Motor vehicle ownership and operation in this country is steadily going up.  Nearly every year now, we set new records for the number of people on the road and the total number of miles driven. In the 17 years from 1994 to 2011, the total number of registered vehicles increased from 192.5 million to 257.5 million, a jump of 33%.  In that same period, total miles driven in the U.S. increased 25% as well, from 2.358 trillion to 2.946 trillion. You would probably expect, with so many additional drivers travelling so many more miles, the number of fatal accidents would have increased, also. Not so. Travel on our nation’s roads and highways has become dramatically safer over the past two decades for everyone except motorcyclists.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, our country has made remarkable strides in reducing traffic fatalities since the mid-90’s, with non-motorcycle deaths falling from 38,396 in 1994, to 27,755 in 2011. That is a reduction of 72%!  (Keep in mind, as well, that the population of our country grew by 51.3 million in this period, from 260.29M to 311.59M.) For a variety of reasons, however, motorcycle fatalities actually went up at the same time that all other fatality numbers were falling.  Motorcycle deaths grew from 2,320 in 1994 to 4,612 in 2011, roughly doubling. It looks like 2012 will set another record, as well. (Preliminary data indicate 2012 deaths climbed above 5,000, for an increase of roughly 9% over 2011.) In short, the operation of a motorcycle somehow became immensely more dangerous over the past two decades, in complete opposition to the clear trend of our roads becoming safer for everyone else.

What might explain these contradictory trends?  The Governors’ Highway Safety Association recently released a study which examined this phenomenon. It identifies several factors believed to be involved in this disturbing problem, as well as recommendations for steps that states can take to reduce the death toll.

  • Economy. Higher gas prices may have motivated people who owned motorcycles primarily for recreation to begin to use them for work commutes, everyday errands, etc., to conserve fuel. Motorcycle registrations have increased in recent years, which may indicate that they have come to represent the primary mode of transportation for more Americans.
  • Speed. Too many motorcycle riders drive too fast.  Half of fatal crashes do not involve any other vehicle – which may reflect a combination of speed and poor driver skills (see below).  Better than 35% of drivers were speeding when the fatal crash occurred.
  • Alcohol. Looking at the past decade’s data, this is especially evident. On average in those years, between 25% and 35% of the fatalities in any given year involved motorcyclists driving drunk.
  • Licensing and Training. Many people operate motorcycles without first receiving proper instruction and/or proper licensure.  In 2010, 22% of fatal motorcycle accidents involved drivers without a valid motorcycle license.

With motorcycle fatalities climbing at the present rate, it will not be an easy trend to reverse.  Even when the driver does everything right, operating a motorcycle already comes with certain risks – – our firm represents lots of blameless motorcyclists who have been injured by others.  The motorcyclist has to deal with drivers of cars and trucks who may be speeding, texting, or driving drunk.  He or she must at least do what they can to increase their odds of having a safe trip. Which means: getting sufficient training and the appropriate license, never speeding or driving while intoxicated, and always maintaining a lookout for other, less careful drivers.  As Sergeant Phil Esterhaus used to say: “Let’s be careful out there.”