Riding a motorcycle provides the thrill of the open road in a way cars often can't compete with. However with little protecting riders, they aren't the safest choice of transportation. A preliminary report from Governors Highway Safety Association indicates that cycle fatalities might be lower in 2013 than 2012, but the reason has nothing to do with the bikes.

The study looked at motorcycle fatality data for the whole country, from January through September 2013. It projects that the final figure for deaths will be down 7 percent in 2013 to 4,610, compared to 4,957 in 2012 and 4,612 in 2011. Lethal crashes fell in 35 states in 2013, increased in 13 states and remained the same in 2. This is only the second time there has been a year-over-year decrease since 1997.

The reason for the lower fatalities isn't that motorcycles are suddenly safer. The report postulates that weather was the defining factor in the decrease. The climate in 2012 was significantly warmer and drier than average for much of the year compared to 2011 or 2013, which led to an increase in riders. Last year, it returned to normal, and it kept people in many regions off their bikes.

While fatalities are down slightly, motorcycle safety is about the same as it was in 1997, the year with the fewest cycle deaths. In '97, there were 2,116 cycle deaths and about 3.8 million bikes on the road for a mortality rate of 5.53 per 10,000 motorcycles. Final 2011 data showed 4,612 fatal crashes and about 8.4 million bikes for a rate of 5.46 per 10,000. In the same time, the rate for passenger vehicles has gone from 1.7 in '97 to 0.89 in '11.

To actually make motorcycles safer, the GHSA has multiple recommendations, but the biggest among them is mandatory helmet laws. While many riders don't like them, the protective gear has been shown to increase survival rates by over a third.

In a year, it will be interesting to see if this year's cool conditions show a further drop in fatalities. Scroll down to read the press release about the study from the GHSA or dig into the whole, 23-page report as a PDF, here.
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Study Finds Motorcyclist Fatalities Fell 7% in 2013
Overall Motorcyclist Safety Has Not Improved in 15 Years

WASHINGTON, D.C.-For only the second year since 1997, U.S. motorcyclist fatalities are projected to decrease in 2013, according to a new analysis of preliminary state data released today by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). The latest Spotlight on Highway Safety report also notes that despite the probable 7 percent decrease in rider deaths, motorcyclist safety has not improved in fifteen years.

All 50 states and the District of Columbia provided preliminary motorcyclist fatality counts for the first nine months of 2013 and insights into why their numbers increased or decreased. Compared with the first nine months of 2012, motorcyclist fatalities decreased in 35 states and the District of Columbia, increased in 13 states, and remained the same in two. The report was authored by Dr. James Hedlund of Highway Safety North, a former senior official with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Dr. Hedlund has done similar analyses for GHSA every year since 2009, with remarkable accuracy. Based on this experience, he projects the final motorcyclist fatality total for 2013 will be 4,610 – approximately 7 percent less than the 4,957 recorded in 2012 and nearly identical to the 4,612 motorcyclist deaths in 2011. This means motorcyclist deaths would have declined more than the total traffic fatality decrease of 3.7 percent for the first nine months of 2013 estimated by NHTSA.

While this is good news, the report points out that in 2011 motorcycles produced six times more occupant fatalities per registered vehicles than passenger vehicles. Using this same measure, passenger vehicle occupants were twice as safe in 2011 as compared to 1997, but motorcyclist safety has not improved in that period.

Weather, according to the report, was the predominate factor to explain the drop in motorcyclist fatalities from 2012 to 2013. The first six months of 2012 were unusually warm and dry across the nation, prompting an uptick in ridership. The weather in the first nine months of 2013, however, was cooler and wetter, similar to 2011, when fatalities dropped in many states. GHSA Members nationwide echoed this finding.

"It's heartening that motorcyclist fatalities didn't increase over the past couple of years, but they're not decreasing either," said Kendell Poole, GHSA Chairman and Director of the Tennessee Office of Highway Safety. "Long-term gains in motorcyclist safety won't occur because riders are deterred by bad weather, but from consistent use of proven countermeasures."

