On motorcycle safety

As a motorcyclist I’m frequently faced with the claim (sometimes out of concern and other times from judgment) that riding a motorcycle is unsafe. It’s true that a two-wheeled vehicle is inherently less stable than a four-wheeled one, and that riders are more vulnerable to impacts that one would be protected from inside a car. Looking at the statistics one can clearly see that the fatalities-per-million-miles and injuries-per-million-miles are much higher for motorcycles than for automobiles.

Several factors make these statistics look much worse than they are, however. When one looks at the common factors in motorcycle accidents, the two biggest killers seem entirely preventable. As much as motorcyclists like to talk about other drivers being the threat, the biggest predictors of an accident are intoxication and inexperience. Inadequate helmet use is a big one, too, but some states don’t even require helmets, and in those riding without a helmet is a deliberate choice. It’s not something that will change.

However, there are things that can reduce motorcycle deaths and injuries:

If you’re thinking about getting a motorcycle, take the MSF course. If you have a friend, relative, acquaintance, or even meet a stranger who is thinking about getting a motorcycle, make the MSF course the first thing you mention, and badger them to take the course until they either do or never want to talk to you again. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation runs motorcycle safety classes in all fifty states at reasonable prices. In some states (like California) it’s the most convenient way to get your license, as you get to take the riding test immediately after getting coached on the techniques you’ll need. You’ll still need to go to the DMV and take the written test, but that’s a lot easier than dealing with getting an appointment to take the riding test and waiting in yet another line at the DMV. The MSF RiderCourse provides fundamentals necessary to be a safe rider, it only takes two days and one evening, and for anyone who likes motorcycles it’s fun and interesting. It’s just stupid not to take the course.

Lower the DUI threshold to 0.05%. In every US state a 0.08% blood-alcohol content means you are «under the influence.» in New York there is an additional category: «Driving While Ability-Impaired» for drivers caught with 0.05% BAC. DWAI carries much lighter penalties, but it’s a lot harsher and more effective than letting someone with a 0.07% BAC off with a warning. The biggest problem with drunk driving is the increase in reaction time. Extremely drunk drivers can (theoretically) drive hundreds of miles with no trouble at all, but as soon as something unexpected happens, they fail to react in time, with tragic results. Reaction time starts increasing after 0.05%, and that’s where the likelihood of causing an accident starts. 0.05% as the threshold for punishment, whether DUI or DWAI, makes sense.

Zero tolerance for motorcyclists under the influence. Many states have a «zero tolerance» level for BAC, 0.01% or 0.02%, usually for drivers who have not reached the age where they can legally buy a drink. Get caught driving with detectable alcohol if you can’t legally drink, you get punished. Those punishments vary from state to state but again, anything is better than just a warning. Apply the same standard to motorcyclists. Motorcycle riding requires all the senses to be sharp, but unlike driving a car, balance, judgment, and fine motor control skills are critical. Anyone who gets on two wheels after drinking any alcohol at all is simply a moron, and it would be better to suspend their license before they kill someone else or force some unfortunate emergency responders to clean up what’s left of them.

If caught DUI while riding a motorcycle, in addition to any other penalties under state law, suspend the motorcycle endorsement for the license until the rider can prove a year’s sobriety. That is, if the rider wants the motorcycle endorsement back, he or she will have to wear an alcohol monitoring anklet for a year. There should be no additional penalties if he or she chooses to take a drink but the clock would reset to zero. The year of proven sobriety would be optional and can start at any time he or she is outside of prison. The regular driver’s license can be reinstated according to existing state law, but the motorcycle endorsement would stay off until the rider wears the anklet for a year without a positive result.

You might think I’m overly focused on alcohol, but in more than one out of every four motorcycle fatalities, the rider is found to have been legally intoxicated. If you include lower-than-illegal BAC values, that number is closer to one out of every two. To me, that means that almost half of motorcycle deaths are probably preventable. Obviously each case has its own set of circumstances, but it’s quite clear: removing alcohol from the equation is more critical for motorcyclists than for auto drivers.

