle Crashes
Most motorcycle crashes are head-on crashes, meaning the rider hits the forward part of the bike on something else or is struck there by an oncoming vehicle. Only a small percentage of motorcycle accidents involve the motorcyclist being hit from behind or backing into something unintentionally.
Head-on crashes mean the rider’s most vulnerable part of the body is often absorbing the crash, with the head and upper torso exposed to impact. Of course, this increases the severity of injuries in a crash, which in turn ups the likelihood of a fatality.
What Are the Primary Causes of Motorcycle Accidents?
So, why do motorcycle accidents occur in the first place? Are there factors that are different from car accidents?
One of the biggest causes of motorcycle accidents has to do with the relative size of motorcycles compared to other vehicles on the road. Because of their narrow size, motorcycles can ride between cars, known as splitting lanes.
Lane splitting may seem safe in slow-moving or waiting traffic. However, if a traffic light changes or if other vehicles start to speed up, a motorcycle can find itself caught in the path of a car or truck and get hit. A car may wish to make a sudden lane change while waiting for a light and then strike the motorcyclist by mistake. Side mirrors can get clipped and paint scraped on other vehicles. Splitting lanes can also distract other drivers in nearby cars, causing them to get in an accident.
California has recently made lane splitting legal in an effort to reduce traffic congestion. That doesn’t mean it’s always safe, though, and splitting lanes can still cause motor vehicle accidents. Some drivers think lane splitting is still illegal and may intentionally block motorcycles in between lanes.
Left turns can be the bane of existence for all motorists, but they are especially dangerous for motorcyclists. There are several left-hand turn situations where motorcycles typically find themselves in trouble.
The first is when a motorcycle is going straight through an intersection and an oncoming vehicle makes a left turn across its path. Sometimes the other vehicle doesn’t see the motorcycle because of its size; other times the driver of the oncoming car believes incorrectly that they have the right of way.
The other common left-hand turn hazard occurs when a car is in the far left lane turning left and a motorcycle going straight tries to pass it on the outside left of the vehicle. In this instance, the motorcycle is clearly in the wrong and should have waited behind the car before proceeding straight through the intersection.
Some motorcyclists give other bikers a bad name by engaging in risky and even illegal behavior on the road, including:
- Splitting lanes in a dangerous fashion
- Driving over the speed limit
- Driving too fast for conditions (see below)
- Operating a motorcycle under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- Riding on one wheel (doing a “wheelie”)
- Leaning too far to the side when going around bends and turns
- Not fastening belongings or gear properly to the rear
- Racing other motorcyclists
- Taking over all the lanes with other bikers
- Riding with improper hand and foot positions
- Weaving across the road or in and out of lanes
- Making sudden lane changes and changing lanes or turning without signaling
- Not maintaining the bike appropriately
- Listening to music too loudly
- Carrying a passenger improperly
- Riding a bike that’s too big or too powerful
- Riding too close to other vehicles or pedestrians, tailgating, and not anticipating stops
While some of these actions are also perpetrated by drivers of cars and trucks, clearly some lend themselves better to motorcycle drivers. Young, inexperienced, or inebriated bikers may overestimate their driving skill and their invincibility on the highway.
High speed and alcohol, in particular, are a bad mix and account for a large percentage of motorcycle accidents and deaths. Of course, because a motorcycle provides less protection in an accident, as described above, if there is a collision, the likelihood of serious injuries or a fatality is much higher.
Road Hazards and Conditions
There’s no doubt that a vehicle operating on two wheels is less stable than one on four or more wheels. Anyone who has tried to ride a motorcycle knows how tricky it is to maintain balance.
The inherent reduced stability of a motorcycle makes it automatically at a greater risk to begin with. But when you add poorly maintained roads, weather conditions, and other hazards, a motorcycle can crash easily, even in the hands of an experienced rider.
Some typical hazards encountered by motorcycles include:
- Ruts and ridges in the road
- Speed bumps
- Uneven road grading
- Raised lane markers that can become slippery
- Slippery pavement due to rain, snow, and ice
- Effects of heat on pavement, making it gummy or causing sinkholes
- Man-made debris in the road (tire remains, garbage, items that have fallen off trucks)
- Oil and other non-weather related substances on the road
- Natural detritus (leaves, sticks, plants)
What’s easy to drive over in an SUV can cause a motorcycle to skid out from underneath its rider. And bad weather causes more visibility and traction problems for a motorcycle than for a conventional vehicle.
