The last thing any motorcycle rider wants to think about while on the open road is an accident. But although the topic is an unpleasant one, it’s important to know what the risk factors are so that you can better avoid ending up in this dangerous situation.
The statistics for motorcycle accidents are sobering. According to a 2018 American National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study, roughly 80% of all reported motorcycle crashes result in injury or death compared to just 20% in passenger vehicles (cars, trucks, etc.). Similarly, motorcycle riders were found to be 27 times more likely to suffer a fatality during a collision, with almost roughly 5,000 rides losing their lives every year in the U.S. alone.
Image credit: NHTSA.dot.gov
While these statistics are intimidating, they can be used for good. By understanding what causes motorcycle accidents — we can learn as riders how to better avoid them. So, what are these causes? They’re divided into 3 main categories: personal factors, roadway conditions, and features, and other roadway users. Let’s begin by exploring them in detail:
Top Crash Causes: Personal Factors
1. Alcohol & Drug Use
Sadly alcohol use is one of the major causes of motorcycle crashes worldwide. Being intoxicated while operating any motor vehicle is asking for a world of trouble, and that’s especially true when it comes to riding motorcycles.
According to NHTSA, almost 30% of the bikers involved in fatal motorcycle accidents have blood-alcohol concentrations over the legal limit, and almost 45% of the bikers involved in fatal accidents had some amount of alcohol in their system.
Furthermore, the CDC revealed that 29% of motorcyclists involved in accidents in 2012 had a blood alcohol level (BAC) of 0.08%. The highest percentages of alcohol-impaired motorcycle riders killed were in the 40-to-44 age group (34%) followed by the 45-to-49 age group (33%) and 35-to-39 age group (33%). This proves that age and experience are of little to no use it comes to riding while impaired.
While everyone’s body differs, most healthy adults can stay below a BAC of 0.08% at a rate of “1 drink per hour.” This equates to roughly 1.25oz of hard liquor, one beer, or one glass of wine.
However, the negative effects of alcohol begin to affect the brain after just one drink. Impacting areas like:
- The Cerebral Cortex – judgment and reasoning.
- The Cerebellum – balance and coordination.
- The Hypothalamus – appetite, temperature, pain, and emotions.
- The Amygdala – social behavior.
- The Hippocampus – memory, and learning.
Not only does this impair crucial abilities like reaction time, it also can inhibit the areas of the brain responsible for judging riding ability or even soberness level!
The acceleration rate on most motorcycles is thrilling. With one twist it can seem like unlimited power is released … which brings us to one of the highest causes of motorcycle accidents in the world — speed.
Every rider on the road knows how tempting beautiful corners and clear straights can be, but pushing the limits on the street comes with serious consequences. According to a 2017 NHTSA study, approximately 31% of all U.S. motorcycle riders that were involved in fatal crashes were speeding.
Speed-related crashes can occur in a variety of ways though, which include riding too fast for weather conditions, roadway features (for example, gravel in corners or seams in the road), roadway users to respond, or simply personal skill level.
Admittedly, there is some data out there indicating that the average speed of motorcycle accidents on impact is roughly 30mph (48 kmh) — however it’s important to remember that this is typically the speed recorded after the rider has applied some type of emergency braking pressure or maneuver.
Motorcycle accident prevention in speed-related cases specifically can be easily done. It doesn’t matter how clear the roads are, or how much control you have over your bike, excessive speed is a danger to yourself and other roadway users.
Sadly, speed is a common motorcycle crash factor when it comes to group rides as well. Following basic group-ride etiquette with the least experienced riders at the front and the most experienced at the back can avoid the dangerous “bungee” effect of the riders at the rear trying to catch up. Be sure to go over safe group riding rules before every trip, and to keep a reasonable pace for all members to keep up.
3. Inexperience & Inattention
Image credit: Ride Alive Motorcycle Academy
Ideally, all riders should spend significant amounts of time training before they get on the road, shockingly though data has indicated that an incredible 29% of all motor fatalities involve riders without a license.
All new riders should strongly consider spending their first season on less challenging roads to sharpen their skills. Continuing education classes and even 1:1 coaching is available through most motorcycle schools and organization as well. Licensing classes cover everything from basic motorcycle function to essential and lifesaving motorcycling drills.
Inattention is another motorcycle crash cause that affects experienced and new riders alike. According to multiple medical studies, the brain is not actually able to multitask but instead switches between tasks rapidly while sacrificing the ability to focus fully on either one. So what does this mean for you as a rider? Put away that smartphone, keep your eyes on the road, and even consider turning that Bluetooth music off while on two wheels.
4. Physical & Emotional Impairment
Image credit: Soberlink.com
Alcohol isn’t the only physical cause of impairment while riding. While rules and regulations for prescription or over-the-counter drug use vary by country and state, most laws indicate that any significant impact on rider ability is considered legal grounds for an arrest.
Riding while low on sleep has also been cited as a dangerous and even arrestable offense in some areas — with a sleep deprivation level of just 20 hours equalling a BAC of .05%!
Riding a motorcycle is a physically demanding skill that requires a strong cognitive and reflexive connection and while it can be great for stress release, emotional distress and distraction can be another risk factor while on the road. Even temporary situations, like the emotional/stress rush after a potential close call with a collision hazard, warrants pulling over temporarily to settle down and regain focus.
The best rule of thumb for riding while impaired in any way? Don’t!
5. Mechanical Problems
Although this might not always be a personal factor, it does contribute to the causes of motorcycle accidents. Yes, your brakes might fail suddenly and out of nowhere, but it’s more likely that they weren’t properly maintained or serviced throughout the motorcycle’s life. Or perhaps a mirror has been broken for a while, leaving your blind spot vulnerable on one side.
