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Back to Archives | Back to August 2005 Contents 

Highway Safety Initiatives

Highway Safety Initiatives: Motorcycle Safety

By Joel Bolton, Lieutenant, Lake Charles, Louisiana, Police Department

otorcycles are a fun and economical form of transportation for many. More than 5 million motorcycles are on the road in the United States now, representing 2.3 percent of all registered vehicles. As sales of motorcycles have increased, so has the fatality rate for riders.

About 81,000 motorcycles were involved in crashes in 2003, with 3,661 of those crashes resulting in fatal injuries to the rider, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Motorcycle fatalities are up an astounding 85 percent compared to 1987.

The Insurance Information Institute reports that motorcyclists have a per-vehicle-mile traveled death rate 32 times higher than that for passenger car occupants, accounting for nine percent of all traffic fatalities in 2003.

Age, Skills, Speed, and Alcohol
Several factors converge to account for the increase in fatalities. In addition to the higher number of motorcycles on the road, there have been changes in helmet laws in several states. The age of riders has increased with those over 40 representing 45 percent of fatalities in 2003, compared to only 20 percent a decade earlier.

Many crashes are attributed to a lack of basic riding and safety skills, and ignorance of the braking and cornering behaviors of a motorcycle. Speed is involved in motorcycle fatalities at twice the rate for passenger car drivers.

Alcohol is also involved in a significant number of fatal motorcycle crashes. In fact, the rate of legally impaired victims is higher for motorcyclists (29 percent) than for all other passenger car and light truck drivers (22 percent). It is interesting to note that the age group with the highest percentage killed with a blood alcohol concentration above .08 was older than you would expect: 40 to 44 years of age. Forty-four percent of those who died in single-vehicle motorcycle crashes were legally impaired.

Preventing Impaired Driving by Motorcyclists
Effective countermeasures for impaired motorcyclists are the same as those for other impaired driving prevention programs: high-visibility enforcement accompanied by public information and education. There are some differences, however, that law enforcement managers should examine.

For instance, focus groups conducted by NHTSA indicate that riders are not terribly concerned about the injury risks of riding a motorcycle. Injury data may not change rider behavior.

But the focus groups did reveal one fear that was fairly common: tow trucks. Owners of motorcycles take great pride in their machines and understand that a tow truck can damage their bike. They acknowledged little fear of being killed while riding but admitted, in the words of one participant, that the "thought of a cop calling a tow truck to come and haul your bike away" is a sobering one.

Increased involvement by police in rider education programs may help riders improve their skills. Police can also educate peers to intervene when a fellow rider has had one drink too many.

Detecting Impaired Motorcyclists
Officers should be trained and accomplished in the proper administration of the standardized field sobriety tests (SFSTs) using the three-test battery that comprises the horizontal gaze nystagmus, the one-leg stand, and the walk-and-turn tests. The tests are the same for a driver or a rider.

There are some differences, though, in driving behaviors. Motorcyclists, for instance, must sometimes weave in their lane to avoid hazards. Officers know that such weaving by the driver of a car can indicate impairment.

Fortunately, NHTSA has developed and validated cues and driving behaviors that are effective in detecting impaired cyclists. Reviewing these clues with officers under your command may help prevent that next motorcycle fatality.

Excellent Predictors (50 percent or greater probability of DWI at .10)

  • Drifting during a turn or curve

  • Trouble with dismount

  • Trouble with balance at stop

  • Problems turning

  • Inattentive to surroundings

  • Inappropriate or unusual behaviors

  • Weaving, including weaving within a lane and across lane lines but not including the movements necessary to avoid road hazards

Good Predictors (30 to 50 percent probability of DWI at .10)

  • Erratic movement while going straight

  • Operating without lights at night

  • Recklessness

  • Following too closely

  • Running a stoplight or stop sign

  • Evasion

  • Going the wrong way on a one-way street



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 8, August 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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