The Anatomy
            of a Motorcycle Crash


A motorcycle crash. A motorcycle crash is a complex event involving the interaction of human, vehicle, and environmental factors. While there is no “typical” motorcycle crash, what is “typical” is that a motorcycle crash is a violent event. More than 80 percent of all reported motorcycle crashes result in injury or death to the motorcyclist. The motorcycle itself provides no head injury protection to the rider or passenger. Ejection from the motorcycle is a common injury pathway. If a motorcycle comes to a sudden stop and the rider is ejected from the motorcycle, the rider will forcibly strike objects in the path as well as the ground.


Vehicle differences. A motorcycle lacks the crashworthiness and occupant protection characteristics of an automobile. An automobile has more weight and bulk than a motorcycle. It has door beams, a roof, airbags, and seat belts. It is also more stable because it is on four wheels. Because of its size, an automobile is easier to see. What a motorcycle sacrifices in weight, bulk, and other crashworthiness characteristics is somewhat offset by its agility, maneuverability, ability to stop quickly, and ability to swerve quickly when necessary.


Causes of motorcycle crashes. In 1996 there were 67,000 motorcycles involved in police-reported crashes, of which 40 percent (27,000) were single vehicle crashes.6 Many of the causes of motorcycle crashes may be attributed to lack of experience or failure to appreciate the inherent operating characteristics and limitations of the motorcycle. These factors require motorcyclists to take special precautions and place more emphasis on defensive driving. A motorcyclist, for example, has to be more alert at intersections, where most motorcycle-vehicle collisions occur. About one-third of multi-vehicle motorcycle crashes are a result of other motorists turning into the path of the motorcycle. More than other vehicle drivers, motorcyclists must remain visible at all times, and anticipate what might happen. For example, motorcyclists must anticipate that drivers making left turns may not see them and prepare to make defensive maneuvers. They also must be more cautious when riding in inclement weather, on slippery surfaces, or when encountering obstacles on the roadway. Motorcyclists must place greater reliance on their helmet, eye protection, and clothing to reduce the severity of injury should they become involved in a crash. And they should attend a motorcycle training course to learn how to safely operate a motorcycle.


Approximately 43 percent of all fatal motorcycle crashes involve alcohol.7 A motorcycle requires more skill and coordination to operate than a car. Riding a motorcycle while under the influence of any alcohol significantly decreases an operator’s ability to operate it safely.


An estimated one-third of motorcycle operators killed in crashes are not licensed or are improperly licensed to operate a motorcycle.8 Being licensed to operate a car does not qualify a person to operate a motorcycle. By not obtaining a motorcycle operator’s license, motorcyclists are bypassing the only method they and the state licensing agencies have to ensure they have the knowledge and skills needed to safely operate a motorcycle.


The helmet at work. The single most important safety device a motorcyclist can have is a helmet. Motorcycle helmets have a hard outer shell that distributes the force of an impact to protect the skull and prevents objects from piercing it. The crushable inner liner limits the force of impacts by absorbing a portion of the energy that would otherwise reach the head and brain. As the helmet does its job, the number and severity of head injuries are significantly reduced.


Helmets cannot work if they are improperly designed. Federal safety standards determine the amount of force helmets should absorb and the amount of peripheral vision the helmets must allow. Only helmets that meet or exceed these standards should be worn.


Table of Contents / Comprehensive Approach to Safety / Anatomy of a Crash /
Preventing Brain Injuries / Reducing Injuries & Saving Lives / Helemet Laws Work /
Reducing Costs / Not a Stand Alone Issue / Common Myths /
Tax Payer vs. Personal Freedom / More Info. / End Notes