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Why the surge in motorcycle deaths? Federally funded L.A. study seeks answers


The first major study of motorcycle crashes in nearly 30 years is underway in Los Angeles, as researchers attempt to pinpoint why resultant fatalities have soared over the last decade to constitute 14% of all roadway deaths, despite the fact that motorcycles account for less than 1% of vehicle miles traveled.

There are plenty of theories to explain the increase: The number of motorcycles on the road increased from 3.9 million in 1998 to 7.1 million in 2007; motorcycles are more powerful than they  used to be; riders are older, now averaging 41 years of age; and many states have repealed their helmet laws.

But there are no clear answers.

The last in-depth investigation of motorcycle crashes in the U.S. — the Hurt study — was conducted through USC and released in 1981. Efforts to update that information have been stymied by funding issues.
Earlier this month, a new study was greenlighted by the U.S. Department of Transportation, but it’s a scaled-down version of what was originally planned, and a leading industry-backed safety group says the sample size will be too small to properly resolve the questions.

The National Transportation Safety Board originally recommended that the study include a sample size of 900 to 1,200 crashes. The Hurt study examined 900 crashes. But researchers at Oklahoma State University, tapped to conduct the new study, said use of such a large sample would cost $10 million to $12 million, far exceeding the federal government’s $4.2-million estimate.

As of Oct. 1, the study was moving forward with a sample size of 300 crashes.

“The motorcycle crash rate for injuries and deaths has increased every year for the past 10 years, so it was critical to get this study underway,” said Cathy St. Denis, spokeswoman for the Federal Highway Administration. "It will be one of the most comprehensive studies to be done in years and will help prevent future crashes."

The $3.1-million study includes $2 million from the highway reauthorization bill, $500,000 from the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, $500,000 from individual states and $100,000 from the American Motorcyclist Assn.

The Motorcycle Safety Foundation, a nonprofit group that develops rider training courses used by most states and is funded by major manufacturers such as Honda and Harley-Davidson, had offered $2.8 million in 2007 for a study if it included a sample size of 900 crashes.

The group refused to contribute to the scaled-down study because it “will not provide adequate sampling to achieve appropriate statistical significance and may not provide new insights," the organization said in a statement Tuesday. “This limited study will likely lend only a minimal degree of validation to the major, already known contributing motorcycle crash factors.”

There are about 100,000 motorcycle crashes in the U.S. each year, 5,290 of which resulted in death in 2008, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. According to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, which draws heavily on findings from the 1981 Hurt study, major crash factors include rider error, such as overbraking and running wide in a curve; and alcohol involvement.

So far, data from 53 crashes have been gathered as part of the study’s pilot, which kicked off in L.A. last December to test data collection procedures and which concluded earlier this year. That crash data will be included in the official study of 300 crashes, which is also taking place in Los Angeles.

Preliminary results from the study will be available in a year, according to Oklahoma State’s Alan Tree. Final results won’t be available until at least 2013.

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo: Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (34)

I can predict the outcome, if it captures the data correctly -
#1 - Irresponsible riding, which is regrettably encouraged by far too many
peer groups (you know who you are)
#2 - Sharing the too-crowded freeways and expecting drivers to know you are there.
#3 - Poor skills
#4 - Bad luck in an unforgiving environment.

ask any surgeon what they call motorcycle riders.....

(answer = "organ donors")

I don't claim to be an expert in such matters, but I do have two eyes and many years of practical experience that data-gatherers probably won't find behind their desks.

To me the causes are obvious; there are millions of inexperienced motorcycle owners who are more interested in looking cool than in learning to ride (that includes both Harley outlaw wannabes and crotch rocket squids). Combine them with cagers who spend all their driving time on the phone and you've got the recipe for disaster.

I honestly believe that there are many bike wrecks that, while caused by cagers, could have been avoided by experienced riders. Of course there's not much anyone can do for the idiots who simply ride off the road because most of their motorcycle "experience" consists of dragging a bike around on a trailer.

Another factor, one that's never mentioned in such discussions, is how motorcycles have become much more automotive in nature over the last few decades. Whereas it used to take a certain amount of skill to own, operate and maintain a motorcycle, today anyone can just hop on a bike, push the button and be an instant biker.

