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Motorcycle safety concerns many aspects of vehicle and equipment design as well as operator skill and training that are unique to motorcycle riding.
According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2006, 13.10 cars out of 100,000 ended up in fatal crashes. The rate for motorcycles is 72.34 per 100,000 registered motorcycles. Motorcycles also have a higher fatality rate per unit of distance travelled when compared with automobiles. Per vehicle mile traveled, motorcyclists' risk of a fatal crash is 35 times greater than a passenger car. In 2004, figures from the UK Department for Transport indicated that motorcycles have 16 times the rate of serious injuries per 100 million vehicle kilometers compared to cars, and double the rate of bicycles.
A national study by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATS) found that:
According to 2005 data from the NHTSA, 4,008 motorcycle occupants were killed on United States roads in 2004, an 8% increase from 2003.
During that same period, drivers of automobiles showed a 10% increase in fatalities, while cyclists showed an 8% increase in fatalities. Pedestrians also showed a 10% increase in fatalities. A total of 37,304 automobile occupants were killed on U.S. roads in 2004.
Additional data from the United States reveals that there are over four million motorcycles registered in the United States. Motorcycle fatalities represent approximately five percent of all highway fatalities each year, yet motorcycles represent just two percent of all registered vehicles in the United States. One of the main reasons motorcyclists are killed in crashes is because the motorcycle itself provides virtually no protection in a crash. For example, approximately 80 percent of reported motorcycle crashes result in injury or death; a comparable figure for automobiles is about 20 percent.
Two major scientific research studies into the causes of motorcycle accidents have been conducted in North America and Europe: the Hurt Report and the MAIDS report.
A major work done on this subject in the USA is the Hurt Report, published in 1981 with data collected in Los Angeles and the surrounding rural areas. There have been longstanding calls for a new safety study in the US, and Congress has provided the seed money for such a project, but as yet the remainder of the funding has not all been pledged.
The Hurt Report concluded with a list of 55 findings, as well as several major recommendations for law enforcement and legislation. Among these, 75% of motorcycle accidents involved collision with another vehicle, usually a car. In the MAIDS report, the figure is 60%.
Other notable findings in the Hurt report (quoted below) were:
The most recent large-scale study of motorcycle accidents is the MAIDS report carried out in five European countries in 1999 to 2000, using the rigorous OECD standards, including a statistically significant sample size of over 900 crash incidents and over 900 control cases.
The MAIDS report tends to support most of the Hurt Report findings, for example that "69% of the OV [other vehicle] drivers attempted no collision avoidance manoeuvre," suggesting they did not see the motorcycle. And further that, "the largest number of PTW [powered two-wheeler] accidents is due to a perception failure on the part of the OV driver or the PTW rider." And "The data indicates that in 68.7% of all cases, the helmet was capable of preventing or reducing the head injury sustained by the rider (i.e., 33.2% + 35.5%). In 3.6% of all cases, the helmet was found to have no effect upon head injury" and "There were no reported cases in which the helmet was identified as the contact code for a serious or maximum neck injury."
A New Zealand study using data taken between 1993-96 in the city of Auckland, a "predominantly urban area" (Wells et al. ) supported the Hurt Report's call for increased rider conspicuity, claiming that riders wearing white or light colored helmets, fluorescent or reflective clothing or using daytime headlights were under-represented when compared to a group of motorcycle accident victims. The accident victims were those who were killed, or admitted or treated at hospital "with an injury severity score >5 within 24 hours of a motorcycle crash". Accidents that did not result in hospitalization or treatment for a critical injury, or a death were not considered, nor was there any consideration of involvement of other road users, or culpability. The definition of reflective or fluorescent clothing was taken to include "clothing or other articles such as a jacket, vest, apron, sash, ankle or wrist band, or back pack including stripes, decals or strips". No assessment of the type (open or full-face) of helmet was undertaken. Most of the crashes took place in "urban 50km/h speed limit zones (66%), during the day (64%) and in fine weather (72%)". No association was observed between risk of crash related injury and the frontal colour of the drivers' (sic) clothing or motorcycle.