If people would just not drink before getting on a motorcycle, deaths-per-million-miles for motorcyclists could be 25 or lower instead of over 40. For cars that number is 1.5. Yeah, seeing 25 per million versus 1.5 per million will still make parents worry, but it makes me mad that idiots who drink and ride are screwing up the statistics for the rest of us.

Increase the difficulty of driving tests for all drivers, and retest drivers with each license renewal. It’s too easy to get and keep a drivers license. It requires only a rudimentary knowlege of traffic law. And what’s the point of having the license expire and require renewal if the only thing we test for is the ability to wait in line at the DMV? If regular drivers got the same kind of education that motorcyclists get when they take the MSF RiderCourse, the streets would be safer for everyone. It’s not just about keeping unsafe people off the streets, but about educating them to be better drivers.

Keep the most powerful bikes away from inexperienced riders. Many countries have tiered licensing, where riders have to jump through different hoops to get to ride more powerful motorcycles. Too often these tiers are based on the displacement of the motor, which is by itself a terrible predictor of how fast and powerful the motorcycle is. My proposal is simpler: prohibit the sale or loan by dealer or private individual of any street motorcycle with greater than 80 horsepower or 75nM (55 foot-pounds) of torque (or maybe base it on power-to-weight ratio) to anyone with a motorcycle endorsement less than 1 year new. Or even six months. That still leaves plenty of room to get an awesomely powerful first bike. We don’t even have to audit dealers. Just take a look at the model of bike and length of time the rider has had their motorcycle endorsement at the scene of any accident. If the combination of power and inexperience is discovered, then find the bill of sale and chase after the seller. The investigative costs would be negligible, and dealers wouldn’t have any additional red tape. They would self-police to avoid the chance of liability.

Everyone has heard of riders who buy a new Huyabusa and ride it off the lot never having ridden a motorcycle before, only to be found dead a quarter mile away because they couldn’t control the 200 horses on the hair-trigger throttle. It happens surprisingly often. There’s a strong argument to be made that this is simply darwinism at work, but again that hardly seems fair to the people that have to clean the corpse off the side of a barn. And that one death in a quarter mile seriously skews our deaths-per-million-miles stats.

Sorry, it may seem heavy-handed but it would take the pressure off of salespeople. If someone walks into a dealer looking for the most powerful bike in the world because they got their license the previous day and now it’s time to party, the responsible thing is to steer them to a less powerful bike or refuse the sale. But then they have to explain to their manager why they let a customer with money in hand walk out the door to buy somewhere else. If the dealer next door won’t sell that powerful a bike to that customer either, the dealer will more likely keep the customer. Even if the customer walks, the salesperson can tell their manager that they were protecting the dealership from liability.

Helmet laws: enforce ‘em or repeal ‘em. Every day I see some guy (yeah, it’s always a guy) on a motorcycle wearing a helmet that is obviously not DOT-approved. If it looks like no more than a plastic beanie, sorry, there’s no way it’s legal.

If the point of such inadequate equipment is that helmet laws suck, fine. Maybe we ought to repeal helmet laws. Yay freedom and all that. But if the laws are on the books, they are there to keep the deaths-per-million-miles numbers down and they ought to be enforced.

(The NHTSA has recently made changes to the labels required on new motorcycle helmets. That ought to help, but not if the police never bother to check during a traffic stop or never pull a rider over for wearing black paint on a bald head.)

At times during the writing of this post, some libertarian part of my brain has leapt up in shock. I have to admit that yes, I’m advocating rules and laws more draconian than those we have in place. Stumping for less freedom instead of more. Maybe these ideas aren’t the best ones and I invite the reader to make alternate suggestions in the comments.

The best possibility, of course, would be if riders would voluntarily stop drinking when they ride, pay more attention, get more training, and make saner choices when purchasing.

Most riders I know are among the safest, most attentive, most careful motor vehicle operators on the road. Take away inattention, intoxication, and inexperience and motorcycles will still be statistically dangerous compared to automobiles, just like automobiles are statistically more dangerous than buses and buses statistically more dangerous than airplanes. But it is hypocritical (even though it is true) to point the finger at drivers for how often their cellphone use, texting, and general obliviousness puts us motorcyclists in danger when such a large number of motorcycle deaths and injuries are easily preventable by motorcyclists themselves.