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Avoid Motorcycle Accidents

Updated on August 1, 2012

by Kathy Batesel

Defensive driving and good protective gear are the best measures a motorcyclist can take against accidents.
Defensive driving and good protective gear are the best measures a motorcyclist can take against accidents. | Source

I grew up on the back of my father's motorcycle. He was the safest motorcycle rider I've ever known. He was never involved in an accident, but I've had many friends who have lost their lives or limbs to riding.

I wanted to ride. My father discouraged me, telling me that I didn't have the kind of attention span that a motorcycle driver needs. I've wavered on this point over the years, going so far as to buy a bike that I learned to drive, but I never ventured out on the road because in my heart, I suspect he's right.

I've satisfied myself with being a passenger. However, after having been in one near-miss, and finding that my friend's husband Pat was nearly killed the day before I bought her motorcycle (he was in a head brace for months, and his brain was damaged) have left me very cautious about even being on a bike with an experienced rider.

While I learned to be on the lookout for bikes when I'm driving, many people aren't. Despite campaigns designed to increase awareness, motorcycle riders must always exercise as much care as they can.

Defensive driving and high visibility are the two points my father always emphasized, and I've noticed that even experienced bikers could improve their safety by building their defensive driving skills and increasing their visibility to cars.

Who is at Fault? (Viewer Discretion Advised)

The California Highway Patrol cited the rider. The driver of the car hasn't been found, but will get cited, too. Who do you think is to blame?

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Motorcycle Accident Statistics

According to the National Highways Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), bikers are 35 times more likely to die from an accident than someone who crashes while in a car. That's 3500%!

Major studies have shown that 60-75% of motorcycle accidents involve a car. In other words, about one-third of them are due to spills on gravel or losing control in other ways, while the rest happen because another driver didn't see them, thought they were further away than they were, or because the biker didn't have sufficient driving skills to evade a collision.

Most statistics about motorcycle accidents refer to the 1981 Hurt Report, which studied and reported on every motorcycle accident in the Los Angeles area and surrounding rural areas for a 2-year period. The link above will allow you to download a copy of the .pdf file of the report, or you can review these highlights of the report's findings.

There are a few points from the report I want to emphasize here:

  • Over half of all accidents involved riders with less than five months' driving experience on a bike. The remaining 50% were among all other riders of all experience levels.
  • Riders with dirt-bike riding experience were underrepresented in the accident totals. Because dirt-bike riding involves being more alert to hidden risks, developing fast responses to sudden changes, and handling a bike on many terrain surfaces, it may teach drivers to be more alert to escape avenues and to be better able to regain control of their bikes in an emergency.
  • Alcohol impairment was a factor in about half of all motorcycle accidents.
  • Bikes with windshields and fairings were under-represented in accidents, while choppers and cafe racers known as "crotch rockets" were over-represented. The study reported that fairings and windshields promote safety by boosting visibility, but also noted that they're typically purchased by more experienced riders, too.

In the thirty-plus years since the Hurt study was conducted, studies in the United Kingdom have shown similar results, but the Hurt study remains one of the most noted reports on the topic. Since 1981, some changes have taken place that might produce some different results today.

If You Ride...

Have you taken a motorcycle safety course?

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Defensive Driving

Today, many people who learn to ride take lessons from an approved motorcycle safety course.

Back when the Hurt study was conducted, most people learned from a friend or family member. Today, experienced bikers would encourage newbies to take a course. Locating a course is not hard to do with the Internet. Your state's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), Harley-Davidson shops, and police agencies often sponsor courses that cost as little as $20.

Some of the things you learn in a motorcycle safety course include:

  • How to create a buffer zone between yourself and other drivers.
  • How to use your lane position to increase visibility.
  • How to be alert at all times for escape routes.
  • How to use hand signals and eye contact to ensure your safety.
  • How to select clothing and headgear that will protect you.
  • How to stop quickly without overusing your front brake, a major cause of accidents.
  • Why left turns are dangerous and what to do about them.
  • Subtle signs of potential problems.

