Re-examining the motorcycle safety puzzle: crashes, fatalities and injuries

We’ve been looking at the pieces of the motorcycle safety puzzle in the past several entries. Now we’re going to get a snapshot of what been happening on the roads to put the dismal safety picture into perspective.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), motorcycle registrations increased 84 percent from 1998-2007[i] At the same time, both injuries and fatalities also increased. In the early 2000’s NHTSA explained this as merely a function of the numbers: the more motorcycles on the road, the more crashes there will be. Given the way of the world, it would not be unreasonable (however regrettable) if injuries and fatalities rose in proportion to the increase of motorcycles—or an 84% increase. And that’s what it seemed to be until mid-decade–simply having more motorcycles in traffic meant more crashing. But then it became clear this was not simply a function of the numbers:

Crashing increased 48.8% more than motorcycle registrations did in the same time span

Change From1998-2007
Registrations +84
Fatalities +125
Injuries +110
SVA fatalities +121
MVA fatalities +142
SVA injuries +108
MVA injuries +112

By 2007, injured motorcyclists were up 110 percent[ii] while fatalities increased more than 125 percent.   That meant fatalities were almost half (48.8%) and injuries were (30.9%) higher than what could be reasonably expected.  As NHTSA pointed out by the latter years of this decade, these increases cannot be explained simply by increased motorcycle sales/registrations.

NHTSA tracks three kinds of crashes: fatality, injury and crashes where only the vehicles are damaged. The rates of crashes are determined by vehicle miles traveled—a very dubious method when it comes to motorcycles and per 100,000 vehicle registrations. The latter method adjusts for increases or decreases in the kinds of road users.

Motorcycle registration is also a less than perfect system to determine anything about riders since a great many riders own more than one. The Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC) uses a formula: 1.5 motorcycle per actual rider. However, the per 100,000 registrations has been a traditional way of providing context and so it can reveal trends. But as you read, remember that the rates are actually much higher–but then they were higher pre-1998 too.

Motorcycle Crashes by Crash Severity and  Involvement Rate per 100,000  Registered Vehicles[iii]
1998 2007
MC Fatalities 60.11


(23.65% increase)

MC Injuries 1,148


(16.44% increase)

MC Property-Damage Only 222


(20.14% increase)

If we look at the involvement rate per 100,000 registered motorcycles by crash severity we see the rate of all three kinds of crashes increased.

Both fatal and property-only crashes increased a similar amount. When it comes to injury crashes, though, there’s a 3.97 difference in the rate of increase between injuries and fatalities and a 5.54 percent difference between injury and property-damage crashes. Iow, fewer crashes are ending with an injury-free walkaway. And more are ending in death.

So the most lethal and least lethal kinds of crashing had a greater increase than injuries.[iv] But the numbers (and rate) of fatalities forms a pyramid: they are the tiny tip, property-only is the small middle and injuries form the vast bottom of the pyramid. Iow, there is no safe crashing because even safe crashing almost always ends in injury. The questions are: Why have fatalities increased so much more than injuries? And why have fatalities and injuries increased so much more than motorcycle registrations? Those are puzzles that need to be solved.

Has the pattern of crashing changed?

From 1998-2007, the proportion of single vehicle accidents (SVA) and multiple vehicle accidents (MVA) remained about the same and account for about the same percentage of fatalities (SVA 46%, MVA 56%) as they have for far more than ten years. When it comes to injuries, though, SVAs and MVAs have been almost exactly 50-50—and that was the proportion before 1998.

The percentage of frontal and side impacts have remained the same as well. When it comes to the kind of crashes nothing has changed.

Iow, crashing increased across all three kinds of crash outcomes in the same patterns it had prior to the motorcycle boom. This suggests that the influx of new riders and returning riders—and the large contingent of 40 and older riders—did not result in a bulge (or bubble) of a certain kind of crash. Rather, those riders appear to be absorbed into the existing crash pattern riders did in earlier years.

However, in that time frame:

SVA fatalities increased 121 percent and MVA fatalities increased by 142. The SVA fatalities are in line with the overall 125 percent increase in fatalities (which is 48.8 percent higher than reasonably expected). However, MVA fatalities are over-represented.