The MAIDS report did not publish information on helmet color or the prevalence of reflective or fluorescent clothing in either the accident or control groups, or the use of lights in the control group, and therefore drew no statistical conclusions on their effectiveness, neither confirming nor refuting the claims of the Wells report. In each MAIDS case, the clothing worn by the rider was photographed and evaluated.
MAIDS found that motorcycles painted white were actually over-represented in the accident sample compared to the exposure data. On clothing, MAIDS used a "purely subjective" determination of if and how the clothing worn probably affected conspicuity in the accident. The report concluded that "in 65.3% of all cases, the clothing made no contribution to the conspicuity of the rider or the PTW [powered two-wheeler, i.e. motorcycle]. There were very few cases found in which the bright clothing of the PTW rider enhanced the PTW’s overall conspicuity (46 cases). There were more cases in which the use of dark clothing decreased the conspicuity of the rider and the PTW (120 cases)." MAIDs concluded that in one case dark clothing actually increased conspicuity but reported none where bright clothing decreased it.
Michel Foucault-inspired historian Jeremy Packer sees the approach to motorcycle safety found in mainstream sport and touring motorcycling media, supported by the MSF, and generally consistent with the advice of transport agencies, such as the US National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety, as an ideology or "discourse", and places it as only one among multiple ideologies one may hold about motorcycling risk.
Packer has suggested four categories to describe the different approaches to the risks of motorcycling. The first and fourth categories take opposite views of motorcycling, but share a fatalistic notion that to motorcycle is to tempt fate. The second and third categories differ in the degree of emphasis they place on measures to limit the risk of riding, but share the view that riders have some degree of control and are not victims of fate.
While giving respect to the first two discourses, Packer himself is sympathetic to the third approach and disdainful of the fourth. Packer's analysis of the second category, what he calls the hyperreflective self-disciplinary camp, acknowledges that seriousness, sobriety, ongoing training, and wearing complete safety gear is not misguided, but worries about its close alignment with the profit motives of the insurance industry, the motorcycle safety gear advertisers, and the public relations desires of motorcycle manufacturers, as well as governmental bureaucratic inertia and mission creep. He sees motorcyclists who make non-utilitarian choices balancing risk and reward as being as respectable as other categories.
BMW psychologist and researcher Bernt Spiegel has found that non-motorcyclists and novice motorcyclists usually share the fatalistic attitude described by Thompson, insofar as they think that high speed motorcycling is like a game of chicken or Russian roulette, where the rider tests his courage to see how close he can come to "the edge", or specifically the limit of traction while braking or cornering, without having any idea how close he is to exceeding that limit and crashing. In Thompson's words in Hell's Angels it is, "The Edge... There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others — the living — are those who pushed their luck as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later."
Spiegel takes issue with the claim that only those who have "gone over", that is, crashed or died, know the location of the boundary line. He says that if motorcycle racers, or even non-professional advanced riders who make good use of the capabilities of a modern sport bike, were approaching the limits of traction blindly, they would be like a group of blind men wandering around the top of a building, and most of them would wander off the edge and fall. In fact, Spiegel says, crashes among skilled high speed riders are so infrequent that it must be the case that they can feel where the limit of traction is. Spiegel's physiological and psychological experiments helped explore how it is possible for a good rider to extend his perception beyond the controls of his motorcycle out to the interface between the contact patches of his motorcycle and the road surface. Whether or not one believes that the limits of traction are knowable can determine whether one falls into the second and third categories, those who try to minimize or accommodate the risks of motorcycling, as opposed to those who think the risks are beyond the rider's knowledge and control, categories one and four, either rejecting riding altogether or riding recklessly. Motorcycle Consumer News Proficient Motorcycling columnist Ken Condon put it that, "The best riders are able to measure traction with a good amount of accuracy" even though that amount changes depending on the motorcycle, the tires and the tires' condition, and the varying qualities of the road surface. But Condon says the rider feels the limit of traction through his hand and foot interface with the handelbars and footpegs, and the seat, rather than extending his perception out to the contact patch itself.