Although it may not be on the list of what's taught in safety courses, I also believe that riding with other people is a good way to be safer. Multiple riders in a staggered formation are more visible to car drivers than the slender profile created by a single rider on his or her bike.

Protective Motorcycle Gear

There's no doubt that everyone who rides wants their bikes and their clothing to reflect their personality. Sometimes this means more to them than staying alive. My acquaintance Pat, for instance, told me just before the accident that damaged his brain that his helmet "isn't legal, but it looks good." He had what's called a "brain bucket," a half helmet that was black and lacked a visor. Although I talked to him a number of times after his accident, I never got up the nerve to ask what I wondered - whether he still thought it was the best choice.

Even though defensive driving skills are the most important factor when it comes to staying alive, your protective gear matters, too.

Memphis Shades MEP8501 Black Windshield (Batwing Fairing For Fairing 5")
Memphis Shades MEP8501 Black Windshield (Batwing Fairing For Fairing 5")
Windshields help you avoid distractions like flying bugs and needling rain in addition to helping you bike get seen. This Yamaha model

Boost Your Bike's Visibility

The type of motorcycle you drive can make you damn near invisible to other drivers. By making yourself more noticeable, you'll be more likely to get home safely to your loved ones.

  • Select a bike that has sufficient power to help you speed up quickly if you need to escape a problem, but not so much heft that you won't be able to control it.
  • Choose the brightest colors you can for your bike. If you absolutely don't want to go with a brightly colored cycle, then use brightly colored decals and lights to boost visibility like the ones shown here.
  • If your bike doesn't have fairings, a windshield, or saddlebags, consider adding them.
  • Pulsing headlights have a modulator that makes them more visible by flashing between low and high-beams. Although many drivers find it annoying to see one in their rear view mirrors, if they're annoyed, it means that they're seeing the bike.
  • Use high-beams during the day to help get noticed.
  • Consider adding additional lights to form a triangle shape of headlights that's hard to miss.
  • Add reflective tape or decals on the front and/or sides of your bike.

Reflective Decals

You know what reflective decals are, but you may not realize what a variety of them are available. You can opt for simple striping or graphic images that reflect your personality. Use them on windshields, fairings, saddlebags, or gas tanks.

Here are just a couple of the many styles available from Amazon:

If You Ride...

Have you taken any of these steps to boost your bike's visibility?

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Flaunt What You've Got

By now, you already know what I'm about to say. Bright, neon colors will help other drivers see you, too. I know you don't want to look like a clown when you hit the road, but you won't need to. Wearing quality safety gear isn't going to detract from your looks because it can be removed just as soon as you arrive. Reflective safety vests can be rolled up and stored on your bike easily if you don't want to wear a safety jacket that provides more protection in case of an accident.

In addition to your safety jacket or vest, wear sturdy boots or shoes, gloves, durable pants, and long sleeves. If you anticipate hot weather, dress in layers so you can strip some off when you get to your destination.

Full white helmets have been proven to increase safety, too. Add reflective tape, a brightly colored "mohawk" strip, or other attention-getting adornments to maximize the benefit that you get from wearing a helmet.

Test Yourself

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Don't Get Your 15 Minutes of Fame from a Motorcycle Accident

I told you about Pat, who took a spill on gravel. No other cars were involved in his accident. His brain damage changed who he is. He developed violent traits that led his wife to divorce him after more than a decade of being happily married. "I never saw him be like this before," she told me.

Pat was luckier than some. Between four and five thousand people a year die because of motorcycle accidents. Pat and my friend Jack, who lost his leg from the knee down, lived to tell about the crashes that changed their lives forever.

Deaths are far too common among motorcycle riders. If you've been riding for a while, you've probably already lost friends to inattentive drivers and unnecessary risk-taking.

Please take as many steps as you can to make sure you never wind up on someone else's list of lost friends.


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