SVA injuries increased 108 percent and MVA injuries increased 112 percent–iow, it’s the fatalities–the tiny tip of the iceberg–where the real problem lies.

Multiple studies have shown that MVAs result in more injuries and more severe injuries than SVAs—but that’s always been true. Iow, crash for crash, riders are hurt worse in MVAs over the last ten years and that’s one of the reasons why there’s a difference between SVA rates and MVA rates–because there’s more MVAs than SVAs.

Fatalities v. Injuries

Let’s look more closely at the 15 percent difference between the increase in injury and fatal crashes.

Fatalities are injuries to the max. Survival or death depends to a great degree on the kind of injur(ies), the number of them and/or their severity. And those are usually determined by crash configurations and what the rider hits (and  to a degree where the crash occurs as emergency medical response and access to a Trauma 1 hospital can affect survivability).

The 15 percent difference between the overall increase between injuries and fatalities first of all suggests more serious injuries—thus resulting in fatalities instead of “just” injuries occurred more frequently—and thus more severe crash configurations happened more often.

However, it also suggests that MVA crashes in particular in the past ten years became more lethal than in previous years. Since the differences in fatality v. injury rate increases and between the rate of increase in SVA fatalities and MVA increases are among the only things that have changed, they are of special interest and deserve a closer look by researchers.

This suggests that perhaps crashes that would’ve ended in injury in the past now end in death for both SVAs and MVAs. This is particularly troubling since emergency response time in both urban and rural areas has improved over this same time span and so have medical procedures—iow, medicine is capable of saving more riders today than in 1998 yet less riders can be saved.

Additionally, although training has exploded over the past decade and helmet use has gone up since 2005 (though, as we’ll see in the next entry, that’s not a wholly positive benefit), speeding-related crashes have not significantly changed and BAC-involvement has gone down.

Yet crashing itself has gotten more deadly.

It suggests, then, that there are other factors that are driving the death and injury toll—only we don’t know what they are because–in part because the motorcycle industry has, behind the scenes, done everything in its power to prevent the new crash causation study from being done.

The motorcycle safety puzzle pieces have not solved the problem—and we see once again we are in critical need of more information on all levels.

[i] Motorcyclists Injured in Motor Vehicle Traffic Crashes (2009 )  DOT HS 811 149

[ii] ibid.

[iii] Table 3.

[iv] Which still can mean permanently disabling injuries including complete paralysis or lifelong head injuries.

Explore posts in the same categories: Motorcycle crashes, Motorcycle fatalities, Motorcycle injuries, Motorcycle Safety, Uncategorized

23 Comments on “Re-examining the motorcycle safety puzzle: crashes, fatalities and injuries”

  1. Mark Weiss Says:

    Speed limits are up. In some locales, considerably so. Adding 10 mph to a crash tremendously increases the energy to be dissipated, easily converting a survivable crash into a fatality.

    75 mph highways, 45 mph business areas, it all catches up eventually.

  2. Big Wayne Says:

    ——— the massive influx of killer suv’s and cell-phones . . .

  3. wmoon Says:

    Mark, A couple things for you to consider: The 55 mph speed limit began in 1974 and was repealed in 1995 and many states had already changed it by then. Fatalities and injuries plateaued in 1985 and began dropping in 1986 until 1997–if highway speeds were really a factor, it would’ve shown up in the mid-90s. Second, oddly enough, highways are the safest places for motorcyclists–the most dangerous places for riders are metropolitan areas (urban/suburban) where the speed limits are lower.

    Also, NHTSA reports that the percentage of speed-related fatalities haven’t changed during this time.

    And there’s a huge difference between 75 and 45–Personally, I wouldn’t put them together like they’re equal. And remember, it’s not the speed that does the damage, it’s the delta force–and the damage the rider sustains ejecting from the bike what the rider hits afterward.

    So, more thoughts–come on, people, let’s put our thinking caps on. God knows NHTSA, MSF and those in charge of state-run programs other than Oregon and Idaho sure aren’t putting any thought or effort into understanding what’s going on.

