Motorcycle death rates doubled; supersport bikes the most dangerous

Consumer Reports News: September 18, 2007 02:33 PM

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Riding motorcycles is commonly considered a dangerous recreational pursuit. Just how risky? Motorcyclist fatalities have more than doubled in 10 years and reached 4,810 in 2006, accounting for 11 percent of total highway fatalities, according to recent analysis by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI). In addition, 88,000 riders were injured last year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Motorcycle deaths are on the rise, while automotive fatalities are decreasing accoding to reports from IIHS, NHTSA, and other safety agencies. The trends do reflect an increasing number of younger motorcyclists piloting performance bikes, as well as continued improvement in car safety. However, averaged across all registered motorcycles for 2005, 99.9 percent of riders did not meet an untimely demise.

What motorcycles show the greatest risks?
Supersport bike riders have death rates that are four times greater than average for all motorcycle types, says the IIHS. These so-called rockets are essentially racing bikes modified for highway use. Engineered for speed, they typically have more horsepower per pound than other bikes. A 2006 model Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R, for example, produces 111 horsepower and weighs 404 pounds. In contrast, the 2006 model Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide, a touring motorcycle, produces 65 horsepower and weighs 788 pounds.

"Supersport motorcycles are indeed nimble and quick, but they also can be deadly," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research. "These bikes made up less than 10 percent of registered motorcycles in 2005 but accounted for over 25 percent of rider deaths."

The fatality rates for cruiser and "standard" riders rank the lowest, at 5.7 deaths per 10,000 registered motorcycles. Touring bikes, such as the Harley example, averaged 6.5 deaths, with sport bikes totaling 10.7 deaths per 10,000.

Why the increased fatalities?
There are a growing number of motorcycles on the road, with total registrations climbing 51 percent between 2000 and 2005. While cruisers and standard motorcycles made up the bulk of registrations, supersport bikes see registrations up 83 percent in 2005 compared with 2000. In 2005 supersport bikes accounted for 9 percent of registrations, cruisers made up 47 percent, and standards 4 percent.

"Supersport motorcycles have such elevated crash death rates and insurance losses because many people ride them as if they were on a racetrack," McCartt says. "Data show that speed is a big factor in their crashes."

Speeding and driver error were bigger factors in fatal crashes of supersport, sport, and unclad sport bikes compared with other motorcycle classes. In contrast, speed was cited in 57 percent of supersport riders' fatal crashes in 2005, compared to 27 percent of fatal crashes among riders on cruisers and standards and 22 percent on touring motorcycles.

Alcohol was a factor in the fatal crashes of 19 percent of supersport riders and 23 percent of sport and unclad sport riders. Alcohol impairment was an even bigger factor in the fatal crashes of cruisers and standard bikes and touring motorcycles, particularly among riders 30-49 years old.

"With more motorcyclists on the road and fewer of them wearing helmets, the result is bound to be an increase in deaths and injuries," says McCartt. "Motorcycles are inherently risky, and when crashes occur head injury is a leading cause of death. The most effective way we know to reduce head injury risk is to wear helmets that meet federal safety standards. Wearing a helmet would have saved at least 700 motorcyclists' lives in 2005, an Institute analysis shows."

Certain bike types may invite dangerous behavior, but ultimately it is the driver that takes the risks.  Whatever is your vehicle of choice, obey the law and drive responsibly for all our sakes.

Jeff Bartlett

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