GHSA: U.S. motorcycle fatalities down 7 percent in 2013

Publish Date: 
May 7, 2014
By Holly J. Wagner

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Researchers believe rider fatalities dropped 7 percent in 2013, but it probably has more to do with the weather.

The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) Spotlight on Highway Safety report is based on data for the first nine months of 2013, the latest figures available.

Dr. James Hedlund of Highway Safety North, a former senior official with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), projects the final motorcyclist fatality total for 2013 will be 4,610 – about 7 percent less than the 4,957 recorded in 2012 and nearly identical to the 4,612 motorcyclist deaths in 2011. That means motorcyclist deaths would have declined more than the total traffic fatality decrease of 3.7 percent for the first nine months of 2013, as estimated by NHTSA.

If the analysis holds, 2013 will be only the second year since 1997 in which U.S. motorcyclist fatalities decreased.

All 50 states and the District of Columbia provided preliminary motorcyclist fatality counts and analysis for the first nine months of 2013. Compared with the first nine months of 2012, motorcyclist fatalities decreased in 35 states and the District of Columbia, increased in 13 states, and remained the same in two.

Weather was the major factor, according to the report. The first six months of 2012 were unusually warm and dry across the nation, prompting an uptick in ridership. The weather in the first nine months of 2013, however, was cooler and wetter, similar to 2011, when fatalities declined in many states.

"It's heartening that motorcyclist fatalities didn't increase over the past couple of years, but they're not decreasing, either," said Kendell Poole, GHSA chairman and director of the Tennessee Office of Highway Safety. "Long-term gains in motorcyclist safety won't occur because riders are deterred by bad weather, but from consistent use of proven countermeasures."

The report points out that, in 2011, motorcycles produced six times more occupant fatalities per registered vehicle than passenger vehicles. Using that measure, passenger vehicle occupants were twice as safe in 2011 as compared to 1997. However, motorcyclist safety has not improved in that period, and some say it's due to loosening helmet laws.

"By far, helmets are the single most effective way to prevent serious injury and death in the event of a motorcycle crash. But states are going backward when it comes to enacting this proven, lifesaving countermeasure," Poole said.

Currently, only 19 states and the District of Columbia have universal helmet laws. Another 28 require helmet use by riders younger than ages 18 or 21, and three have no requirement. According to NHTSA, in 2012 there were 10 times as many unhelmeted motorcyclist fatalities in states without universal helmet laws compared to states with universal helmet laws. Nationwide, helmet use dropped to 60 percent in 2012, down from 66 percent in 2011.

In addition to increasing helmet use, the report also recommends that states take steps to:

  • Reduce alcohol impairment. In 2011, 29 percent of fatally injured riders had a blood alcohol concentration above the legal limit of .08.
  • Reduce speeding. According to the most recent data, 35 percent of riders involved in fatal crashes were speeding, and nearly half of these crashes didn't involve another vehicle.
  • Expand motorcycle training. While all states currently offer training, some courses may not be provided at locations and times convenient for riders.
  • Ensure motorcyclists are properly licensed. In 2011, 22 percent of motorcycle riders involved in fatal crashes did not possess a valid motorcycle license, compared to 12 percent of passenger vehicle drivers involved in fatal crashes. The motorcycle license test prompts riders to complete a training course. By encouraging licensing, states encourage training, the report notes.
  • Increase driver awareness. According to NHTSA, when motorcycles crash with other vehicles, the latter usually violates the motorcyclist's right of way. Many states conduct "share the road" campaigns to increase awareness of motorcyclists.

States partially fund their motorcycle safety efforts with federal money from NHTSA. Congress restricts state programs by permitting them to only address motorcyclist training and programs that encourage drivers to share the rode with motorcyclists. With work underway on the next transportation reauthorization bill, GHSA is calling on Congress to permit states to fund effective approaches to addressing motorcyclist safety, such as programs that increase helmet use and reduce drunk driving.

All data in the report are preliminary. The report presents data through September 2013. State-by-state data and image files are available from GHSA. Hedlund has done similar analyses for GHSA every year since 2009. 

Download the complete report HERE.