The Ride Sober motorcycle safety piece

This entry has been added to since it was posted a little while ago.

Intoxicated motorcycling has long been seen as big a problem–and a related problem–as riding without a helmet. Motorcycle Safety experts, the medical profession and law enforcement all point to riding after drinking as a major culprit. The implication is that if no one rode with an elevated blood alcohol content (BAC)  then fatalities would go down.

So let’s take a look at the past thirty-some years:

The legal limit in all states now is 0.08%—at that point someone can be arrested even for walking drunk let alone operating a bicycle or motorized vehicle in public.  Back in 1982, though, the legal limit was 0.10%, and 40.5% of all motorcycle fatalities had a BAC of ≥0.10.[i]

By 1987, it had dropped slightly to 38.2% and a further 13.1% had a BAC of 0.01-0.09%. And most of those fatalities involved young people in the 21 to 29 year-old range.  Back then, the majority of motorcyclists were under thirty years-old.

In 2001, the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) started figuring the BAC limit at 0.08%.  With this lower limit,  the National Center for Statistics and Analysis (NCSA) reports that in 2007 28% of motorcyclist fatalities had a BAC at or above the legal limit and a further 8% of all motorcycle fatalities had a BAC of .01 to .07%.[ii]

Iow, even with lowering the BAC, there was over a 12 percent drop in intoxicated rider fatalities from 1982 to 2007.  Iow, high BAC dropped more than 12 percent.

And the percentage with BAC .08 g/dL or above was highest for fatally injured motorcycle riders among two age groups, 45–49 (41%) and 40–44 (37%) followed by ages 35–39 (35%).

In percentages, then, here’s a thumbnail of the past 26 years in intoxicated fatalities:

1982 1987 1993 1997 2000 2002 2007 2008
BAC over limit 40.5 38.2 34.2 28.9 28 32 28 30
Less than legal limit N/A 13.1 11.2 11.2 11 8 8 7
Sober fatalities N/A 48.7 54.6 59.9 61 60 64 63
No*Helmet N/A N/A 53 50 41 38 45 46
Helmet* N/A N/A 63 61 61 62 66 66
Age N/A 21-29 35-39 35-39 40-44 40-44 45-49 40-44

* the discrepancy is found in the NHTSA document and may be due to passengers in addition to operators.

Two key things to note: 1) riding at 0.08 is the legal limit–iow, someone riding at 0.08–but not above–is at the legal limit. And it means that anyone with less than that is riding at the legal limit.  We do not know how many of the at-or-above fatalities were at the legal limit–and while it’s stupid and a tragedy to die while riding after drinking, it’s not a crime.

The second fact: since at least 1997, the significant majority have died sober (and helmeted) or really inebriated (and helmeted). By far the smallest number have died slightly under the influence–and that may be very significant. Why is there this huge gap between those who drink a little and those who drink a lot and their fatality rates? Does this mean that there’s a hard core of riders who simply drink a whole lot and another group that doesn’t drink much (if they’re riding)? We don’t know–but there’s a huge gap in the stats and no one has bothered to find out why.

Who are the slightly-inebriated riders and what age were they? Were the slightly inebriated riding at the same times as the colossally inebriated? Do those who ride slightly inebriated have different attitudes about riding, safety and drinking than those who ride really drunk or is it just chance that they weren’t that drunk that night? While experts have developed a profile of the drunk rider, they have no necessarily asked the right questions–and unless we have the right information, we cannot solve the puzzle.

When we look at the age ranges of who is dying drunk on a bike it may be helpful to refer to generations and the passage of time. The age group that had the most fatalities in 1987 were 41-49 years old in 2007. And that age cohort were still experiencing the most illegal-intoxication fatalities just as they were in the 80s.

In part this is the Boomer effect—there’s simply so many more of that generation riding that more of them die after riding and drinking. But does this indicate that drinking and riding is a generational thing? An attitude towards both drinking and risk assessment? A clue to our puzzle might be found in driver behavior.

In 1993 (first year available), 54 percent of drivers[iii] in fatal BAC-involved crashes had a BAC over the legal limit (0.10) and the age cohort that accounted for the most fatalities were drivers 21-34 years-old. Those in that age cohort would be 36-49 years-old today.

