A recent article in Forbes magazine points out that motorcycle fatalities continue to climb.  And the article’s author seems to be pointing the finger directly at motorcycle manufacturers.  But are the manufacturers really the cause of the increase?

The article’s author, Steve Tengler makes some “interesting” points about the increase in motorcycle fatalities.  According to him, during the period 2009 to 2018, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data shows that the number of motorcycle fatalities has risen.  In 2009, there were 21.46 motorcycle fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles driven (100M VMT).  But in the period 2015 to 2018, 100M VMT increases some 15 – 21% higher.

The motorcycle fatality rate is trending upwards as sales continue to increase.  Image:
 KUGLER MAAG CIE

Compared to the automobile fatality rate of 1.11 fatalities per 100M VMT, Tengler says that a motorcycle rider’s risk is approximately twenty-two times that of a car or compact truck.  On their face, numbers like this can be alarming.  But they are not really unknown to those who ride motorcycles.  We understand there is increased risk.   But what the aforementioned statistics do not address is the cause of the fatalities and why the risk is apparently increasing.

fatalities

According to NHTSA, ” Fatalities among motorcyclists, as a percentage of total fatalities, decreased in most months from March to September (as above). However, the total projected motorcyclist fatalities increased by 9 percent from 2019 to 2020.”

What’s causing the increase?

Tengler’s article questions what is causing the increasing fatalities.  And he asks the reader why there has been an improvement in automobile safety while motorcycle safety “degrades”.

  • Is it increased traffic speed?
  • Is it due to technological advances that are possible with 4-wheeled vehicles like Electronic Stability Control (ESC) that cannot be achieved with 2-wheelers?
  • Are more extreme weather conditions contributing to the problem?
  • Is it due to differences in engineering rigor between the motorcycle and car companies?

As additional information he provides the following statistics:

  • Approximately 2/3rds of motorcycle accidents are caused by another vehicle violating the motorcycle’s right-of-way with intersections being the most likely location.
  • The average speed of a motorcycle pre-accident is 29.8 mph and 21.5 mph at impact
  • 98% of motorcycle accidents do not have weather as a contributing factor.
  • 62% of motorcycle accidents had fuel system leaks or spills in post-crash, which creates an unusually high risk of fire not typically present in other types of motor vehicle accidents.  (Note: the article does not point out how many fires or even a percentage of fires actually occurred as a result of a spill).

Again, much of this data is pretty well known to many motorcyclists.  Although I’ll admit that I’d never read anything about average “pre-impact” and impact speeds.  Still, as they say, “There’s nothing to see here, move along, move along”.

Motorcycle manufacturer responsibility

But this is where things get interesting.  The article next examines the “prevalence” of motorcycle manufacturer recall actions.  For example, the author points at Yamaha saying the triple tuning fork company had a record 49 recalls in the last decade and effectively recalled 32% of its 2020 model year.  If true, that would be quite startling wouldn’t it?

Well, it might be if the percentage he quotes is correct.  But how he derives the percentage of 2020 model year bike recalls is not clear.  Hmm…

In addition, particularly in Yamaha’s case, the total number of recalls is not a good indicator of the number of motorcycles actually recalled.  According to the Visor Down article which Tengler uses as the basis of his calculations, Yamaha had several recalls which affect a small number of motorcycles.  So just because there are more recalls doesn’t mean that there are more defective Yamaha motorcycles than other companies’ bikes.  According to the Visor Down article that Tengler quotes:

 Yamaha’s spot at the head of the list came as something of a surprise, but looking through the recalls the firm has issued over the last 10 years it seems that Yamaha has often recalled very small numbers of bikes. That suggests it tends to react fast to stem problems before they turn into bigger issues.

So that means more recalls but of a small number of bikes.  Hmm again.  I wonder why that part didn’t make it into the article?

Report to Congress

Even more interesting, Tengler’s article cites a 2021 report prepared for Congress.   The report highlights NTSB recommendations for several types of vehicles.  He then lists three of the recommendations that have not been acted upon by NHTSA or Congress:

  •  Requiring motorcycles to meet performance standards for passenger vehicle crash
    warning systems;
  • Mandating that new motorcycles manufactured for on-road use come equipped
    with antilock braking systems; and
  • Developing standards for stability control systems for on-road motorcycles

Tengler then quickly jumps on these recommendations.  Without providing any supporting data,  he suggests that the lack of these systems is why there has been an increase in motorcycle fatalities.  To quote Tengler:

Will these reports and political pressure inspire a greater culture of safety? Will it create the need for more safety-related systems and associated assessments?  Will it change engineering’s way of working?

Or the most important question: “When will consumers say enough is enough?”

Missing information

But what Tengler fails to acknowledge is that prior to citing these recommendations, the same report says that in 2018, the NTSB found that 90% of crashes it analyzed were due primarily to human error.  To quote the report:

While NTSB reported in 2018 that more than 90% of crashes it analyzed were due primarily to human error (emphasis added), it has urged NHTSA to address the design of motorcycles, including:

  • Requiring motorcycles to meet performance standards for passenger vehicle crash warning systems;
  • Mandating that new motorcycles manufactured for on-road use come equipped with antilock braking systems; and
  • Developing standards for stability control systems for on-road motorcycles .

From my perspective, citing the number of motorcycle manufacturer recalls and safety systems available in automobiles is a red herring.  These things are not a true indicator of why motorcycle deaths are rising.  An old friend of mine had a saying that I’ll repeat here.  “That’s interesting but irrelevant.”

Are automobiles and cars the same?

Motorcycles are not automobiles.  The fact that they can be used for transportation is probably the closest comparison you can make.  If all motorcycles are equipped with crash warning systems, ABS (many already are), and a stability control system, none of them will stop an automobile driver from turning left in front of a motorcyclist.

Interestingly, ABS has been on many motorcycles for several years.  Still, motorcyclist fatalities continue to rise.  So will the additional systems listed above make a dent in the death counts?  In my opinion, it’s questionable.  Wouldn’t we be better off addressing why the crashes occur instead of trying to build a system to mitigate the potential for crashes?

Shouldn’t we expend the time and resources to address the human errors that cause 90% of all motorcycle crashes?  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t examine safety technology, but it’s articles like these that cause an uninformed public to pressure legislators to “do something”.

For me, doing “something” isn’t enough.  Thoroughly examining the problem, determining the best solution, and directly addressing the key issues are more important than just doing “something”.

What do you think?  Let us know in the comments below.

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