In 2007, a report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) claimed that "supersport" motorcycles were four times more likely to be involved in highway crashes than other types. When reprinting this press release as a news report, USA Today omitted the word "insurance" from the "Insurance Institute for Highway Safety", giving a false impression the IIHS is a governmental agency, not a private corporation with a conflict of interest.
According to the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA), the IIHS report was an attempt to either ban entire categories of motorcycles, or a covert attempt to legislate requirement for speed governors in all vehicles. The IIHS report was not a new study, being an analysis of existing data from the national Fatal Accident Reporting System. The methodology consisted of a comparison of fatalities for different styles of motorcycles based on a rate per 10,000 registrations. The report did not incorporate key factors, such as the number of miles the bike was ridden, the traffic environment in which it was used, along with the age and experience of the rider, among others.
In an attempt to sort through this confusion, the AMA requested a copy of the classification system the IIHS used in its analysis and found several significant anomalies. For instance, although the IIHS report focused on speed and acceleration as the factors that make its "supersport" category so dangerous, the two most powerful motorcycles that were available at the time in the United States, the Kawasaki ZX-14 and Suzuki Hayabusa, are placed in the Sport category, which are rated considerably less dangerous. And they share that category with the Honda ST1300 and Yamaha FJR1300, two sport-touring bikes.
The AMA thought the timing of the IIHS report was unusual. The National Transportation Safety Board specifically asked the Federal Highway Administration to work with states to develop uniform data-collection procedures that will result in better information about the number of miles traveled by motorcycles, one of the most important factors in evaluating crash statistics. As a result, this could be one of the final reports to use registration data exclusively, which is less accurate in reflecting actual motorcycle use.
This new IIHS report is remarkably similar to a study the group financed twenty years ago that also purported to show higher fatality rates among sportbikes. At that time, the IIHS used its study as the springboard for a well-orchestrated campaign that included ready-made news footage it fed to TV news operations across the country. That campaign culminated in the introduction of a bill in the U.S. Senate to impose a horsepower limit on all motorcycles sold in the U.S.
In response to that previous attempt by the IIHS to ban sportbikes, the AMA conducted an analysis of the study and raised questions that the Association submitted to Harry Hurt, lead researcher on the most comprehensive study of motorcycle crashes ever conducted. Hurt reviewed the research and declared it "fatally flawed" for exactly the kind of methodology problems seen in the new IIHS report. The Association then coordinated a campaign among motorcyclists across the country that eventually led the senator to withdraw his proposed legislation.
Growing data shows that an alarming number of veterans returning from combat areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan are dying in motorcycle related fatalities. Between October 2007 and October 2008, 24 active-duty Marines died from motorcycle accidents. There were 4,810 deaths on motorcycles in the U.S. in 2006, an increase of 5 percent over the previous year, and more than double (2,161) over the decade before, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In the Marine Corps, high-speed bikes account for the majority of fatalities. In 2007, 78 percent of motorcycle mishaps in the Marines occurred on a sport bike, compared to 38 percent nationally.
Once the collision has occurred, or the rider has lost control through some other mishap, several common types of injury occur when the bike falls:
The Hurt Report also commented on injuries after an accident stating that the likelihood of injury is extremely high in these motorcycle accidents - 98% of the multiple vehicle collisions and 96% of the single vehicle accidents resulted in some kind of injury to the motorcycle rider; 45% resulted in more than a minor injury.
To address the risks of motorcycling, before and after a fall, motorcyclists use personal protective equipment (PPE, or more commonly "motorcycle gear"). Many developed countries now require certain articles of PPE, and manufacturers and governments recommend its extensive use.
It is increasingly common for gloves, jackets, pants, and boots to be outfitted with hard plastics on probable contact areas in an effort to ensure that when a motorcyclist contacts the ground, his clothing will permit him to slide relatively easily as opposed to "crumpling", risking injury to body parts being stressed in abnormal directions.