Poole pointed to the importance of all states adopting universal helmet laws. "By far, helmets are the single most effective way to prevent serious injury and death in the event of a motorcycle crash. But states are going backward when it comes to enacting this proven, lifesaving countermeasure."

Currently, only 19 states and DC have universal helmet laws. Another 28 require helmet use by riders younger than age 18 or 21, and three have no requirement. According to NHTSA, in 2012, there were 10 times as many unhelmeted motorcyclist fatalities in states without universal helmet laws, compared to states with universal helmet laws. Nationwide, helmet use dropped to 60 percent in 2012, down from 66 percent in 2011.

In addition to increasing helmet use, the report also recommends that states:

Reduce alcohol impairment. In 2011, 29 percent of fatally injured riders had a blood alcohol concentration above the legal limit of .08.

Reduce speeding. According to the most recent data, 35% of riders involved in fatal crashes were speeding, and nearly half of these crashes didn't involve another vehicle.

Provide motorcycle training to all who need or seek it. While all states currently offer training, some courses may not be provided at locations and times convenient for riders.

Ensure motorcyclists are properly licensed. In 2011, 22 percent of motorcycle riders involved in fatal crashes did not have a valid motorcycle license, compared to 12 percent of passenger vehicle drivers involved in fatal crashes. The motorcycle license test prompts riders to complete a training course. By encouraging licensing, states encourage training.

Encourage all drivers to share the road with motorcyclists. According to NHTSA, when motorcycles crash with other vehicles, the latter usually violates the motorcyclist's right of way. Many states conduct "share the road" campaigns to increase awareness of motorcyclists.

States partially fund their motorcycle safety efforts with federal money from NHTSA. Currently, Congress restricts state programs by permitting them to only address motorcyclist training and programs that encourage drivers to share the rode with motorcyclists. With work underway on the next transportation reauthorization bill, GHSA is calling on Congress to permit states to fund effective approaches to addressing motorcyclist safety, such as programs that increase helmet use and reduce drunk driving.

All data in the report are preliminary. The report presents data through September 2013. State-by-state data and image files are available from GHSA.

