Last month the Governors Highway Safety Administration (GHSA) published a report utilizing preliminary motorcycle crash data for 2015. The report predicts a 10% increase in motorcycle fatalities nationwide for 2015 (http://www.ghsa.org/files/pubs/spotlights/motorcycles_2015.pdf). According to the report, thirty-one states saw motorcycle fatalities increase while only sixteen saw a decrease.
Unsurprisingly, the GHSA report did not merely provide facts. It advocated a position that motorcycling is becoming increasingly dangerous, and that states need to implement restrictions on risky behavior responsible for the rise in motorcycle fatalities. Specifically, the GHSA report draws a correlation between the rise in motorcycle fatalities and the failure of all states to implement a universal helmet law.
Let me be clear. The purpose of this article is not to advocate riding without a helmet or to question the effectiveness of motorcycle helmets. I will leave each reader to reach their own conclusions on that topic. My purpose is to question the accuracy of the correlations that the GHSA draws in explaining the rise in motorcycle fatalities.
While motorcycle fatalities did increase, traffic fatalities as a whole are predicted to be up 10% for 2015. (http://www.ghsa.org/html/media/pressreleases/2016/20160524uber.html). This would suggest that the rise in fatalities in 2015 is not unique to motorcyclists. It does not mean that the rise is linked to risky behavioral traits shared by many motorcyclists. It would seem the rise in motorcycle fatalities in 2015 is part of an overall trend affecting all motorists.
Further, the report fails to provide data supporting it’s correlation between the rise in motorcycle fatalities and the lack of universal helmet laws. Currently, nineteen states have a universal helmet law in place. Thirty-one do not. Of the nineteen states that currently have a universal helmet law, twelve experienced an increase in motorcycle fatalities in 2015. Of the sixteen states that saw a decrease in motorcycle fatalities, only six have a universal helmet law. The other ten either allow adults to make their own choice or have no law at all.
The report also points out that Michigan saw an increase in motorcycle fatalities in 2015. It suggests that the increase is due to the state’s modification of its helmet law in 2012, which allowed adult riders to choose whether or not to wear a helmet. However, the report fails to explain the 18.8% decrease in motorcycle fatalities between 2013 and 2014. (http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/departments/nrd-30/ncsa/STSI/26_MI/2014/26_MI_2014.htm)
Compare this report to past GHSA reports which showed decreases in motorcycle fatalities. In May of 2015 the GHSA reported a drop in motorcycle fatalities for the second straight year. That report stated the following:
There is little evidence that risk factors for motorcyclists have been reduced in recent years, and fluctuations in motorcyclist fatalities are likely to have more to do with economic factors and weather patterns affecting exposure.
Then there is the following from the 2014 preliminary report which showed a 7% reduction in motorcycle fatalities:
Weather, according to the report, was the predominate factor to explain the drop in motorcyclist fatalities from 2012 to 2013.
My concern is not simply with this particular report. It is the way the mainstream views motorcycle fatalities as opposed to overall traffic fatalities. When motorcycle fatalities fluctuate upward, the motorcycling community is responsible. It is their risky behavior causing the rise. However, when fatalities decrease from one year to another, it is due to outside factors unrelated to efforts within the motorcycling community to improve motorcycle safety.
The fact is that, according to the latest figures published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), motorcycle safety has been steadily improving since 2005. Motorcycle registrations have increased by more than 35% since 2005 while fatalities per 100,000 registered motorcyclists have decreased by almost 26%. (http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/812261.pdf) Estimated motorcycle vehicle miles traveled have increased 91% since 2005. Fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled have decreased by more than 47%.
While any increase in motorcycle fatalities is unwelcomed news, this latest report should not be met with panic. There is no need for a legislative rush to the state and federal code books in order to enact more regulation. Motorcyclists are in the midst of a sustained period of improvement in motorcycle safety. Let’s continue to emphasize training, education and awareness. They are the pillars of a safety strategy which prevent the crashes that are taking too many riders from us. Since 2005 we have seen an overall improvement in both the quality and quantity of rider training available to both new and experienced riders. Now is the time to double down on what has proven to be effective.
McGrath, Danielson, Sorrell & Fuller
The Motorcycle Law Group