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Common Tread

Ask the doc: What we don't know about motorcycle crashes

Apr 03, 2019

From the Hurt Report of the 1970s to recent studies that have drawn hundreds of reader comments here at Common Tread, there have been many attempts to study motorcycle crashes. And yet, there's still a lot we don't know.

While there is a lot of data collected on us all the time, that doesn't mean we have the data we need to understand how and why motorcyclists crash, and what the repercussions are.

For example, hospitals — and trauma centers, in particular — collect lots of data about those who are injured. Verified trauma centers also generally upload precise pieces of data into a national database called the National Trauma Data Bank (NTDB), and other data regarding inpatient care into another database, the Trauma Quality Improvement Project (TQIP). TQIP is related to the same kind of databank that looks at more general surgical outcomes, the National Surgical Quality Improvement Project (NSQIP), which was birthed by the Veterans Affairs Surgical Quality Improvement Project (VASQIP).

With all of those databases, we should know a lot about patients who sustain injury, and especially those who require surgery. Yet, there are a host of things we do not know about those who get injured on a motorcycle.

Most hospital databases ask only a single binary gear question: helmet present versus helmet absent. All helmet types are treated as the same, and there is no data field for whether it was secured, cracked, had a faceshield, or still remained within the five-year time frame for replacement.

No other gear assessment is made at all. Even if it would be relevant. And in my opinion, it is always relevant. Knowing if the rider was wearing gloves and boots (including height and presence of armor) would be helpful. Given the range of body armor options, it would be important to understand if a jacket was worn and whether there was any armor in it. The same thing goes for pants, as well. When one considers the force required to fracture a major bone, it is relevant to understand if some of the force was dissipated by armor. It gives you a clue as to how much force was involved in the impact, since we generally get little to no other data about the crash.

motorcycle pants
Was the motorcyclist who crashed wearing armored gear? The rider who crashed in these Rev'IT Defender pants was glad to be wearing them. RevZilla photo.

Imagine if we learned that spine injuries were reduced to an important degree by back armor. That might inform jacket makers to at least offer a pocket, if not include such armor. Some riders might replace their basically worthless foam back pad with something useful.

There are things I can guess but don't know. For example, when I recently traveled in southern California, where lane splitting is legal, I was impressed by rider skill, but also by driver accommodation. Drivers routinely made space, perhaps in self-interest to avoid having their mirrors ripped off, but perhaps out of courtesy. I wondered about the ubiquitous anchored reflective markers in the roadway (i.e., Botts’ dots) the motorcyclists needed to avoid to preserve traction and not be jarred out of their seats. They are great at reminding you to stay in your own lane while driving a car, and annoyingly unsettling on a bike.

There are reports that California is not reinstalling them in roads that are getting repaved, perhaps because, most importantly, they have failed to reduce road deaths. Their influence on lane splitters has not been evaluated. I think it's reasonable to believe they could increase the likelihood of crashes. I spoke with a few local motorcyclists, who agreed the dots can be a problem.

Botts' dots
On a cool morning with lots of dew on the ground, Air Force Reserve Senior Airman Justin Blackner crashed when the rear tire of his Yamaha YZF-R6 slipped on one of these Botts' dots near his home in Washington state. Photo by Justin Blackner.

There's other information that those of us in the medical profession would like to know to understand the causes and results of motorcycle crashes but it never reaches us. We do not know the speed limit on the road where a crash occurred and we certainly cannot track the speed the motorcyclist was travelling (since the majority are single-vehicle crashes). What about the terrain? Did it occur on a curve or a hill? Were there stop lights or a sign? This information may be in police reports, depending on the procedures of the jurisdiction, but it doesn't reach the medical personnel who see the results of the crash.

The specific location of a crash is not geotagged so that from an epidemiologic standpoint we could assess the influence of weather on crashes in that location; or whether an intervention has had any impact on crash frequency. We often do this for firearm injuries to determine how best to prevent them, and track the results of each intervention. Why not motorcycle crashes?

Perhaps this will become much easier to do when we are required to have our bikes communicate with each other and surrounding vehicles (such as V2V). Or perhaps when eCall is a universal system for calling help it will also log location and directly upload it into one of the databases identified above. I could only hope.

Of course, this will all lead to someone — or several someones — knowing a lot more about you if you crash. One might worry that if we document that hand injuries are substantially reduced by wearing gloves with certain features, and a rider crashes wearing gloves without those features, or no gloves at all, it could have implications for what is covered, or how much is covered, by insurance. Others may worry that the more that an agency knows about you, the more it is an invasion of your privacy.

We seem to have surrendered a lot of that with smartphone use, where your location, apps, and now screen time are well tracked. Or from your home computer, where things that look suspiciously like what you just drooled over on the RevZilla site will mysteriously pop up in ads running across the top of your homepage. Imagine that! Why yes, thank you, I was still thinking about purchasing that item that I did not get for Christmas.

However you feel about that tradeoff, it's one way we could fill in the many gaps of what we don't know about motorcycle crashes.