State of Fatal Motorcycle Accidents in America
The dangers of motorcycles remain unchanged from those in years past, but the current industry faces an uncertain future. Devoted riders are getting older, and millennials don’t seem to find two-wheeled thrills as tempting as their parents once did. On the other hand, women are embracing bikes like never before, and storied brands like Harley-Davidson are planning for a world without fossil fuels. Is American motorcycle culture destined for reinvention, or too dangerous to survive?
In this project, we studied a question that may prove central to that debate: How many individuals die on motorcycles each year? Employing data from the National Highway Traffic Administration, our analysis compares rates of motorcycle crashes to accidents involving other vehicles, gauging the true hazards of getting behind the handlebars. We also explore regional differences in motorcyclist mortality and how state-regulated helmet laws might influence tragic outcomes. To understand the true death toll of motorcyclists in America, keep reading.
America’s roads witnessed more than 34,000 fatal accidents in 2016, the latest full year of data available. And lest we underestimate the contribution of motorcycles to that staggering total, our findings indicate more than 15 percent of those deadly crashes involved a bike in some manner. Most often, motorcyclists themselves met a tragic fate; in more than 95 percent of fatal crashes involving a motorcycle, a rider died.
Though many fatal crashes are the result of rash choices on the part of riders, environmental conditions and other drivers can also pose grave threats. Whatever the particular causes of each crash, however, the annual death toll among cyclists remains unacceptably high.
Additionally, passengers represented 6 percent of motorcyclists killed in crashes, confirming that the safety stakes often extend to more than a single life. In fact, recent research indicates that passengers may be at even greater risk of brain injury than those who are steering. Researchers theorize that passengers may be at greater risk of being thrown from the bike entirely – or simply less likely to be wearing a helmet than the bike’s operator.
Though only 15 percent of fatal accidents involve a motorcycle, our findings confirm that two-wheeled vehicles are disproportionately likely to imperil their owners. To better understand this dynamic, bear in mind that there are 13 times as many automobiles as motorcycles registered in America. For every 100,000 motorcycles registered nationwide, 60 operator or passenger deaths occurred – a rate that is more than six times that of standard passenger cars.
Trucks had an even better record, with a fatality rate nearly eight times lower than that of motorcycles. Relative to cars and trucks, many risky aspects of riding seem irresolvable: Bikes will never match their bulkier counterparts in protection or stability. But safety advocates say much can still be done to improve the safety of motorcyclists, including the addition of anti-lock braking systems. A standard feature of cars and trucks since the 1990s, ABS tech is available in only a tiny portion of motorcycles on the market and could save hundreds of lives annually if widely implemented.
In 2016, the motorcycle mortality rate reached its highest point since 2008. This increase coincides with 2016’s troubling spike in all motor vehicle crashes, which experts attributed to travel incentives such as low gas prices. Between 2008 and 2015, however, motorcycle fatalities remained relatively consistent. During that period, annual rates hovered between 54 and 59 deaths per 100,000 registered motorcycles.
In 2007 and 2008, though, motorcycle mortality rates were substantially higher than in any subsequent year on record. Perhaps the decline in the following years was one of the few silver linings of the ongoing Great Recession: Against a backdrop of financial anxiety, maybe fewer Americans could afford cross-country trips or even the occasional joyride. Safety authorities have used a similar thesis to explain a drop in traffic deaths for all motor vehicles between 2008 and 2010.
Safest States for Cyclists?
When we consider the number of motorcyclist deaths per 100,000 registered motorcycles in each state, we see a strong concentration of fatalities in the South. Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas had the three highest mortality rates, and several neighboring states also cracked the top 10 in this tragic category. Interestingly, places with similarly high rates had quite different legislative approaches to motorcycle safety. Mississippi, for example, has a universal helmet law, whereas Texas and South Carolina only require cyclists aged 20 or younger to wear one.
We also studied the number of motorcyclist deaths relative to all motor vehicles registered in each state, to contextualize these fatalities in each state’s driving culture. This approach yielded many of the same results, with South Carolina, Nevada, and Kentucky maintaining top five spots. But Wyoming and Arkansas vaulted into the top 10, and Florida ascended to No. 2 with more than three motorcyclist deaths per 100,000 registered vehicles.
Harm Without the Helmet
Safety advocates emphasize the life-saving potential of helmets, noting that more than 800 fatalities could have been averted in 2016 if all riders had been wearing them. Yet, less than half of U.S. states require all riders to wear helmets, and some states have seen troubling increases in injuries after repealing universal helmet laws. Our results do indicate that states with such laws see a smaller percentage of fatal crashes involving riders without helmets. But we also see some of the states with the highest rates of motorcycle fatalities already have universal helmet laws, suggesting such measures alone aren’t sufficient to safeguard cyclists.
Interestingly, Midwestern states had some of the highest rates of fatal crashes involving unhelmeted riders. In Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, more than 7 in 10 fatal crashes involved an unhelmeted rider. Some not-too-distant neighboring states had dramatically different numbers, however: Just 5 percent of cyclists were unhelmeted in fatal accidents in Massachusetts, for instance, whereas more than two-thirds were in Maine.
Our results suggest that the risks of motorcycling are inevitable: Despite geographical and legislative differences, riders regularly face threats that drivers do not. If these known dangers can’t deter you from climbing aboard your bike, don’t forego reasonable safety measures while riding. From wearing the proper protective gear to practicing safe riding in a range of conditions, you don’t want to skimp on preparation. And when you do hit the road, resist irresponsible speeds: No rush is worth the risk.
Though some vehicles are more perilous than others, no driver is completely sheltered from the hazards of the road. Let Auto Insurance Center help keep you and your loved ones covered. With the latest tips and information related to the risks of the road, we’re your source for all things auto insurance.
We collected data from the NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), which collects information on fatal roadway accidents in America where a driver, passenger, or pedestrian is killed while a vehicle is involved. The most recent year of data (2016) is publicly available (reported as of May 2018).
To examine vehicle level data, “Option 3” must be used when querying the FARS database. This option allows users to determine the total number of fatal accidents where different ‘body type’ vehicles are involved. When exploring this option, we determined that 34 fatal accidents were not accounted for in FARS Option 3 but were accounted for in FARS Option 1 and Option 2. For that reason, figures may be off by as much as 34 fatal accidents.