How to reduce the risk of getting hurt on a motorcycle

Consumer Reports News: July 16, 2008 05:08 AM

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People considering riding a motorcycle to save gas should be concerned about safety. After all, motorcycles are inherently less stable than cars and riders lack any significant protection from impacts. In fact, motorcyclists are about 34 times more likely to die in a crash than passenger car drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Injuries also are often much more severe. However, a properly trained and outfitted rider can significantly reduce the risks, as revealed in the seminal study of the causes of motorcycle accidents and injuries, "Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures."

Hugh Hurt, a motorcycle safety expert who now runs the Head Protection Research Laboratory, published a comprehensive study in 1981. While the study may be old, the scale and thoroughness provide valuable insights into accident causes, elements that enhance survivability, and ultimately suggests ways that motorcyclists can ride smarter and safer.

Hurt investigated 900 motorcycle accident scenes in the Los Angeles area. In addition, Hurt and his team analyzed 3,600 motorcycle traffic accident reports in the same region.

They summarized key factors that contributed to the investigated motorcycle accidents. The findings can be summed up in three solid pieces of advice:

  • Wear a helmet (and other dedicated protective clothing).
  • Make sure you're visible to other drivers.
  • Get training before you ride.
  • Beyond that, here are the main findings of the study in more detail:

    The likelihood of injury is extremely high in motorcycle accidents. In the study, 98 percent of the multiple-vehicle collisions and 96 percent of the single-vehicle accidents resulted in some kind of injury to the motorcycle rider; 45 percent resulted in more than a minor injury.

    Injury severity increases with speed, alcohol involvement, and motorcycle size. Wearing protective clothing can prevent or reduce abrasions and lacerations, which are frequent—but rarely severe.

    The failure of other motorists to detect and recognize motorcycles in traffic was found to be the predominant cause of motorcycle accidents.Approximately three-fourths of these motorcycle accidents involved collision with another vehicle, which was most often a car. The most frequent accident scenario was a car making a left turn in front of an oncoming motorcycle. Therefore, making the motorcycle and motorcyclist more conspicuous, especially from the front, is key to reducing accidents.

    Accidents were found to be significantly reduced by using motorcycle headlamps and by the rider wearing a high-visibility yellow, orange, or bright red jacket. The study did not identify a clear link between motorcycle color and safety. The report said the color is likely to be insignificant because the accidents were most often frontal, where little of the motorcycle color would be visible to the other driver. Motorcycles equipped with fairings and windshields may improve visibility.

    Most motorcycle accidents happened at intersections, involving a short trip, and occurred a very brief time after the trip originated.

    The typical motorcycle accident allows the rider less than 2 seconds to complete all collision avoidance actions.

    Yet, riders involved in accidents had poor collision avoidance skills. Most riders would overbrake and skid the rear wheel and underbrake the front wheel, greatly reducing stopping power. The ability to countersteer and swerve was essentially absent.

    The motorcyclists were found to be essentially without training; 92 percent were self-taught or learned from family or friends. Riders with previous experience riding dirt bikes were less likely to be involved in accidents than others.

    Seventy-three percent of the riders in accidents rode without eye protection, and it is likely that the wind on the unprotected eyes contributed to impaired vision, which delayed hazard detection.

    Inexperience with the bike is a major factor. More than half the riders involved in accidents had less than five months experience on the accident motorcycle, although the total street-riding experience was almost three years.

    Bottom line: get proper training, be visible, and wear a bright jacket and full protective gear.

    Riders, have your own tips? Please share them in the comments section, or in our forum.

    Eric Evarts

    Also read: "Motorcycle death rates doubled" and "Motorists move to scooters and motorcycles to save".

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