Changes in Motorcycle Design and Performance
Over the years, motorcycle design has become increasingly more high tech, producing machines that rival sports cars in their speed and power. Younger riders tend to be attracted to these sport and supersport motorcycles, which statistically have the highest motorcycle accident fatality rates associated with them. This is a problem because younger motorcyclists are less experienced and more likely to engage in risky behavior, like driving above the speed limit or thinking they have more space between vehicles than they do.
How Can You Reduce the Risk of a Motorcycle Accident and Subsequent Injury?
You don’t have to give up your love of motorcycle riding to stay safe on the road. There are actions you can take as a motorcycle rider to significantly reduce your risk of having a traffic accident.
Wear Proper Protection
One of the best ways you can avoid a motorcycle accident fatality is to wear proper protection when you’re riding. Always wear full-body gear, like leathers, to protect you from flying debris and road rash (abrasions) if you crash.
A helmet is a must, even if your state doesn’t require one. You should also carry an extra helmet if you have passengers riding with you on your bike. Get the best helmet you can afford, and make sure it has a face shield for further protection and to improve visibility in inclement weather.
Get a Safe Bike That Suits You
While a fast, high-octane bike might seem enticing, if you’re not an experienced rider, it may be too much for you. You’ll have more fun and avoid accidents too if you get a bike that’s suited for your experience, size, and lifestyle. When fitting a bike look for:
- The ability to touch the ground with your feet when stopped
- An easy reach to shifters and handlebars
- A good view of controls and dials
Think about how you use your bike. Do you really need a high maximum speed if you just use it for commuting around town?
Touring and cruiser bikes will usually offer the most comfort. Because they are designed for long hours in the saddle, they’ll also give you more stability than other types of bikes will. Be sure, however, that you can handle the weight that accompanies larger bikes. You could also consider a three-wheeled motorcycle.
There are a number of safety features typically found on four-wheeled vehicles that are now available on motorcycles:
- Stability control to analyze traction, lean angle, and braking
- LED lighting for better visibility (also available on helmet inserts)
- Anti-lock brakes
- On-board diagnostics (tire pressure, suspension, etc.)
Take a Motorcycle Class
The Basic Rider Class in California is required for motorcyclists under 21, but it’s recommended for everyone. A motorcycle class can offer you pointers on safety that you wouldn’t learn on your own and give you extra practice as a new biker.
Keep Your Bike Well Maintained
Accidents can happen if your motorcycle is poorly maintained and it breaks down suddenly. If you don’t have the know-how to do routine work on your bike by yourself, find a mechanic that’s experienced with models similar to yours. Keep a maintenance calendar so you always know when it’s time to check things like tires and fluids.
Give Space to Other Vehicles
When riding your bike, always assume other vehicles will make errors and ride defensively. Never tailgate other vehicles and if someone is driving too close to your rear tire, change lanes or let them pass.
Know When It’s Safe to Split Lanes
Wait until you are a more experienced motorcyclist to attempt to split lanes under any circumstances. Follow these tips for safer lane splitting:
- Never split lanes between large vehicles, like trucks.
- Don’t split lanes if you know you need to exit soon because you could become trapped between cars.
- Make sure you and your bike are highly visible.
- Don’t ride on the shoulder as this is not legally allowed.
- Know that lane splitting becomes more dangerous as speeds increase.
Pay Attention to Road Conditions
Check the weather before you go out on your bike. Consider postponing your ride if the weather is predicted to produce slippery road conditions. By giving yourself space between you and vehicles around you, as mentioned above, you increase your ability to see debris or other road hazards that could cause an accident.
Don’t Engage in Risky Behavior
The back of a motorcycle is not the place to showboat or impress others. Don’t engage in any of the risky behaviors listed above, especially riding under the influence or when extremely tired.
If you do ever get in a motorcycle accident, know your rights. Don’t volunteer information until you speak with an attorney. For more questions about the legal issues around motorcycle accidents, feel free to reach out to Quirk Law Group today.