  4. wmoon Says:

    Big Wayne I agree that light truck vehicles (pickups, vans, suvs) have made a huge difference. Feeling frisky tonight so I’m giving in to my evil twin and saying,” Big Wayne, cell phones don’t kill riders. Idiots talking on cell phones kill riders.” : )

  5. gymnast Says:

    I would consider the ever increasing power to weight ratios of all categories of motorcycles sold year over year as well as more after purchase modifications that further increase the power to weight ratios of the machines as being one factor among the many that are contributing to motorcycles crashing, and the possibility of faster crashes in terms of mean average speed and rate of acceleration. High performance machines tend to be far more demanding in terms of skills and proper rider attitudes toward their use. The casual use of motorcycles with very high performance capabilities and the advertising programs used by the manufacturers of these machines to sell them seem to “encourage” high risk behaviors.

    In any case, these are just a couple of factors among many that may have contributed to the disparate increase in crashes injuries and fatalities.

  6. wmoon Says:

    Gymnast–you mean like this: or this one: this one:

    The idea has some merit but there’s a lot to consider here given that IIHS’s report was so incredibly flawed on sportbikes. Go farther in explaining how it would increase fatalities and have such a little effect on property-only (as in the video) but not so much injuries. It would seem more logical that if it’s the high-performance ptw and handling, we’d see an enormous rise in injuries as opposed to fatalities. Gymnast and others chime in here–what do you all think? What would be happening that it would result in a higher increase in the rate of fatalities but not injuries in terms of ptw and handling?

  7. DataDan Says:

    I haven’t had a chance to look into all of the interesting suggestions you made in that post, but I did look at deaths vs. non-fatal injuries.

    One reason fatal injuries have increased as a percentage of all injuries in the past 15 years is helmet law repeal, particulary in FL, TX, and PA. Those are the #2, 3, and 4 states in motorcycle registrations, so a change that affects them can have a noticeable impact on US data.

    Interestingly, the overall impact of helmet law repeal is NOT what many would expect. Looking at the combined effect on the six states that have repealed all-rider helmet laws since 1997, fatality rate per registered bike has NOT changed much in comparison to the other 44 states, which have also seen rate increases.

    However, in FL, one state for which abundant data is available, I investigated in greater detail. Fatal injuries as a percentage of all injuries increased sharply after the 2000 repeal. They jumped from 3.8% to 4.8% in one year, and have been as high as 6% in subsequent years.

    That’s not the whole story, though. I compared FL to CA (which has had an all-rider law since 1992) and found that in the past 15 years CA too has seen an increase in fatal injuries as a percentage of all injuries. The difference in CA is that the increase has been gradual. While the two states started out similarly in 1994 at 2.8% (CA) and 3.3% (FL), CA rose to 4.0% in ’07 as FL reached 5.9%.

    I’m generalizing beyond what the data supports, so call this speculation: SOMETHING has increased deaths as a percentage of all injuries, even in helmet-law states (that could even be due to reduction of non-fatal injuries thanks to growing use of protective gear). But on top of that, helmet law repeal has amplified the effect as injuries that might have been prevented or reduced became fatal without a helmet.

  8. Dave B Says:

    Interesting that us “non-experts” are looking into this data and the “experts” aren’t. The bigger question is if we discover what’s causing this dramatic increase, is it correctable, or will anyone do something to correct it, or do we want something done to correct it?

    The message from the safety experts is get trained, get licensed, wear a helmet and don’t drink & ride. If these aren’t working, what’s the answer? Ban motorcycles? Maybe that’s why everybody’s keeping this under the rug.

  9. wmoon Says:

    Data Dan: I love it when readers have evidence in addition to thoughts. I would like to point out that Florida is a bit of a special case (as is NH, SC and SD in particular) because of bike week/rallies. Suddenly the state has hundreds of thousands of riders in it for at least a week–this increases the available pool of potential crashes simply by the rules of exposure–function of the numbers and all. However, it doesn’t always result in a great many more deaths. But the law of small numbers producing big percentages kicks in and can make a significant difference if not accounted for.

