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Common Tread

U.S. motorcycle fatalities down, but streets are still dangerous

Dec 02, 2019

Think distracted drivers are making U.S. streets more dangerous for riding a motorcycle? The stats say you really need to be careful if you're walking. Or riding a bicycle.

Earlier this fall, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued its final statistics on fatal crashes on U.S. roadways in 2018. The top-line number for motorcyclists was a 4.7 percent year-over-year decrease in motorcycle fatalities, with 4,985 in 2018 compared to 5,229 in 2017. That was a better decrease than the 2.4 percent drop in overall total traffic fatalities from the year before, falling to 36,560 in 2018.

Fatalities decreased in 2018 among virtually all groups of road users except two: pedestrians, up 3.4 percent, and bicyclists, up 6.3 percent. (Having attended a memorial service just a few months ago for a relative who was run over and killed by a car while riding his bicycle, I'm not surprised by the statistics.) These are not just one-year aberrations, either. The long-term trends show that pedestrians, bicyclists and, to a lesser extent, motorcyclists, are in more danger on U.S. roads.

NHTSA table
NHTSA graphic.
That conclusion is based on the last 10 years of NHTSA reports. In 2009, pedestrians, bicyclists and other non-motor-vehicle occupants accounted for 14 percent of fatalities and motorcyclists were 13 percent. In 2018, those numbers had risen to 20 percent and 14 percent. Looking at NHTSA statistics from other reports, the overall picture is one of motor vehicle deaths declining in general, remaining relatively flat among motorcyclists, and rising among pedestrians, particularly.

The obvious next question is whether changes in ridership have affected those numbers. More detailed statistics on motorcycling can be found in NHTSA's Motorcycle Safety Five-Year Plan, issued earlier this year. NHTSA's tables show that the number of registered motorcycles is at an all-time high, but both vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by motorcycle and fatalities have stayed within a steady range since 2007. So it appears that any changes aren't due to motorcyclists riding a lot more or a lot less.

NHTSA admits, however, that its VMT statistics are not necessarily reliable. It's harder to gather data on how many miles motorcycles are ridden. For example, one source is odometer readings taken during annual inspections or emissions tests, but in many states, motorcycles are exempt from those requirements. It only takes a quick look at NHTSA's own tables to raise skepticism. Through 2006, VMT for motorcycles had, for years, fallen into a range between nine billion and 12 billion VMT. Beginning in 2007 and ever since, the range has been between about 18.5 billion and 21.5 billion. Did the number of miles ridden by motorcyclists suddenly double between 2006 and 2007? Or did the method of estimating the stats change? I'm strongly suspecting the latter.

Another interesting motorcycle-related stat from this year's report is that alcohol-related motorcycle fatalities declined 10.1 percent year-over-year, dropping from 1,440 in 2017 to 1,295 in 2018. That was a bigger percentage drop than for any other kind of vehicle except the tiny category of "light truck — van" drivers. I don't have any hard evidence to explain that, but my anecdotal observations suggest that the "bar-hopping" demographic is aging out of motorcycling faster than the "coffee shop" crowd. Plus, the overall trend in alcohol-related deaths among all drivers has been declining for some time.

urban riding
As the U.S. population has become more urban, traffic deaths in urban areas have surpassed rural areas every year since 2016. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

As U.S. society has become more urban, fatalities in urban areas in all classes have surpassed fatalities in rural areas. That's especially true among bicyclists. So the bottom line advice is to stick with the trend of not drinking and riding, be on constant alert, even when you're just riding down a city street at 25 mph, and thus reduce your chances of joining the statistics.

Oh, and please be kind to pedestrians and bicyclists. They're having a tough time out there.