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Strategies to Improve Motorcycle Safety

Various strategies are employed to improve motorcycle safety. The most demonstrably effective strategy is the use of motorcycle helmets that meet FMVSS 218. Other strategies include training and the use of high-visibility gear. It is generally understood that motorcycle riders should be properly trained and licensed. They should also be alert and aware of the risks they face while riding while impaired by alcohol or drugs. These and other strategies are discussed in the National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety (NAMS), a comprehensive, collaborative, and multidisciplinary blueprint for motorcycle safety (NHTSA, 2000a). The recommendations of the NAMS were prioritized in 2013 (NHTSA, 2013a). See also the NAMS Implementation Guide (NHTSA, 2006), NHTSA’s Motorcycle Safety 5-Year Plan (NHTSA, 2019), the U.S. DOT Action Plan to Reduce Motorcycle Fatalities (U.S. DOT, 2007), and the CDC’s Motorcycle Safety Guide (CDC, 2011). In addition, a review of State Motorcycle Safety Program Technical Assessments summarizes program recommendations, implementations, and barriers to implementation from nine State motorcycle safety program technical assessments conducted by NHTSA (Baer & Skemer, 2009).

The most demonstrable objectives for improving motorcycle safety are to increase helmet use and reduce alcohol- and drug-impaired motorcycle riding. These objectives are difficult to accomplish. However, universal helmet laws are highly effective in assuring that virtually all motorcycle riders use helmets, but they also are politically difficult to enact and retain. Based on the research discussed in this document, strategies based only on communications and outreach to promote helmet use and reduce impaired motorcycling appear to be no more successful with motorcycle riders than other communications and outreach campaigns for other road users.

Another objective is to increase other motorists’ awareness of motorcyclists by increasing the visibility of motorcyclists and educating drivers on the importance of sharing the road with motorcycles. Daytime running lights (DRLs) for motorcycles improve motorcycle conspicuity, but there is evidence suggesting that the increased prevalence of DRLs in the vehicle fleet has reduced the benefits of DRLs on motorcycles (for example, see Jenness et al., 2011, and Pierowicz et al., 2011). Most motorcycles on the road have headlights that turn on automatically when the engines are started (NCHRP, 2008, Strategy 11.1 D2). In addition, as of June 2017, at least 24 States required daytime headlight—some States required use on all motorcycles while others specified requirement based on year of the motorcycle model manufacture (MSF, 2017; MLF, 2018). At least 22 other States and the District of Columbia that require the use of headlights permit modulating headlights (MLF, 2018). Modulating headlights cause the headlight to move from high- to low-beam rapidly. These can increase motorcycle visibility (Olson et al., 1979), but integration of these devices into the motorcycle fleet has been slow.

A similar way to improve motorcycle conspicuity is to manipulate the front-light configuration. A 2012 simulation study by Cavallo and Pinto showed that daytime running lights on cars create “visual noise” that interferes with the lighting of motorcycles and affects their visual conspicuity (Cavallo & Pinto, 2012). As a potential solution, Pinto et al. (2014) tested three front-light configurations in a daytime environment that included cars using day running lights. They found that while adding more lights to the configuration did not improve conspicuity over a typical single front-light configuration, changing the color of that light from white to yellow resulted in significantly higher detection (74% versus 54%). A similar study found that a single, white, central headlight with two additional yellow lights on the forks and one on the motorcyclist’s helmet increased motorcyclist conspicuity both in daylight and nighttime driving (Ranchet et al., 2016). These findings suggest that lighting has a role promoting motorcycle conspicuity.

Motorcycle crashes can also be prevented, or the crash severity mitigated, by the use of vehicle technologies such as antilock brakes (Bayly et al., 2006). For example, two studies by IIHS found that motorcycles with antilock brakes had a lower fatal crash involvement than motorcycles without antilock brakes (Teoh, 2011, 2013).

Many environmental factors can also affect motorcycle safety. Slippery roadway surfaces and markings, surface irregularities and debris, unpaved shoulders, and unforgiving roadway barriers all can be dangerous. These issues are not included in this guide because State Highway Safety Offices have little or no authority or responsibility for them. See National Cooperative Highway Safety Research Report 500, Volume 22, Guide for Addressing Collisions Involving Motorcycles, for a thorough discussion of environmental and other strategies.