    For example, both Bike Week and Biketober fest happen in Daytona: one in the spring, the other in the fall. Daytona usually brings in about half a million riders–which increases exposure merely by numbers as opposed to miles. In 2000, Daytona Bike Week claimed 15–the deadliest year since 1991 (11 in Daytona itself and 4 in surrounding counties). In 1999, only 5 died. I’m going to round here: Iow, 3x more fatalities occurred during Bike Week in 2000 than 1999–and those 10 deaths were 5.8% of the entire year’s total compared to 1999’s 2.8% of the total. At first glance, it appears–oh, look at what the repeal did!

    But Bike Week is in March and the helmet law repeal wasn’t effective until July 1. Iow, those additional 10 additional deaths had nothing to do with the helmet law repeal but because of the year they happened make it appear the higher death toll was repeal-related. In 2001, when hundreds of thousands of riders could all be lidless if they wanted only 6 deaths occurred during Bike Week. ’01 then was more like ’99. 2006 had 22 deaths–but ’04 and ’05 had 5 each and ’07 had 8. And those are just counting the fatalities in and around Daytona and excludes riders traveling to or from Daytona from farther way. Iow, when figuring out the effect of a repeal, we have to consider other factors–did you account for the increase in motorcycle registrations from 1999 through the first years of the repeal and then adjust for that?

    To know what effect the repeal had, we’d have to know how many riders had died before July 1–and, given how things work in all states, a lot of them die in the spring to early summer–and would have to be excluded or accounted for or adjusted for to reveal what injury/fatality effect the helmet repeal had that year. Which is not to say it didn’t have an effect.

    But do check out this .pdf link ( and go to page 12 and you’ll see the problem with studies that use FL to prove the effect of helmet law repeals–the darn thing looks like a slalom course–there’s a striking (pun intended) pattern. And because of that, any examination of 2000 would have to take that pattern into account. The jump you mention, then can be what appears to be natural to FL.

    Reading your last paragraph, I’m chuckling. I think you’ll enjoy reading the next entry…

  10. wmoon Says:

    It requires a paradigm shift. Looking at things from outside the box.

  11. DataDan Says:

    Wendy: As to the specific issue raised in your post–Why have fatal injuries increased more than non-fatal injuries?–all I did was collect the count of injuries and deaths from 1994 to 2008 from Florida’s Traffic Crash Facts reports (, click on Traffic Crash Facts for a list of PDF downloads). Exposure in terms of registrations doesn’t enter into it. I just divided deaths by all injuries.

    I’m looking forward to your post on helmet effects. With helmet law repeal, all is not as it seems (to quote David Lynch’s Twin Peaks).

  12. Young Dai Says:

    This is the latest summary report about motorcycling trends, use and KSI stats in the UK complied by the Institute of Advanced Motorists

    I am sorry I couldn’t find the link to the full report mentioned in the sumamary.

    While they are using it as a hook to hang a sales pitch for the Roadcraft system to riders, they are not linked to any industry body, so probably are not as veneal as MSF

  13. wmoon Says:

    Actually, DataDan, registrations do matter–if registrations are going up 10% every year, for example, then an increase in injuries and fatalities up 10% isn’t unreasonable. So the question is–does matter as it indicates that something out of the ordinary is going on. And that slalom pattern is incredible–I’ve seen that in no other state and I’m wondering if we actually are seeing Bike Week/Biketober Fest…

    Yes, I think you will enjoy sinking your very fine intellectual teeth into it–as will the other fine minds that read the blog.

  14. Dave Says:

    One mite all so look at what was happening in pop culture in this time frame.
    We saw bad boy bike builders and the so called biker life style raised to rock star status .

    Combine this mind set with high power to weight bikes and riders pushing right up to there skill level
    Or more often than not there perceived skill level. This could be a contributing factor .

  15. Dave Says:

    Oh and I forgot to add that be for and during the time frame 1998 to 2007 the major manufactures
    Marketing campaign has been and still is bigger is all ways better at lest to there bottom line.

    And one has claimed for years now that a 500cc is a good training bike only because it doesn’t’ build anything smaller.

    What would help is to replace the risk taking mind set with risk management.