There's no choke or petcock to operate, brake & clutch action are so light a child could do it, the ride is much smoother, vibration is nearly nonexistent, saddles are thicker & cushier, all of which (I think) tends to lull riders into a false sense of security, as though they're behind the wheel of a car that can't fall over.

Unfortunately I don't hold much hope for a new study based on only 300 wreck cases. The Hurt study used 900 cases and it was seriously flawed. I suspect recommendations based on the outcome of this new study will be no surprise: helmets for everybody on two wheels, cagers carry on as before.

Allowing motorcycles to weave between the lanes is extremely dangerous for the motorcycler's and the other motorists. They don't allow that in other states. With all the congestion on the roads in LA, I am surprised they allow it here.

A sample of 300 is statistically unstable. This isn't going to be usable.

That said, I think any longtime rider can tell you what the results will find: The additional fatalities (beyond the decrease from 30 years of DUI campaigns) have come from car drivers. Speeding, not stopping at stop signs, cell phones, etc. is epidemic, particularly in LA.


Gee, I wonder if inattentive and less courteous automobile drives, distracted from the task at hand with a Latte or cell phone or Ipod or GPS etc. etc. has anything to do with??

Bikes have certainly gotten more powerful. They accelerate harder and brake harder. They can be very unforgiving to the reckless, unwarily or unlucky.

Hell, I won't even WORK on my bike without my helmet.

Motorcycles have also become more expen$ive.
Riders are older in part because younger riders can afford the hot new uberbikes

try allowing loud mufflers on motorcycycles in order to wake up the other people asleep at the wheel, allow pulsating headlamps on motorcycles for drivers that cannot see, and for crying out loud afford motorcycle riders the right of way instead of just killing them?

Anyone who is familiar with road safety in Europe can only shake their head at America's dark ages performance in this area. I'm at least twice as likely to die in a car accident in the US compared with France, and that means something like 6 times more likely to die than in Sweden.
It all comes down to political will at the end of the day. An Englishman's home may be his castle, but it's the Americans' car.
You also don't need a doctorate to understand that motorcycle death rates will be catastrophically bad when you are not required to wear a helmet. How stupid can you get? Americans' love of individual freedoms (bear arms, not have to wear a helmet...) necessarily comes with a high cost. There's nothing so costly as free, in other words.

As a Female motorcycle rider on the 14 fwy, I have found that many of the accidents, could be caused by inexperienced riders on extremely fast bikes, but also by negligent commuters in cars and trucks, I would usually ride in the carpool lane at 4am, and would on a consistant basis be cut off by people crossing the double yellow line, in a hurry to get to work, I guess they figured they were allowed to share the lane, since I did'nt take up the whole lane. People also change lanes in and out at a high rate of speed, usually 75 to 80 mph without even checking for vehicles around them. After seeing a few people removed in body bags, I gave up something that used to be a stress free way of commuting. Not worth dying over. I drive a School Bus for a living, and I am very aware of my surroundings, but even this would'nt save my rear.

I'll save us 3.1 million - the reason is a large percentage of riders drive like maniacs and put themselves in situations that exceed their driving ability.

Motorcyclists are not protected. No amount of helmets or leather can change the fact that when they get into an accident, they will hit the ground very hard, and maybe a car or two along the way. And yet they take the most risks. Lane splitting, excessive speed, weaving, riding one-handed. Of course they are going to die in disproportionate numbers.

I guess that means there are less loud and reckless motorcycles out there...

Todd8080 has it exactly right.

Inexperience and a casual attitude creates a false sense of security. I live (and ride) in the midwest and don't understand lane splitting at all - seems really dangerous!


The Hurt report identified a major factor as motorists failing to notice motorcyclists in traffic, and violating their right-of-way.

So why do so many motorcyclists ignore this finding, and insist on wearing black from head-to-toe?

And why aren't motorists more careful? Why do they spend most of their time behind the wheel talking on their cell phones? Why do they change lanes without looking and without signaling?