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  • 39 Comments
      bcsaxman
      • 7 Months Ago
      @ torqued: I was going to pass on this, not because I don't have an opinion but because most people are so set in their's that I find it useless to get into it. However, I liked your post & thought I'd add a couple cents. First, I'm a motorcyclist going back to the late '80s. My experience runs from dirt bikes to cruisers to crotch rockets. Currently I ride a '93 VFR750, because it's still one of the best handling bikes that you can also go long distances with. Second, at root, laws are for protecting people from other people hurting them. Thus, I'm totally against helmet laws for lone adult drivers of motorcycles. I wear one whenever I ride, but it's a personal choice I make as a grown-up who SHOULD be making his own decisions. Society, insurance companies, & the government (which was indeed instituted for the purpose of allowing all citizens to have the freedom to live the way they choose), and their institutional/collective opinions on the matter, should not be factors at all when it comes to what I legally do with my body. And I'm consistent on this, as I believe a woman's 'right to choose' falls under the same umbrella. Now, I AM for laws mandating helmets for drivers and passengers of motorcycles, and the reason is simple: At the point I invite/allow someone on my bike, I'm now more responsible for their life than even as a driver of a car or bus. In those vehicles, minor accidents or brief lapses in attention by the driver (or other drivers on the road) usually don't lead to injury or death. On a bike they easily can. My skill as a driver and the upkeep of my bike are the main 'lines of defense' for keeping my passengers as safe as they can be. However, a helmet is the second line, & it's irresponsible for any driver of a bike to brush off the very real possibility that a DOT/Snell certified lid might be the difference between a walking talking human and a bed-ridden vegetable, just from a low speed put down. That's why the driver should wear one too. The lesson came to me via an accident I knew of when living in Colorado. A biker & his ol' lady were driving down a twisty stretch in the Aspen area back in the early '90s. Can't remember the details anymore, but I think the road transitioned from paved to unpaved. The upshot was the bike went from 60-to-0 in too-few seconds flat. Neither person was wearing a helmet. Both were killed when the front of her head collided into the back of his. Had only he been wearing a cap, she's still dead. Had only she been wearing one, he's still dead (and maybe she's got bad injuries because the bike is totally uncontrolled). It's the dynamics of two-up riding & the non-negotiable responsibility a bike driver has to their passenger's safety that makes a law in their case, mandating helmet use, necessary. I should protect my passenger. Protecting them means we both wear helmets. Any bike passenger not getting that from their driver needs to be legally protected from being hurt by them. End of story.
        bullitt2605
        • 7 Months Ago
        @bcsaxman
        All good and well but a rider that does not wear a helmet and gets more severely injured because of it pushes up the cost of insurance for everyone. Just like those that still choose not to wear seatbelts or people who ski in out of bounds areas. Why should I have to absorb the cost of their bad decision?
          bcsaxman
          • 7 Months Ago
          @bullitt2605
          An individual right, or personal freedom, or civil liberty - whatever you want to call it - should always trump increased insurance costs. Most things wrong with society today are due to not adhering to that kind of principle in one way or another. Further, if increased costs of insurance are your main focus, then I hope you support the de-privatization of all insurances. The profit motive isn't often acknowledged in discussions on these things (except when pertaining to healthcare), but it is a big part of what makes any type of car or homeowners insurance as expensive as it is too. Yet, unlike some other services we pay for, the profit motive is totally unnecessary for any well functioning insurance system. All that's needed are accurate actuarial data relevant to risk in the realm being insured, and a baseline cost for administering the system - add those together and you get the same kind of coverage as in a for-profit system, but for a monthly fee that doesn't include increasing profits year after year or returns to stock holders or investors. In fact, when you think about it, private insurance across the board is much more economically parasitic to society (******* money out of wallets that could otherwise be going to buying a nicer car/bike, saving for kid's college, taking a nicer trip, etc…), than any number of individuals riding without a helmet. It's also kind of morbid. These companies aren't inventing a better widget or curing cancer - they're simply making money off of personal tragedy.
        torqued
        • 7 Months Ago
        @bcsaxman