    But this is will be hard do to the fact we will be dealing with a very tricky thing called human nature .
    ( Pogo we have met the enemy and he is us)

  16. wmoon Says:

    Dave, I agree but free enterprise/free market principles dictate that corporations will (and, legally, must do) what is best for their bottom line. Marketing risk in terms of racing/speed/power has been part of motorcycling since racing began and is very good for that bottom line. And racing is part of the research and design element for mc manufacturers. So it didn’t begin in 1998 though it certainly seems it’s been ramped up–in part, I believe, because of Speedvision and other televised shows (OC mcs and other custom chopper shows, more mc races shown on other channels, etc.) and the explosion of the Internet that ushered in youtube, and sooooo many web pages that glorify speed, risk, etc.

    What I cannot understand is how rational people cannot seem to grasp that it’s ridiculous–and dangerous–to leave the standards and means of training/licensing in the hands of those who profit from people being willing to take on risks they cannot manage.

  17. Dave Says:

    Seeing that’s not going to change any time soon.
    The only thing we have left is rider to rider grass roots support to get the word out.

    Ride your own ride don’t’ buy the hype.
    Riding is serious fun but it is all so serious business.

  18. Dave B Says:

    What I cannot understand is how rational people cannot seem to grasp that it’s ridiculous–and dangerous–to leave the standards and means of training/licensing in the hands of those who profit from people being willing to take on risks they cannot manage.

    What was that Star Trek episode….where the inhabitants of the planet walked around praising Landau….

  19. wmoon Says:

    LOL! You would have to refer to Star Trek wouldn’t you? : )

  20. Mark Weiss Says:

    Here in Arizona we’ve only raised the interstate limit to 75 recently. Things were pretty stable at 65 for quite a while. While I have no clear link with motorcycle crashes for the change from 65 to 75, our increase in rollover crashes jumped dramatically (about 20%) when the limit went up. Surprisingly, the increase in rollovers did not come on the 75 mph stretches, but on the 65 mph stretches (where drivers decided on their own to speed up). The much hated (and well publicized) influx of Arizona’s speed cameras has had a beneficial effect on this problem (DPS reported last year). Especially on a particular stretch of AZ 101 in Scottsdale.

    I should have added more detail to my inclusion of 45 mph retail area speeds. While not connected to interstate crashes, it is a speed increase. In many Phoenix Metro retail areas, we now have 45 mph speed limits (up from 35 as recommended in Az statute). These are areas with shopping malls, fast-food restaurants and gas stations. Mostly on four and six lane roads. The increase from 35 to 45, and the corresponding increase in energy, is the problem.


  21. wmoon Says:

    Mark, when you refer to rollovers increasing–what kind of vehicles are you talking about and I’m not clear on what you mean about the 65 mph and “the drivers decided on their own to speed up)–could you please clarify?

    And it’s not as simple as increase in speed. It’s the delta that matters the most. See this video of a freeway crash at high speed–the rider is hurt but not badly (as he’s arrested rather than put in an ambulance. And that delta will be larger in a crash on the kind of suburban streets you’re talking about offer more hard objects moving at much different speed (or not moving at all) from vehicles to poles, signs, etc. for rider to hit and hundreds of more crash-opportunities–tons of intersections (both signalized and not), “suicide lanes”, entrance/exits to parking lots and alleys in an incredibly attention-sapping environment–multi-lanes, signs, diverse motor traffic, etc. etc. I don’t think it’s fair to attribute it to speed v. a combination of factors such as those and the cell-phone distracted.

  22. Mark Weiss Says:


    I never meant to imply that increased speed alone was responsible for increased fatalities, it’s just another component of increased risk. Speed, in of itself is not terribly risky, it’s the likelihood of a sudden stop that creates the problem.

    The reference to drivers on 65 mph state highways is this. The Interstate speed limits went up in many areas. In short order, observed average speed went up on all other highways.

  23. wmoon Says:

    Mark, we agree that speed is a factor. But it’s one that is tracked by NHTSA and hasn’t been seen as a critical factor in itself in driving up the death toll (except, of course the highly flawed report by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety and then only in terms of sport bikes and not street, cruisers or tourers). Observed speed is on an average of 10 mph over the limit on almost all roads. But it’s been that way for a long time. Nor has there been, nationally, a significant change in fatalities on urban or rural or interestate highways or arterials or surface streets. If you find out there was a shift in the direction of speed-related fatalities in AZ, please share the link so we can examine it, too.

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