Since the first line of protection in crash contact is the outer shell of clothing, designers have moved that further from the body. The ultimate protective shell so far is an airbag that stays with the driver as he flies off the bike. However, increasing use of "exoskeleton" plastic shields attached to clothing points toward design of a complete roll bar belted to the driver. A near-stage design is a plastic or light alloy double "wheel" perimeter rim around the driver, over his head and in front and behind him. When the driver unbelts himself and gets off the bike, he leaves the wheel roll bar with the bike. But when the driver flies off the bike, the roll bar flies with him and makes contact with hard surfaces. The driver is relatively safe from contact, belted within a contact rim extending out around him.
In many developed countries riders are now either required or encouraged to attend safety classes in order to obtain a separate motorcycle driving license.
Training can help to bridge the gap between a novice and experienced rider as well as improving the skills of a more experienced rider. Skills training would seem to be the answer to reducing the KSI ("killed or seriously injured") rate among motorcycle riders. However, research shows that some who undergo advanced skills training are more likely to be at a higher risk while using the roads (Rutter & Quine, 1996). This risk compensation effect was commented on in the findings of the evaluation of the “Bikesafe Scotland,” scheme where a number of those who undertook training said they rode faster in non-built-up areas after the course (Ormston et al., 2003). This is not to say that training in not important, but that more advanced training should be tempered with psychological training (Broughton 2005).
In the United States, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) provides a standardized curriculum to the states that, in turn, provide low cost safety training for new and current riders. Two states, Oregon and Idaho, eschew MSF's curriculum in favor of their own. Even with over 1,500 locations in USA, and over 120,000 annual students, MSF only trains about 3% of the owners of 4,000,000 new motorcycles sold for highway use. Motorcycle injuries and fatalities among U.S. military personnel has continually risen since the early 2000s. Among other United States Department of Defense-initiated programs, the Air National Guard seeks to understand why national safety programs haven't sufficiently reduced mishaps, and how those programs might be modified to cause productive behaviorial change.
In the United Kingdom, for example, organizations such as the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) and Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) offer advanced motorcycle rider training with the aim of reducing accident rates. There is often an added incentive to riders in the form of reduced insurance premiums.
In Canada, the Canada Safety Council (CSC), a non-profit organization, provides motorcycle safety training courses for beginner and novice riders through its Gearing Up training program. Again, as in the USA and UK, the focus is on improved rider skills to reduce accident rates. Insurance premiums may be reduced upon successful completion as this program is recognised and supported nationally by the Motorcycle and Moped Industry Council (MMIC).
According to the Hurt Report, initiating a turn requires countersteering, an initial steering motion opposite that of the steady turn which causes the motorcycle to lean. In addition, in accidents, most riders would over brake and skid the rear wheel, and under brake the front when greatly reducing collision avoidance deceleration. The ability to countersteer and swerve was essentially absent. Because of this, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation teaches countersteering to all students in all of its schools, as do all motorcycle racing schools. Countersteering is included in the US State motorcycle operator manuals and tests, such as Washington, New Jersey, California, and Missouri. These rider's manuals typically simplify countersteering using some version of the standard verbiage "PRESS — To turn, the motorcycle must lean. To lean the motorcycle, press on the handgrip in the direction of the turn. Press left — lean left — go left. Press right — lean right — go right. Higher speeds and/or tighter turns require the motorcycle to lean more." This text, and often the entire manual, is copied verbatim from the manual published by the MSF.
Confusion results from the shortness of the initial countersteering input required to get the bike to lean, which is only 0.5 seconds in average curves. Gentle turns might require only 0.125 seconds, while sharp turns might require 1.0 seconds of countersteering at corner entry.
On most new motorcycles, the headlights turn on as soon as the bike is started as a legal requirement. Some bikes have modulated headlights. This is accomplished using headlight modulators. This is still a subjective issue in some European countries. The argument is that the forced use of the headlight will lose all safety benefits if cars are also required to have their lights "hardwired." There is also an argument that the forced use of the headlight is seen as "aggressive" by other road users and so reinforces negative stereotypes of bike riders held by some. Modulators are legal in the US and Canada. It has been suggested that bright yellow front turn signals would be more practical and more effective than headlights in the daytime.