Another commonly overlooked but crucial mechanical “failure” for motorcyclists is actually tire performance. Tire tread, shape, age, and condition all have significant impacts on your ability to ride safely and effectively — and should be assessed regularly.
The good news is that this particular motorcycle accident cause is a relatively easy one to prevent through regular maintenance and inspection of your bike. When in doubt, reference your service manual or take your motorcycle to a certified dealer for a professional assessment.
Top Crash Causes: Roadway Features
6. Weather & Seasons
You may not think of weather conditions as being a rodway feature when it comes to motorcycle accidents — but each season and weather change has an effect on the roads that riders should be aware of.
During warm weather months motorcycles can expect to find that their tires have decreased traction on areas of road paint or tar patches. In fall, leaves and plant debris can cause dangerous traction issues in both country and city roads. During spring the gravel, oil, salt and debris often isn’t washed away yet, with the first few rains of the season being particularly crucial to doing so. Rain storms in and of themselves can be hazardous to riders due to their decreased traction, high winds, visibility issues (both for them and for cars), and an often accompanying decrease in temperature.
Weather also has a significance on the activity of wildlife in the area. Almost all wildlife is more active during riding season, at dawn, at dusk, and occasionally after rainstorms as well.
7. Roadway Conditions
One of the more common causes of motorcycle crashes, roadway conditions are an often overlooked threat by many riders . Elements that might not even be noticeable in a car can be major causes for a crash with a motorcycle. These include factors like:
- Poorly lit roads and intersection
- Poorly marked curves or merging areas
- Hidden driveways
- Pavement defects (uneven, grooved, resurfaced, and potholes, etc)
- Unmarked lane changes
- Insufficient shoulders
- A lack of dividers, medians, or guardrails
- Low-hanging branches or vegetation view obstruction
- Dangerous bridge joints
- Dangerous railroad tracks
- Gravel, sand, or debris
- Standing or flowing water
- Leaves or grass clippings
Corner types are another roadway feature that riders may not consider as a threat as well. Certain corner constructions can be more challenging than others, with decreasing radius and off-camber corners typically causing the most issues for riders.
Use the technique “Search, Evaluate, Execute” (SEE) to regularly assess roadway conditions and come up with a safe riding plan.
Top Crash Causes: Other Roadway Users
8. Left Turns
Sadly “T-bone” collisions, like those caused by left-turn accidents, are a leading cause of motorcycle collisions worldwide.
Several factors can cause a collision resulting from a left turn, but most times drivers will cite inattentional blindness as the reason they turned into the rider. This simply means that although the driver may have looked at the motorcyclists, they didn’t actually see them because they were not expecting to.
What you can do: If it’s safe to do so — watch the car’s tires to indicate if they’re turning or not, use your own turn signals, consider that a gap in front of you may cause someone to make a left turn, consider flashing your brights or “wiggling” the bike to further draw attention to yourself, exercise caution in intersections, and leave a good following distance from the cars in front of you so as to not be hidden and “overshadowed” to oncoming traffic. and gaps in incoming traffic as cues that someone in front of you might be making a left turn.
9. Distracted Drivers
Unfortunately even if you’re the best rider in the world, that doesn’t mean other drivers on the road are paying attention.
These days there are many different causes of driver distraction. Food, music, podcasts, phone calls, emails, texts, and general inattention can all impact a driver’s ability to notice or properly respond to a motorcycle on the road. Since 2003 alone, driver cell phone use alone has increased roughly 1,500% with distracted driving now estimated to be the cause of a minimum of 10% of all fatal roadway crashes in the United States alone.
While motorcycle awareness campaigns are taking place worldwide to hopefully re-train riders to watch for motorcycles, bikers still need to be on high alert at all times to ensure that a distracted driver isn’t posing a collision threat.
Some preventative measures that riders can take include maintaining a proper following distance, investing in collision avoidance technology, and wearing highly visible gear.
10. Roadway Users & Traffic Threats
There are some features of traffic that may be an annoyance to motorists, and life-threatening to motorcyclists. Sudden stops, vehicle overshadowing, lane changing, and the unexpected opening of car doors can all pose a serious threat to bikers, and are the cause of a multitude of motorcycle crashes every year.
On the road, a motorcyclist’s visibility is both limited by and to the car in front of him or her. In traffic, this means that an approaching car may not notice a motorcyclist following along in traffic behind other cars (more of which we’ll cover below). Similarly when a motorcycle is lane splitting or passing it’s much more likely that a car wouldn’t notice their presence and potentially open a door into them. While this may pose a minor inconvenience (and a few expensive bills) for a car, it can be highly dangerous for a rider.
Even standard features of traffic like sudden stops, roadway litter, and vehicle spills can all pose a threat to a biker due to the fact that they’re so much more exposed. A cigarette from a passing motorist may bounce harmlessly off a car’s windshield, but likely won’t have the same effect if it winds up going down a rider’s shirt…
The good news is though that motorcycles are by and large more agile and responsive than cars or trucks on the road. And while traffic threats are the cause of many motorcycle accidents every year around the world — they CAN be avoided many times through diligence and proper training.
According to NHTSA, roughly 80% of all reported motorcycle crashes result in injury or death. And while most bikers will agree that almost nothing compares to the thrilling and liberating feeling of riding a motorcycle, it’s important to keep these statistics — and how to avoid becoming one — in mind.
There are many causes of motorcycle accidents to be aware of and proactively protect yourself against. Some of the most important things you can do are to wear a helmet that fits properly, be sober, get training, invest in quality safety tech and gear, stay vigilant, and anticipate how to react to potential hazards.
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