A motorcycle is inherently more difficult to operate than a passenger vehicle because it requires more physical skill and strength. The relationship of motorcycle speed and stability is also a critical consideration when riding a motorcycle, as the stability of a motorcycle is relative to speed. As speed increases, the motorcycle becomes more stable, requiring less effort from the operator to maintain its balance, even as it becomes less maneuverable. At lower speeds, the motorcycle becomes less stable, requiring greater effort from the operator to balance it.
A motorcycle offers the rider virtually no protection in a crash. Crash data confirm this observation. For example, NHTSA estimates that in 2018, motorcyclists were about 27 times more likely than passenger car occupants to die in traffic crashes per vehicle mile traveled (VMT), and motorcyclists were killed at a rate of 24.83 fatalities per 100 million VMT compared to 0.91 fatalities per 100 million VMT for passenger cars (NCSA, 2020).
Trends. Motorcycling has become increasingly popular over the last 20 years and the total VMT on motorcycles has nearly doubled since 1998 (NCSA, 2000; NCSA, 2020). Along with this growth in popularity are increases in crashes and fatalities involving motorcyclists. From 2000 to 2008 the number of motorcyclists killed in crashes increased by 83% and the number injured increased by 66%. In 2008 motorcyclist fatalities increased for the 11th consecutive year to 5,312, a level not seen since 1980 (NHTSA, 2011). Between 2008 and 2014 the number of motorcyclist fatalities fluctuated, but steadily increased since 2014 (see figure below) with a slight decrease in 2017 and again in 2018. The most recent data show that in 2018 there were 4,985 fatalities, a 5% decrease from the 5,229 motorcyclists killed in 2017 (NCSA, 2020). Motorcyclists accounted for 14% of total motor vehicle related fatalities during 2018.
Source data: NHTSA (2011), NCSA (2020)
In 2018 some 38% of motorcyclist fatalities (NCSA, 2020) and 55% of all motorcyclists injured (NHTSA, 2020) occurred in single-vehicle crashes. More than half (52%) of all fatalities occurred on weekdays, and 59% of fatalities occurred in daylight (NCSA, 2020). Ninety-one percent of motorcyclists killed were males (NHTSA, 2020), and passengers comprised 6% of motorcycle fatalities (NCSA, 2020).
While the number of motorcyclists involved in injury crashes increased among all age groups, one trend that has continued for about 20 years are increases in fatalities and injuries among older motorcyclists. In 2018 some 63% of the motorcyclists killed in crashes were 35 or older and 46% were 45 or older, compared to 1998, when 45% of the motorcyclists killed were 35 or older and 22% were 45 or older (NHTSA, 2020). Moreover, injuries among motorcyclists 50 and older increased at the fastest rate. Motorcyclists 50 and older were estimated to account for 15% and 26% of motorcyclists injured nationally during 1998 and 2008, respectively (NHTSA, 1998, 2008). In 2018 motorcyclists 50 and older were estimated to account for 31% of the motorcyclists injured (NHTSA, 2018b [FARS]; NHTSA, 2018a [CRSS]). Note that CRSS estimates and NASS GES estimates are not comparable due to different sample designs.
Speeding is more prevalent in fatal crashes involving motorcycle operators than among other types of motor vehicle operators. Thirty-one percent of all motorcycle operators involved in fatal crashes in 2018 were speeding, compared to 18% of passenger car drivers (NCSA, 2020). Motorcycle operators involved in fatal crashes had worse prior driving records than other passenger vehicle drivers, including more driving while impaired (DWI) convictions, speeding convictions, and suspensions or revocations. Additionally, 28% of the motorcycle operators involved in crashes in 2018 did not have valid motorcycle operator licenses. In 2018 there were 26% of the motorcycle operators killed in crashes who had BACs of .08 g/dL or higher. Nationally, 38% of fatally injured motorcyclists in known cases of helmet use were not helmeted, although this percentage varies from State to State from a high of 81% in Indiana to a low of 3% in Louisiana. Among the 19 States with mandatory helmet use by all motorcycle riders, the known helmet use in fatal crashes ranged from 62% in West Virginia to 97% in Louisiana. In contrast, States with helmet use requirements for only a subset of the motorcyclists or no requirement had known helmet use in fatal crashes ranging from 19% in Indiana to 58% in Michigan.
Other trends in motorcycle safety relate to the types of motorcycles being produced and purchased. The number of registrations for all types of motorcycles has steadily increased and doubled from 2002 (4.2 million) to 2017 (8.4 million); there was a slight decrease in total registrations in 2018 (8.3 million) (Toeh, 2019). The majority of registrations in 2018 were cruiser (3.5 million) and touring bikes (1.8 million). Registrations for supersport motorcycles, which are built on racing bike frames and can reach speeds of nearly 190 mph, peaked between 2008 and 2010, and then declined to about 602,000 in 2018; however, supersport registrations are still 66% higher than in 2002. Operators of cruisers (32%) and supersport bikes (22%) were the highest number of fatalities among all motorcycle rider deaths in 2017 (IIHS, 2018). Fifty-six percent of supersport operator fatalities in 2017 were 30 years old or younger. In contrast, the majority of fatally injured cruiser (84%) and touring bike operators (94%) were older than 30. Motorcyclist fatality rates per 100,000 registered vehicles have increased from 56.36 in 2009 to 57.52 in 2018 (NHTSA, 2020). Helmet use varied among operators of different motorcycle types in 2017; 81% of fatally injured supersport operators and 51% of cruiser and touring bike operators were helmeted (IIHS, 2018). These results suggest that the types of risks taken may vary in association with the style of bike chosen (Teoh & Campbell, 2010).
Another emerging trend having safety implications is the increased use of low-powered cycles such as mopeds, electric-assist bicycles, and scooters. State laws defining and regulating these vehicles vary as do crash reporting procedures, making it difficult to track crash data trends. While these are different vehicles in terms of their speed and power capabilities (most States classify these vehicles based on criteria including maximum speed, generally 20 to 30 mph), some countermeasures aimed at motorcycles (such as helmet use laws) apply to low-powered cycles. However, riders of low-powered cycles may face different safety problems than motorcycle riders.