A Look at Motorcycle Crash Data

By Brian Lange

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ABATE of Washington

It seems there has been an increase in motorcycle crashes this year, and especially in fatalities.  If this is true, many factors could be contributing to it.  There are several possible reasons for this increase, and the perception that it is so large this year could be to blame.

Some of the reasons may be:

• An increase in unendorsed or unskilled riders when the weather is good

• An increase in overall ridership and therefore more crashes

• Highway infrastructure that creates hazards for motorcyclists in crashes

• The influence of alcohol or drugs

Social media posts about crashes from across the country creating the perception of even more motorcycle crashes and fatalities locally

Benign indifference or neglect from transportation policy planners by not including motorcycles in a fully comprehensive all modal transportation policy.

In this article I will try to look at some of these factors, give you the findings I have been able to uncover, and try to gain some understanding of what is really happening, and what we can do to stop or reduce it.

Let’s start by looking at the stats for 2019 as published by the Washington State Dept. of Transportation (WSDOT).  The fatalities identified in this report are derived from the criteria set by the WSDOT to meet its business needs in collecting and analyzing crash data for safety and engineering purposes.  The number of fatalities identified in the report may not match the official National Fatal Accident Reporting System (FARS) which is housed with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. To obtain the FARS Fatal numbers contact RADD@wtsc.wa.gov.

This information was pulled from the WSDOT’s website on 12 September, 2019.  So it is as up to date as possible, but will no doubt become out of date as the season continues on.

Most Severe Injury per Crash /

Number of Crashes

Fatal: 67

Suspected Serious Injury: 311

Suspected Minor Injury: 296

Possible Injury: 332

No Apparent Injury: 209

Total Motorcycle Involved Crashes: 1,215

WSDOT 2019 Motorcycle Crash Data

The vast majority of these crashes have been in the Puget Sound Metropolitan Region, and along the I-5 Corridor.  The rest have been spread across the state in greatly reduced numbers, as is expected.  Besides the more densely populated region in which most of these crashes occur, what other factors could be giving rise to the perception that motorcycle crashes have so sharply risen this year?

According to the Dept. of Licensing, nearly one in four riders is unendorsed, and has little or no training and experience.  What percentage of motorcycle crash victims in Washington State that unendorsed and under-experienced riders are involved in crashes is not readily available, but the odds are pretty good that these riders are involved in a significant portion of motorcycle crashes.  Training, endorsement and experience may be of significant benefit in reducing the overall number of motorcycle crashes in Washington.

Alcohol and drug impairment ranks high among the factors involved in motorcycle crashes.  However, I have been unable to find data broken down to the point of showing in multiple vehicle crashes that it was the motorcyclist or the driver of the other vehicle that was impaired.  This is something that only each individual can decide for themselves.  But riding a motorcycle is already risky enough.  We do not need to ride under the influence of something that alters our vision, response time, balance, and even thinking.  You may have done it for years, and gotten away with it.  But how many of those that have been involved in crashes wouldn’t have been if they had been clear-headed?  We will never know for sure.

However, we do know that another factor that is often conjoined with riding under the influence is speeding.  According to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission; over half of the fatalities and 30% of the serious injuries among motorcyclists are speeding related.  If you as a reader and a motorcyclist truly want to see the crash and fatality rate among us drop, don’t ride under the influence, and don’t speed.  It is amazing how the lowered judgment of a rider under the influence seems to find it acceptable to twist that throttle wider than their diminished skills can cope with.

Earlier, I mentioned how social media creates a perception that motorcyclists are involved in crashes constantly.  This is partially due to the posting of news stories from across the country on social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, and getting shared by people who may not realize it is from another part of the country, a few weeks or more old, or only see the headline and image and share it.  Things helps bring about an almost paranoid perception that we motorcyclists are dropping like flies.  The odds are that there will be at least three motorcycle involved crashes per day in Washington State during the “riding season.”  Adding additional posts from across the country only adds to this effect.  So keep that in mind.

Finally, in regards to the “benign indifference or neglect from transportation policy planners” I spoke of at the start:  Transportation Policy Planners do not include motorcycles in any real comprehensive way during their planning of infrastructure.  In most cases motorcycle data is “exempted” from studies, or not even considered when making infrastructure policy.  While international standards for such things as guardrails, cable barriers, concrete ‘jersey barriers’ and ‘breakaway’ poles and barricades exist for automobiles and trucks, motorcycles have no such standard for any of these “safety features.”  According to a NHTSA study, one half of all guardrail related fatalities are motorcyclists, like the woman in Whatcom County who died in May after colliding with a guardrail. Yet we only account for four percent of registered vehicles in Washington State.

In a 2011 WSDOT report on CenterLine Rumble Strips, after it was found that the percentage of serious and fatal motorcycle crashes rose from 30% to 53% after installation of the rumble strips, all motorcycle data was “exempted” because the motorcycles were “skewing portions of the CLRS analysis.”  In the nearly 600 combined pages of WSDOT’s two major reports, “Two-Lane Rural Highway Safety Performance Functions” and “Urban and Suburban Arterial Safety Performance Functions: Final Report,” pedestrians are mentioned over fifty times, bicyclists over thirty, while there are no mentions at all of motorcyclists.  This has to change if we truly want to reduce the causes of motorcycle crashes.

Looking at the current numbers, fatalities are currently making up less than 6% of all motorcycle crashes.  While this is still a tragedy, it does not appear to be the crisis that the news media, government and social media would have us all believe.  Be careful out there.  It is up to us to protect ourselves.

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