It goes without saying that motorcycling carries with it a certain amount of physical risk. According to Federal Highway data, there were 35 times more deaths per mile driven on motorcycles than in cars. Most riders accept this without a lot of extra thought. While many riders – the smart ones anyway – take the time and effort to gear up properly before every ride, we, as a community, understand that we are at substantial risk every time we start our bikes.
However, accepting a certain amount of risk does not necessarily mean that motorcycle riders are stupid or that they don’t care about safety. In fact, the contrary is often the case. By understanding specifically which risks pose the greatest threat to us as riders, we can strive to minimize those risks and increase the odds in our favor.
Fully understanding the risks, however, requires hard numbers and, unfortunately, the United States is lacking in current motorcycle crash statistics, largely as a result of our own failure to take the issue seriously on the policy front. The last comprehensive study of motorcycle crashes in the U.S. was completed over 20 years ago and most of the attempts to conduct authoritative follow up research have floundered due to industry infighting, political cost cutting and rider indifference. Not so in other countries, however.
The United Kingdom, for example, regularly conducts studies of motorcycle related injuries and has created an instructive guide to avoiding common accidents while riding.
According to UK data, the five most common causes of motorcycle accidents are as follows:
- Following a left hand bend on a country road
- Following a right hand bend on a country road
- Loss of control over the bike
Let’s address each briefly for more detail.
Curves on country roads
The first two items on the list are essentially the same. The gist is that a rider is unable to successfully maneuver all the way through a turn on rural roads. Translated into American terms we’re talking about crashing while canyon carving. This is easy to do, especially on California’s narrow mountain roads (something I’ve written about before) and the consequences can very easily turn deadly. Oncoming traffic, uneven pavement, hidden obstacles and overaggressive riding can all lead to a catastrophic loss of control through a corner.
U.S., French and Australian data support the UK numbers on part three of the list, crashing while navigating an intersection. In particular, motorcyclists are prone to being hit by other drivers who are making a left-hand turn and who may not see the smaller profile of an approaching motorcycle. Other types of intersection collisions involve bikes rear-ending stopped traffic or other vehicles rear-ending stopped bikes. The takeaway message is: whenever you’re approaching an intersection on your bike, pay extra attention to what other drivers are doing. Look oncoming drivers in the eye to make sure they’ve seen you, avoid fast stops that might get you hit from behind, and “look before you leap” when accelerating from a green light.
Even on high-powered motorcycles, passing can be more of a challenge than some riders might assume. Spending even a few seconds in the wrong lane of traffic can be extremely hazardous, especially if your view is obstructed by turns, obstacles, or large vehicles. In addition, passing often involves higher than normal (or higher than safe) speeds which are a large contributor to motorcycle fatalities. Make sure you can see all the way through your passing space and that you have the time and distance to pass safely. Avoid surprising other drivers, watch for sudden road changes, and keep your speed under control even while passing.
Loss of control
While many riders fall victim to oncoming traffic, bad roads, or bike failures resulting in crashes, rider control is paramount. Many motorcycle accidents consist of what are known as “single vehicle collisions” meaning that only the rider was involved. In every type of situation, a rider’s control over the bike and the circumstances will substantially affect the likelihood of a collision. While you cannot control oncoming traffic, bad roads, dangerous intersections, or mechanical failures, you can increase the odds in your favor by maintaining control over your bike. Ride within your limits, make sure your bike is properly maintained, and keep an eye on the conditions around you to avoid becoming a statistic.