In 2008, 68 percent of drivers in fatal crashes had a BAC ≥ 0.08 and the age groups most highly represented were 21-24 (34%) and 25-34 (31%) followed by 35-44 (25%).

While the cohort that was riding after drinking is still represented (the third highest group), it appears BAC-involvement is an age thing rather than a generational thing when it comes to driving.

Otoh, when it comes to motorcyclists, we see that the majority of those that drink, ride and die are in the age cohort of the majority of riders. It would require further study to see if the Boomers have generational attitudes towards drinking and operating motor vehicles that differ from younger riders or whether the statistics merely represent a function of the numbers. Or it could indicate that younger generations have been influenced by a societal message about drinking and operating a motor vehicle in a way that older generations haven’t.

Research has found that BAC-involved crashes do fit a profile. For example, Ouellet, Hurt and Thom (1987) found that “Motorcycle riders who drank were more prone to operator error, to simply run off the road, to crash at higher speeds and less likely to have worn a helmet, hence more likely to be fatally injured than nondrinking motorcyclists.”[iv]

However, not all research has found that BAC-involved fatalities were more likely to be unhelmeted—and, as we see in the above chart, even though fewer states have universal helmet laws, the majority of BAC-involved rider fatalities were helmeted.

Further research[v] found that drinking riders are more likely to be in single-vehicle crashes and particularly on a curve than non-drinking riders. BAC-involved riders also were far more likely to fall on the road or run off the roadway in absence of threat from any other vehicle than non-drinkers.” Loss of control was strongly associated with BAC riding (32% versus 13%) resulting in running off the roadway or braking errors. Drinking riders were twice as likely to run a red light.

Ninety percent of those who had been unattentive or daydreaming before the crash were BAC-involved. Rider error as the sole causal factor was found in 86% of the drinking-involved crashes while only found in 51% of the non-drinker’s crashes.

The latest published research[vi] found that fewer motorcyclists than drivers were impaired (55% of drivers, 48% of riders) in that study. However, it also found that, unlike drivers, motorcycle operators are more likely to be inebriated than their passengers. What the study doesn’t point out is that, unless the pillion knows how to operate a motorcycle with a (drunk) passenger, the passenger cannot insist on driving home.

Another possibility for the much older age of the inebriated rider is that older drunk drivers are more capable of staying out of fatal crashes than older drunk motorcyclists.

Which there is some evidence to support. Subsequent research has found that motorcyclists with a BAC of as low as 0.04 are as impaired as drivers are at 0.08.[vii] And, for those who are not used to drinking, even a BAC of 0.02 can be too high to safely operate a motorcycle. However, the legal limit for riders and drivers is the same even though there’s a vast difference in the normal safety features of both kinds of vehicles. What might be more effective in driving down intoxicated riding, then, is lowering motorcyclists’ BAC to 0.04–a limit truck drivers have–and applying the same kind of penalties that truck drivers face.

Or it could be that the higher incidence of BAC-involved motorcyclist fatalities has far more to do with the difference between cars and motorcycles. In the past twenty-some years increased passenger vehicle safety features have saved more lives even though crashes have increased. And those safety features do the same job of saving drunk drivers as they do sober ones. In comparison, motorcycles are more vulnerable whether their riders drunk or sober–and more vulnerable still when their operators are intoxicated. Researchers are oblivious that at least part of the difference in BAC-involved fatalities between motorists and riders has just as much to do with increased car safety features than it has to do with those reckless riders who drink and ride. But then that doesn’t fit the story that society–and safety experts–like to tell about motorcyclists.

Many programs have been launched in the past 20 years to try to reduce riding after drinking—and, like with training, little to no evaluation of their effectiveness has been done. Meanwhile, the percentage of fatalities has fallen.

But the truth is: for several years now, the rate of highly inebriated rider fatalities has stayed stubbornly the same–lower than in the eighties but still far too high. Since it does seem to be a generational thing, is it that this group is simply unteachable, unable to accept that they aren’t as invincible as they think they are? Will this only significantly drop when the majority of Boomers stop riding? Only time will tell.

