Common Tread

Motorcycle fatality stats and a word about booze

May 10, 2018

Three years ago, when I wrote about the latest statistics on motorcycle fatalities from the Governors Highway Safety Association, there was the merest suggestion of a downward trend in rider fatalities, but I focused instead on the things we could do to increase our odds for survival. Though I chose to focus on other tactics in my article three years ago, one of the factors within our control is not riding while impaired.

The GHSA has issued preliminary numbers on motorcycle fatalities for 2017, and not a lot has changed. The GHSA estimates that fatalities declined 5.6 percent from 2016, but that doesn’t indicate a trend, at least not yet. It merely reverses the 5.1 percent increase from 2015 to 2016.

motorcycle fatalities chart
GHSA illustration.

The GHSA study breaks down fatalities by state. That results in some stats that are mildly interesting (Alaska is the state where motorcyclists account for the smallest percentage of road fatalities, at 7.1 percent, and Nevada is highest, at 22.6 percent) or not as meaningful as you might think (Rhode Island’s 175 percent increase year over year is less dire when you realize it’s a change from four deaths in 2016 to 11 in 2017). Of course the real information is in the aggregate numbers.

Some trends are continuing. Riders are getting older. Riders over age 40 accounted for 55 percent of the fatalities. Another continuing trend is that motorcyclists are accounting for a higher percentage of total road fatalities, for several reasons. There have been small increases in the number of registered motorcycles and motorcycle miles traveled in recent years, but the biggest factor appears to be a decline in car fatalities.

motorcycle fatalities as a percentage of road fatalities chart
GHSA illustration.

Over the last decade, cars have added more and more safety features, from crumple zones to multiple air bags to more recent driver aids that warn you when you’re straying from your lane or there’s something in your blind spot. Meanwhile, motorcycles have gained anti-lock brakes (in some cases) and traction control (on some motorcycles) and riders’ gear has gotten better (which only helps if you’re wearing it), but those advances can’t match the increased safety margin for car drivers.

And that brings us to what can be a touchy and divisive subject among riders. What about having a drink or two during the ride?

Impaired riding

As much as we like to blame car drivers for the riskiness of riding, the GHSA study says that the majority of fatal motorcycle crashes don’t involve another vehicle. We kill ourselves more often than "cagers" kill us. The GHSA report also says that motorcyclists who die in a crash are more likely to have been drinking than drivers of other kinds of vehicles.

chart
GHSA illustration.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone. For some riders, motorcycling is essentially a social activity, a weekend hobby that involves riding with friends to a favorite eating spot or bar. And what harm could a few beers do, right?

To find a scientific answer to that question, the GHSA report cites a 2007 study by researchers in Minnesota in which experienced riders were tested using drills that were part of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation training course. The riders were tested at various levels of impairment. You can read the full report, which goes into far more detail, but one finding was that while reduced performance was evident at the legal limit of 0.08 percent blood alcohol content, reduced performance showed up in some tests at 0.05 percent BAC.

That goes back to an issue that many of us find to be a conundrum with drinking and riding. You need to have the good judgment to know when the alcohol is starting to affect your ability to ride, but unfortunately one of the things affected by alcohol is judgment. So at the very time it's most critical to make an accurate assessment, your judgment is impaired.

That’s why my personal choice is to keep it super simple and just not drink at all until I’m done riding for the day. I realize that decision seems sensible to some and ridiculously wimpy to others. (Or, as one of my colleagues gently chided me while he enjoyed a single beer with our after-work pizza and I sipped a soft drink, “You’re never going to get better at drinking and riding if you don’t practice.”) We all choose our own levels of risk.

Honestly, when I wrote that story three years ago, I was surprised by how many readers commented with exactly the same policy I adopt. I know there are plenty of other people out there who feel there's no harm in a beer or two. Maybe they just feel pressured not to speak up.

Another factor that’s less studied and increasingly important is impaired driving or riding due to marijuana use. With several states relaxing laws on use of the drug, it’s inevitable that more people on the roads will be under the influence of THC. There have been some limited studies of its effects, and an article in the latest issue of Motorcyclist magazine (involving a lot of Mountain Dew and Taco Bell food) provided some anecdotal evidence. Here at Common Tread, the doc in residence does not advise riding under the influence.

The good news is that drinking and driving or riding has been declining for a long time. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says that alcohol-related traffic accidents overall have declined by a third in the last 30 years.

Whatever choices you make, recognize that riding a motorcycle is not getting a lot more safer and do your best to improve your odds.