Putting the Recent Rise in Motorcycle Fatalities into Perspective

Our friends at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have put out their yearly report on motorcycle crashes and fatalities.  The latest report focuses on data collected for the year 2016.  According to NHTSA, motorcycle fatalities rose 5.1% between 2015 and 2016.  The report also states that 25% of those fatalities were related to alcohol impairment.  Finally, NHTSA indicates that the lack of mandatory motorcycle helmet laws nationwide is a contributing factor to the rise in motorcycle fatalities.  When you read the report, it is easy to conclude that motorcyclists have a serious safety problem on our hands, and to some degree I concur.  All motorcyclists should be concerned when we see motorcycle fatalities rise.  However, when we look at the 2016 data as a whole we get a more accurate picture. 

When we look at the overall 2016 motor vehicle crash data that NHTSA published in a separate report, we see that while motorcycle fatalities were up by 5.1% in 2016, motor vehicle fatalities as a whole rose by 5.6%.  The truth is that traffic fatalities as a whole have been on the rise for the past few years.  For some reason, either intentionally or unintentionally, NHTSA seems to publish data on motorcycle fatalities in a subtly different way than it does data on motor vehicle fatalities as a whole.  In its overview of fatal motor vehicle crashes, NHTSA reported that the 5.6% increase in motor vehicle fatalities in 2016 is lower than the 8.4% increase from 2014 to 2015.  No such language appears in NHTSA’s publication concerning motorcycle fatalities, despite the fact that the 5.1% increase in motorcycle fatalities in 2016 is lower than the 8% increase in motorcycle fatalities from 2014 to 2015.

Similarly, when we read the two NHTSA reports together, we see that fatalities due to alcohol impairment are an overall traffic safety problem, not just a motorcycle problem.  Because NHTSA issues a yearly report which focuses only on motorcycle fatalities and injuries, it is easy for people to conclude that many contributing factors are unique to motorcyclists.  In its latest report on motorcycle traffic fatalities, NHTSA claims that the 25% rise in alcohol related motorcycle fatalities is the highest percentage of any other vehicle classification.  Yet in its overview of fatal motor vehicle crashes, NHTSA reported that 28% of overall motor vehicle traffic fatalities in 2016 were due to alcohol impairment.  That represents a 5.6% increase from 2015.  From 2015 to 2016, there was only a 0.1% increase in motorcycle fatalities due to alcohol impairment.  Let’s be clear: any traffic fatality due to alcohol impairment is one too many.  That being said, alcohol impaired driving is not a problem unique to motorcyclists.     

Finally, and here is where I get in trouble with some of my readers, there is the assertion that the lack of motorcycle helmet laws nationwide is contributing to the rise in motorcycle fatalities.  I am not advocating that anyone wear or not wear a motorcycle helmet if they happen to be in one of the thirty-one states that allow adults to make their own choice on the matter; I am merely presenting NHTSA’s own data as a whole so that each reader can make up his or her own mind.  First, NHTSA fails to explain why the lack of helmet laws has had an impact on the rise in motorcycle fatalities but not on motor vehicle fatalities as a whole, which have risen at a greater rate than motorcycle fatalities.  Secondly, when we look at the motorcycle fatality rate per 100,000 registered motorcyclists between the jurisdictions that have mandatory motorcycle helmet laws and those that don’t, we see less than a 1% difference.  Finally, and perhaps most troubling, is what NHTSA considers to be a motorcycle for the purposes of the entire report on motorcycle fatalities.  The report on motorcycle fatalities includes data from crashes involving not only two and three-wheeled motorcycles, but off-road motorcycles, mopeds, scooters, mini bikes, and pocket bikes.  Data from accidents involving off-road motorcycles, mopeds, scooters, mini bikes, and pocket bikes, should not be used in any serious study of motorcycle fatalities, nor should such data be cited in any serious discussion on ways to reduce motorcycle traffic fatalities; doing so would be comparable to using data from fatalities involving four-wheelers and go-carts to formulate safety strategies for our nation’s highways.
At the end of the day, motorcycle fatalities have been up, and that is a bad thing.  We motorcyclists have the primary responsibility to reverse this troubling trend.  But it is not a trend unique to us; it is a problem shared by all motorists, and it is the responsibility of all motorists to solve the problem.  While we could debate this complex issue for years, let me offer my personal advice.  First, if you want to have a drink, leave the alcohol for after you are finished riding or driving for the day.  Secondly, slow down and pay attention to others on the road.  Put down the telephone, that message can wait.   Look less at the GPS and more at traffic around you. Missing a turn won’t run you nearly as late as plowing into the car or motorcycle in front of you.  Stop playing with that sleek touch screen that your new vehicle came with (Yes motorcyclists, I’m talking to you too).  Whether we are riding or driving, our primary responsibility is the safety of ourselves, our passengers, and each and every other motorist with whom we share the road. 

Matt Danielson
McGrath, Danielson, Sorrell & Fuller

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