And the truth is: the ratio of unhelmeted v. helmeted inebriated riders has stayed as consistent as–well, as the ratio of helmeted and unhelmeted fatalities. If drunken riding is a generational thing, is riding without a helmet too? And there is at least anecdotal evidence (since no one has bothered to do the helmet research to find out) that younger riders who eschew the cruiser lifestyle choose to ride helmets. Just as we saw that there was an age core–rather than a generational one–of those who ride and die improperly licensed–is there a drunk core and unhelmeted core associated with a particular generation and will simply by time passing work itself out of the motorcycle safety puzzle?

As a motorcycle safety puzzle piece, then, we see that more riders are dying not only stone-cold sober but helmeted—that, in part, can be explained by more riders dying during the daytime rather than at night (when the majority of all road-user BAC-involved fatalities occur). Even so, it appears that fewer riders are drinking and riding now than in the past.

A review of all the studies done on rider training (to be discussed in the next entries) reveals that some found a slight effect on both helmet-wearing and riding sober among rider training graduates. However, the studies were unable to determine whether these were a result of the course or more safety-minded people take the course and thus adopt other safety-minded behaviors.

Even so, there has been a change—for whatever reason, fewer riders are dying are dying inebriated and fewer are dying inebriated and unhelmeted and fewer are dying unlicensed and unlicensed-unhelmeted-and-drunk.  While that’s good–it just means that more are dying licensed, sober and helmeted–so clearly the story the experts and media love to tell isn’t the full story.

But all that means, unfortunately, is that drunk riding is a problem, but it isn’t the problem—and more riders are dying sober. licensed and helmeted—and that’s still a mystery why.


[i] On the Safe Side, Safe Cycling, summer 1989.

[ii] NHTSA 2007 Traffic Safety Facts (DOT HS 810 990).

[iii] The Traffic Safety Fact reports on alcohol-involvement do not state but imply that all vehicle operators (as well as passengers) are included in the BAC data—meaning motorcyclists are included.

[iv] Ouellet James V., Hugh H. Hurt, Jr and David R. Thom. Alcohol Involvement in Motorcycle Accidents. 1987.

[v] Kasantikula, Vira and James V. Ouelletb, Terry Smithb, Jetn Sirathranontc, Viratt Panichabhongsed. The role of alcohol in Thailand motorcycle crashes. Accident Analysis and Prevention 37 (2005) 357–366.

[vi] Elliott, a,d Simon and Helen Woolacott b,d, Robin Braithwaite c,d. The prevalence of drugs and alcohol found in road traffic fatalities: A comparative study of victims. Science and Justice 49 (2009) 19–23.

[vii] See for example, Sun, Stephen W.,  David M. Kahn and Kenneth G. Swan. Lowering The Legal Blood Alcohol Level For Motorcyclists. Accid. Anal. and Prev., Vol. 30, No. 1, pp. 133-136, 1998.; Colburn, N., Meyer, R. D., Wrigley, M., et al. (1993). Should motorcycles be operated within the legal alcohol limits for automobiles. Journal of Trauma 35, 183- 186.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Culture, History, Motorcycle crashes, Motorcycle fatalities, Motorcycle helmet use, Motorcycle injuries

2 Comments on “The Ride Sober motorcycle safety piece”

  1. Jeff Brenton Says:

    However, the studies were unable to determine whether these were a result of the course or more safety-minded people take the course and thus adopt other safety-minded behaviors.

    Showing my prejudices here, but… I think that voluntarily taking training, as opposed to taking required training, is a strong factor in safety. It certainly is in aviation (at least the FAA and NTSB think so), and defensive driving instructors tell me they see it in the students who voluntarily attend DD classes vs. those who arrive with a court order in their hands, so why not in motorcycling?

    But, again, it is one of those hard-to-measure attributes. None of the paperwork I submit to the state differentiates between people who came to class because they wanted to vs. those who saw it as a way to avoid taking the test at the Secretary of State’s Drivers License office. And motorcycling has no ongoing training requirements, even in states where initial training is required to obtain the license.

    Don’t you just hate having a hypothesis that is nearly impossible to test?

  2. wmoon Says:

    Jeff.
    Yes.
    W.


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