Alcohol-Impaired Motorcyclists: Detection, Enforcement, and Sanctions
Alcohol impairment is a substantial problem for motorcyclist operators, even more than for drivers of other motor vehicles. In 2021 some 28% of motorcycle operators involved in fatal crashes had BACs of .08 g/dL or higher, which is higher than the rate for passenger car drivers (24%) and light-truck drivers (20%) (NCSA, 2023). Fatally injured motorcycle operators 35 to 39 years old and 40 to 44 had the highest percentages of alcohol impairment (35% each), followed by motorcyclists 30 to 34 and 50 to 54 (33% each) and 50 to 54 (32%) (NCSA, 2023). An additional 7% of fatally injured motorcycle operators had at least some measurable level of alcohol in their blood (BAC .01 to .07 g/dL). Fatally injured motorcycle operators with BACs .08 g/dL or higher were less likely to wear helmets than were sober operators–52% versus 66%. In 2021 some 39% of operators killed in single-vehicle crashes on weekdays had BACs of .08 g/dL or above, and on weekends, this figure climbed to 46%. The 2013 and 2014 National Roadside Survey found that 5.0% of motorcycle operators on weekend nights had BACs of .08 g/dL or above, as compared to 1.4% of passenger vehicle drivers (Ramirez et al., 2016).
Motorcyclists are included in, and affected by, the comprehensive strategies to reduce alcohol- impaired driving discussed in detail in the chapter on Alcohol-Impaired Driving. However, some law enforcement and sanction strategies may be especially useful for motorcyclists, while others may be less effective.
Law enforcement officers on traffic patrol use characteristic driving behaviors, or cues, to identify drivers who may be impaired by alcohol. Some of the cues for motorcycle operators, such as trouble maintaining balance at a stop, are different from those for cars and trucks. Stuster (1993) identified and validated 14 cues useful for identifying alcohol-impaired motorcycle operators. NHTSA published a brochure and a law enforcement training video discussing the cues (NHTSA, 2013b). The cues for motorcycle operators are part of the SFST training given to all law enforcement officers.
Vehicle impoundment or forfeiture can be an effective deterrent to drinking and driving for all drivers (see the chapter on Alcohol-Impaired Driving). It may be even more effective for motorcyclists. Research by Becker et al. (2003) confirmed earlier findings that many motorcyclists do not find traditional impaired-driving sanctions such as fines and license suspension to be effective deterrents (although self-reported beliefs may not reflect actual effectiveness of sanctions). However, motorcyclists tended to be highly concerned for the safety and security of their motorcycles.
These findings suggest a potentially effective strategy to reduce alcohol-impaired motorcycling: HVE using officers trained in identifying impaired motorcycle riders, with offender sanctions including vehicle impoundment or forfeiture. This strategy would treat motorcyclist operators on an equal footing with other vehicle drivers in impaired-driving enforcement and publicity, but it may be controversial and therefore difficult to enact or enforce. However, a Washington State law that allows officers to impound motorcycles for impaired riding was not found to cause unforeseen problems with law enforcement officers or with towing companies (McKnight et al., 2013).
As of 2008 there were 32 of 43 responding States that reported that they have programs for law enforcement on how to detect impaired motorcyclists or enforce laws related to operating motorcycles while impaired (Baer et al., 2010). NHTSA (2006) provides resources for law enforcement and State programs on the detection of impaired riding, including examples of State programs that distribute the NHTSA cue cards and brochures to law enforcement (Illinois), provide a web-based seminar for officers (Minnesota), and regularly establish high-visibility law enforcement presence at major rider events (Ohio, Wisconsin).
Some agencies have reported success in using the cues for identifying alcohol-impaired motorcycle riders (Potts et al., 2008, Strategy B3). Although there is limited evidence of the effects of enforcement and sanctions on impaired motorcycle riding, sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols have demonstrated effectiveness in reducing impaired driving and crashes generally. See the chapter on Alcohol-Impaired Driving for more information on enforcement strategies and other tools.
Law enforcement training costs are low and training material is available. Enforcement itself can be carried out during regular traffic patrols and as part of all impaired driving enforcement programs. A major campaign including alcohol-impaired motorcycle operators may require additional costs for publicity.
Time to implement:
Law enforcement training can be conducted quickly. Saturation patrols can be implemented within 3 months if officers are trained in detecting impaired drivers and in SFST. A major campaign will require 4 to 6 months to plan and implement. See the NHTSA HVE toolkit for implementation information.
- BAC limits: BACs as low as .05 g/dL caused some detectable levels of impairment, primarily in reaction time, among experienced riders in tests on controlled courses (Creaser et al., 2007). Puerto Rico passed a law in 2007 lowering the BAC limit for motorcyclists to .02 g/dL. In Fell et al. (2017) law enforcement officers said it was difficult to detect operator impairment with BACs of just over the .02 g/dL limit. Nevertheless, more than half of citations at checkpoints for riding impaired were for BACs from .01 to .07 g/dL, suggesting that checkpoints are a successful method of enforcing the .02 g/dL limit.
- Drugs other than alcohol: Drugs other than alcohol can impair motorcycle riders. These include over-the-counter and prescription medications as well as illegal drugs. The 2013-2014 National Roadside Survey reported that 22.3% of nighttime weekend motorcycle operators who provided oral fluid or blood samples tested positive for drugs (illegal drugs or medications), compared to similar numbers of passenger car drivers, 24.3% (Kelley- Baker et al., 2017). The extent to which various drugs impair driving performance or contribute to crashes is not well understood, however, for either 4-wheeled vehicles or for motorcycles. Furthermore, individual differences in metabolism of drugs and level of impairment, as well as polydrug use complicate the understanding of drug impairment on motor vehicle drivers (Compton et al., 2009). (See Compton et al.’s 2009 Report to Congress on drug-impaired driving for a discussion of current knowledge and recommendations for improving States data and records systems and statutes). Law enforcement should consider drugs as potential impairing agents for motorcycle riders just as for other vehicle operators. See the chapter on Drug-Impaired Driving for more information.
- Targeted enforcement: As with other crash problems, better identification of problem areas (either impaired riding or impaired riding crashes) and targeting enforcement to such locations, events, or times could improve enforcement effectiveness.
- Alcohol Ignition Interlocks: One strategy to reduce alcohol-impaired motorcycling is to use ignition interlocks to prevent impaired motorcyclists from being able to operate their motorcycles. Although it is feasible to implement interlocks on motorcycles, there are liability and safety concerns primarily associated with retests that must be considered. In a study of motorcycle interlocks, most study participants considered retesting while riding to be unsafe (Marques & McKnight, 2017). It can sometimes be difficult to find a safe place to stop and perform the retest. The requirements and option to implement motorcycle interlocks depends on State regulations. Some States require interlocks on all vehicles driven by offenders, while other States expressly forbid them on motorcycles, and the level of enforcement varies greatly between jurisdictions.