        Thanks for the thoughtful reply. "Society, insurance companies, & the government (which was indeed instituted for the purpose of allowing all citizens to have the freedom to live the way they choose), and their institutional/collective opinions on the matter, should not be factors at all when it comes to what I legally do with my body." Well-said, and I agree. I've never liked the argument that it could raise insurance costs for others or upset family members who have lost someone. While that might be true and undesirable, it's not a justification for government to determine what you can and can't do with your own body. Why do you think that the passenger shouldn't be able to make a "grown-up" decision of her own? Just because she's not in control of the motorcycle doesn't mean she shouldn't be able to make decisions about taking risks with her own body. She chose to get on the motorcycle and should know the risks involved. I'd actually be in favor of a law that required helmets for anyone who has less than 5(?) years of riding experience. Similar to Europe's cc restrictions, I think it takes time for people to really understand the risks they're taking as well as refining their skills. I'm talking about mostly danger-avoiding and recognition skills, not just controlling the bike. I've had a motorcycle for about 11 years now, so not a newbie but not a veteran either. When I started I might have been dumb enough to ride without a helmet because I didn't know better. I don't think it was an age thing so much as inexperience.
      _I_I_II_I_I_
      • 7 Months Ago
      this is a stupid article. The only worthwhile metric to consider is deaths per mile traveled. Start there and save all the blah blah blah
      Timothy Tibbetts
      • 7 Months Ago
      C'mon down to Florida where it's bicyclists getting hit all the time.
      GasMan
      • 7 Months Ago
      Or could it be that the motorcycle craze of 10 years ago has waned. Look at all the Harley dealerships that are struggling to find customers.
        RobG
        • 7 Months Ago
        @GasMan
        I think its because the typical Harley rider is getting older, or dying off. Many people have figured out that Harleys are overpriced garbage and are moving towards other brands. That and the Adventure Touring class is what's taking off. You don't see Harley trying to compete there at all. Not sure they'd even know how.
        Edsel
        • 7 Months Ago
        @GasMan
        My local Harley dealer has a jaw-dropping number of new and used Harley's for sale.
      T1
      • 7 Months Ago
      Smoking kills 500,000 per year. Alcohol 90,000 deaths per year. 300,000 a year from obesity. 600,000 a year from cancer. 33,000 from accidental poisoning. 8,000 from shootings. I'll take my chances with a motorcycle. Just don't ride while fat, smoking a cigarette, after 4 shots of tequila to wash down some tylenol.
        T. C.
        • 7 Months Ago
        @T1
        Isn't that kinda the definition of your average biker?
      VL00
      • 7 Months Ago
      I'm all for what costs society, in dollars, less. If no helmet = more deaths, and deaths are cheaper than quadriplegics, than make helmets illegal for organ donors, I mean riders.
      icemilkcoffee
      • 7 Months Ago
      I am speculating, but I do think motorcycles are safer now, with ABS brakes being more widely available, and the first generation of traction control now on the market. Another factor is that a lot of new cars now come with forward cameras, and automatic braking. This helps prevent a lot of accidents, where the driver failed to see the motorcycle.
        Brian P
        • 7 Months Ago
        @icemilkcoffee
        Tires, brakes, chassis, and suspension are a lot better now than in the past, although the biggest change was likely from the late eighties to the late nineties, until the widespread availability of ABS in the last few years..
      snap_understeer_ftw
      • 7 Months Ago
      Look Twice, Save a Life!
        juniorswa
        • 7 Months Ago
        @snap_understeer_ftw
        This goes for people in their lumbering SUVs as well...almost been taken out SO many times in my red CAR because these morons just pull over into my lane, no signal and no looking over the shoulder!
      Collin
      • 7 Months Ago
      Michigan actually decided to REPEAL their mandatory helmet laws. Can anyone guess what happened? Yep, fatalities went up, as did insurance claims for medical. Who would have thought?
        tylermars.design
        • 7 Months Ago
        @Collin
        I don't care what the law says, if you're not riding without protective gear, you are an idiot.
          T. C.
          • 7 Months Ago
          @tylermars.design
          Thank you, Captain Obvious.
        torqued
        • 7 Months Ago
        @Collin
        Do you believe that the number of lives saved and injuries (insurance claims) are the only criteria we should look at when passing a law? Should be within Michigan's power to tell people what to wear and when? Would you support a law that mandated everyone wear helmets in cars and drove orange Volvos if the statistics showed that it would save lives? Why not? What line does that cross that motorcycle helmet laws doesn't?
      CoolWaters
      • 7 Months Ago
      All those EV's don't leak oil. Save a biker's life, drive a Leaf.
      Edsel
      • 7 Months Ago
      As government healthcare becomes more "influential" in how we all care for ourselves, I anticipate government will regulate how to best protect us from harm. Motorcycles are more dangerous than cars or mass transit, smoking cigarettes is more dangerous than not smoking cigarettes, and drinking big-gulp sodas is more dangerous to your health than drinking plain water. Government could direct us in various ways to live more safely, so as to not increase government health care expenses, and thereby save government money for things that are far more healthy like; guns, tanks, bombers, missiles and combat ships. Here's to a healthy future! < cynicism, I hope>
      RobbieAG
      • 7 Months Ago
      The increased availability of ABS, traction control and other technologies will make bikes safer in the future. There should be reduced amounts of "user error" accidents.
        RobG
        • 7 Months Ago
        @RobbieAG
        The latest model Honda Goldwing has an option airbag. I wonder how well that'll work. Ducati has even gone so far as to suggest all their bikes will have airbags in the coming years.
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