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Back to Archives | Back to July 2008 Contents 

Reducing Motorcycle Fatalities through Training, Public Awareness, and Legislation: The Washington State Experience

By Brian A. Ursino, Assistant Chief, Washington State Patrol, Olympia, Washington

fter impressive reductions in total traffic fatalities in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the traffic fatality trend for the past decade has remained relatively unchanged in the United States. At the same time, however, motorcycle fatalities have increased at an alarming rate. According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 4,810 people were killed during 2006 in motorcycle crashes, compared with 2,116 in 1997, a 56 percent increase. (2006 is the last year for which complete national motorcycle fatality data are available.)

In the state of Washington, 80 people were killed during 2006 in motorcycle crashes, compared with only 29 in 1997. In the same 10-year period, Washington motorcycle registrations rose
99 percent, compared with the 186 percent increase in motorcycle rider fatalities.

The first graph in figure 1 depicts 30-year trends in motorcycle fatalities for both the entire United States and the state of Washington, showing that the national and state trends are nearly identical. The second graph shows 30-year trends for the same populations in the number of motorcycle registrations.

At face value, many may jump to the conclusion that an increase in motorcycle fatalities is simply an expected phenomenon resulting from the increasing popularity of motorcycles, as demonstrated by the 75 percent increase in U.S. motorcycle registrations between 1997 and 2006. However, the motorcycle fatality rate outpaces the registration increase: for every 100,000 motorcycles registered in 1997, there were 5.53 deaths; by 2006, this number had risen to 7.19—an increase of 1.66 deaths per 100,000 registered motorcycles during
this period.

The graph in figure 2 compares the U.S. fatality rate for registered motorcycles with the fatality rate for all motor vehicles registered in the United States.

Washington State Motorcycle Safety Task Force

In late 2005, three state agencies (the Department of Licensing, the Washington State Patrol, and the Washington Traffic Safety Commission) briefed Washington governor Christine Gregoire on risk factors associated with traffic safety, including the rising rate of fatalities among motorcyclists. Governor Gregoire directed the state agencies to undertake efforts to reduce the number of annual motorcycle fatalities by at least 10 by the end of 2007.

In January 2006, the Department of Licensing set up a task force to assess factors that had led to the increase in fatalities and injuries and to develop a set of recommendations to counter this trend. The task force included the aforementioned three state agencies but was expanded to include the state Department of Transportation, the state Department of Health, and members of established motorcycle rider groups and motorcycle dealers. At the first meeting, the task force adopted the following goal to guide its work: “To determine primary causes of motorcycle collisions and provide recommendations that will reduce fatalities or serious injuries.”

Key Task Force Findings

The task force published a report on June 30, 2006—only six months after its creation—with the following findings:

  • The vast majority of fatalities occurred during daylight hours, in dry weather.

  • More than 80 percent of fatalities occurred between April and September, prime months for motorcycling in Washington State.

  • Half of fatal collisions were single-vehicle crashes, where no vehicle other than the motorcycle was involved. This number increases to two-thirds when looking only at cases where alcohol was involved.

  • The most common contributing factors to motorcycle fatalities, based on law enforcement collision reports, were speeding, impaired driving, and lane error (or combinations thereof).

  • A full third of fatalities involved motorcyclists who did not have valid motorcycle endorsements of their driver’s licenses.

The task force concluded that although multiple factors contributed to motorcycle collisions resulting in fatalities or serious injuries, the most important factors are those within the riders’ control. Therefore, efforts to reduce fatalities and serious injuries should focus on rider skill and behavior.1

Task Force Recommendations

The major recommendations of the task force fall under the headings of training, public awareness, and accountability and enforcement.

The task force concluded that if the 2007 Washington State Legislature took action on task force recommendations, then state agencies could begin implementing many or all of the recommended actions by July 1, 2007.

WSP-Specific Actions

The Washington State Patrol (WSP) began taking action in January 2006, at the same time the task force was created.

When the WSP analyzed the Washington motorcycle death and injury data, many were surprised that alcohol played a part in such a high percentage of fatal motorcycle collisions (40 percent). The common perception that those involved in crashes do not drive their motorcycles while impaired is statistically false.

The first step taken by the WSP was to heighten the consciousness of its troopers regarding this problem. Troopers were shown that while total traffic fatalities statewide were trending downward and that Washington enjoys a death rate below the national average, motorcycle collisions, particularly motorcycle fatalities, were skyrocketing. The WSP also made its troopers aware of the primary causal factors (speed and impaired driving) and provided them with video training on detecting the sometimes innocuous signs of an impaired motorcycle rider.

The WSP Aviation Section also paid closer attention to speeding motorcycles and was able to record, using Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) technology, the apprehension of several high-speed motorcyclists where pilots simply guided ground troopers to motorcyclists, in some instances after speeders had reached their destinations and parked their bikes. The recordings were distributed and aired on local television news broadcasts, educating the public about the WSP’s airborne capabilities. In this way, the WSP was able to get its overall safety message on air without paying a penny while at the same time helping citizens to believe they have a greater chance of being caught if they ride aggressively.

Feedback from the field was also important to the WSP. Many troopers were frustrated that if they stopped a motorcyclist for a traffic infraction and that person held a valid driver’s license without the proper motorcycle endorsement, they could not impound the bike. This issue was brought to the task force’s attention; as a result, enacting legislation to allow impounding of motorcycles in this situation became one of the task force’s recommendations.

Finally, the WSP integrated motorcycle performance measures into its accountability-driven leadership (that is, CompStat-type) process known as the Strategic Advancement Forum (SAF) to highlight the issue and to regularly monitor progress.

As a result of the educational effort among troopers and the continuous discussion of motorcycles with district commanders during monthly SAF presentations, the WSP realized significant success in terms of its enforcement activities. Table 1 depicts just a few of the performance measures included in the SAF.

Successful Legislation

Two key pieces of legislation passed the 2007 Washington State Legislature.

No-Endorsement Impounding: Senate Bill 5134 authorized police officers to impound vehicles operated by drivers without specially endorsed licenses and became effective on July 22, 2007. A key to this legislative success was the task force’s diverse membership. At a hearing before the transportation committees, the supportive testimony of the organized motorcycle groups that were task force members overwhelmed the opposition testimony of several individual motorcycle enthusiasts. Another key to the bill’s success was that the legislation addressed all vehicles requiring a special endorsement, not specifically motorcycles.

In the less than six months that this law was in effect in 2007, troopers impounded 133 motorcycles because the rider did not have an endorsement.

Increased Safety Class Fee: Senate Bill 5273 increased the fee for basic motorcycle safety classes, a prerequisite to obtaining a motorcycle endorsement. The increased revenue allowed the Department of Licensing to increase class availability in terms of frequency and geographic location.

The passage of legislation that addressed both enforcement and education is consistent with the proven, successful Click It or Ticket model.


Even though 8 percent more motorcycles were registered in Washington State in 2007 than in 2006 (203,935 in 2007 compared with 189,596 in 2006), the state experienced a 17 percent decline in motorcycle fatalities (66 fatalities in 2007 compared with 80 in 2006). Moreover, the WSP exceeded the governor’s target decrease of 10 fewer fatalities in 2007 by saving an additional four lives.

The WSP will need more time to determine if these improvements can be sustained. In the meantime, the WSP will continue to focus its efforts on motorcycle safety and will monitor its progress during the SAF. ■


1The task force’s final report can be viewed in its entirety at



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 7, July 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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