I have around 90,000 safe miles on motorcycles over the years...


maybe they instead of spending all that money on finding out why riders of motocycles crash more now. they should just look at the data in front of them more riders more drivers more stress on peoples minds and the fact that gas prices have forced people to pull out those old bikes in their garages that haven't been examined by a mechanic for years. and if they only sample 900 crashes i don't think that will give them the geographical differnces they need to get good results for instance in la the lack of respect of 4 + wheeled drivers for motorcycles.

I agree with comments regarding motorcyclists' skill levels. Most should not be allowed to ride on public roads.

Specifically, it's apalling how few motorcyclists know what counter-steering is. This is why so many run off the road in single-vehicle wrecks. If you don't know counter-steering, you can't possibly swerve on a motorcycle when you need to. Can you imagine car drivers not knowing how to swerve?

When I bring up the subject of counter-steering, most bikers don't have a clue what I'm talking about, and that is tragic.


Just today, driving toward Malibu on PCH, I saw a pair of motorcyclists, both with female passengers, zoom right up the middle of the lane divider and as they say " split the lanes".

I suggest a law to mandate that all motorcycle licensees sign organ donor cards. This might give them a second thought when they make daredevil attempts to tempt fate. Ultimately someone might be able to benefit from their recklessness.

For full disclosure, I've already had the 'pleasure' of running into one of these fools that chose to pass on the right curb, not noticing my right hand signal blinking to indicate I was going to turn right. And so, I did collide with an unlicensed driver on a borrowed motor cycle. Fortunately he was able to walk away but the bike was a total loss.

Todd8080 is very insightful. As an ex-motorcycle rider (I got older, wiser and had kids to look after), the old days of riding were of vibration, clutching (both of which kept you alert), and oh, that unGodful kick starting your bile on a cold morning. This I remember.


Riders have been long advocating for an indepth study on motorcycle deaths. The SF Bay Area (current location) has also seen a significant rise in motorcycle deaths.

Keep updating us on the results please.

The problem exist on both sides... drivers and riders. Drivers are not trained and educated to recognize (look for) others better, especially the motorcycles. A lot of riders are just not trained/educated enough on skills and to realize that the danger out there is for real.

There is a need for a more integrated drivers'/riders' education. More importantly, one that emphasize on sharing the road with different types of vehicles and looking out for each other better.

I prefer the term lane sharing than splitting, as it implies a more courteous co-existence. Riders should signal and wait for drivers to see him/her before proceeding. And drivers should pay attention more, make driving the top priority when behind the wheel (instead of eating, chatting, putting lipsticks, shaving, etc.).

It seems obvious that the high death rate is in part because motorcycles provide so little protection, when compared with trucks or autos.

Also, it can be proven that the closer the mass of the passenger approaches the mass of the vehicle, the more efficiently momentum will be transferred to the passenger during a crash. Motorcycle weight (mass) is fairly close to the body mass of the average passenger, even for a big, heavy 'cycle.

Actually, transfer of momentum from a BICYCLE to a passenger is less efficient in a crash than that from a motorcycle! However, protection of a bicyclist is even poorer than of a motorcyclist.

Instead of spending several million on an inadequate study, why not spend it on something worthwhile. The causes are already fairly apparent and can be seen in the previous comments. Spend the money looking at solutions rather than a rehash of the problems.
The problem I see every day is that both drivers and riders are in over their head with vehicles they aren't ready for. By "not ready for" I mean they don't have the skill or more importantly, the self control. A rider who doesn't have sufficient self control is mainly putting themself at risk. But more often than that I see drivers putting others at risk. After all, even the smallest car is several times heavier and more dangerous than the most powerfull motorcycle.

The individuals conducting this study, shall undoubtedly reach whatever preconceived conclusion they believe most likely reinforces that conclusion. It is also of interest to note that Los Angeles shall recieve this intense scrutiny. In theory, none of the fatalities would find the lack of protective head gear a factor, due to the helmet law in place since 1991.
The singular deciding factor in preventing accidental death by motorcycle, is experiance; acquired only through time on the road accumulating knowledge and expertise. Motorcycles, cars: Life is inherently dangerous. Knowledge; practice, time is the key; none of which can be legislated to provide complete safety. Many have died: Yes! More, many more live through each mile

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