Crash bars (also called "safety bars," or "roll bars") are common equipment on cruiser-type bikes. They are designed to protect a rider's legs (and the motor) from injury in a rollover and in a glancing contact with other vehicles. The Hurt Report concluded that crash bars are not an effective injury countermeasure; the reduction of injury to the ankle-foot is balanced by increase of injury to the thigh-upper leg, knee, and lower leg.
Anti-lock braking system on a motorcycle was introduced by BMW in 1988 and was soon adapted by other brands. With ABS brakes, stopping the motorcycle is both easier and safer, allowing for a shorter stop range and reduced risk of skidding. The British IAM with support from the FIA has proposed that from 2015, ABS should be mandatory on all new motorcycles with a displacement larger than 125cc sold in the EU.
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Fuel tank mounted airbags as well as wearable jacket airbag devices change the way we think about the risks involved with motorcycles. Accidents occur within a very short time and a rider may not be able to instinctively protect him or herself when a crash takes place. This is where an airbag device becomes useful and potentially lifesaving.
The first motorcycle crash tests with an airbag were performed in 1973 and proved that airbag systems could be advantageous to a rider. These tests were followed up by tests in the 1990s that showed airbag devices could not fully restrain a rider when traveling more than 30 mph (48 km/h), but it still reduced a rider’s velocity and his/her trajectory. Honda has recently developed a fuel tank mounted airbag for the Goldwing model that takes just 0.15 seconds to deploy. Crash sensors in the front wheel send data to the airbag ECU (electronic control unit) which in turn activates the airbag inflater. The airbag then takes the force of the rider.
Fuel tank mounted airbags can aid in saving many lives. It has been proven with crash test dummies that this type of airbag technology is very beneficial during a frontal collision. This is important because statistically, 62% of motorcycle accidents in the U.S. are frontal collisions. Additional tests were performed to show that when a motorcycle rider impacts a car during a frontal collision, the fuel tank mounted airbag averts the person from traveling into the vehicle. This significantly reduced the head trauma by 83% that otherwise would have occurred according to the data from the crash test dummy. A rider would have lived with an airbag, whereas the fatality rate would be higher without the airbag. It has also been pointed out that this can only work if the accident is at low speed and follows the same dynamics as a car accident. It should be viewed as passenger vehicle airbags - a worthwhile supplement, but not as a replacement for any other safety devices including a change in the basic design of road going motorcycles.
The second airbag device which is now available is an inflatable airbag jacket. A rider can wear an airbag jacket that is tethered to the motorcycle, so if he or she is thrown from the bike during a collision, the jacket will automatically inflate for a 20 second period to provide a cushion for the rider. This will lessen the upper body and internal injuries to a rider that may often be fatal. Mugen Denko pioneered the development of airbag jackets in 1995 and conducted many tests, although the idea was initially patented in Hungary in 1976. Full inflation of these jackets can now be achieved in 25ms. The majority of the airbag jackets on the market are tethered to the motorcycle, but Dainese has a technology called D-Air which has a built-in computer chip. This computer chip constantly detects the rider’s environment and if it detects a collision, the jacket will then self-inflate. This jacket is currently aimed specifically at the racing environment and undergoing testing by Dainese-sponsored riders. Hit Air, the maker of another airbag jacket, performed tests on its jacket which showed that its safety effectiveness surpassed that of a normal riding jacket or a jacket with extra padding protection. Little independent testing has been done to date on the effectiveness of these devices. The airbag jackets provide reusable airbag protection to the neck, chest, back, shoulders, hips, bottom and spine.
As demand for safety measures increases, so the need for motorcycle airbags may grow in popularity over the coming years. Yamaha and Suzuki are currently testing airbag systems, so they will be available on additional motorcycles and so that more people will request airbag devices more often. According to Honda’s web site, the Goldwing model motorcycle currently retails for US$23,099 and the airbag is only an additional US$1,250 option.