We hear a lot about how dangerous it is to ride a motorcycle. Compared to driving a car, that’s more or less true, depending on how you frame the numbers. But how dangerous is dangerous?

In this article I take a look at some of the numbers that are available, predominantly from U.S. Sources, in order to get a better idea of how much more dangerous it is to ride a motorcycle than it is to drive a car.

Cage Fighting

It stands to reason that when you get into an accident it’s better to be in a big steel cage with airbags and all sorts of other design and technology features aimed at getting rid of that impact energy before it actually wrecks your body. When it comes to crashing with a bike you have none of that advantage at all. It’s pretty much the big bad world, your body, and any protective gear that you were smart enough to invest in.

The comparative numbers don’t look good, however. In the US, according to the 2006 NHTSA figures, there were 13.1 fatal crashes for every 100,000 cars on the road in the States. For bikes? A shocking 72.34 per 100,000 registered bikes.

The reason these numbers are given in “per 100,000” format is because of course the number of motorcycles and vehicles sold are not the same, so quoting absolute numbers would make cars seems more dangerous simply because way more people drive them. So on the face of it there’s no argument that bikes kill their owners more than four times as frequently when compared to cars.

Unfortunately the story doesn’t get much better.

Reporting In

Over the decades various reports have been compiled about motorcycle safety. One of the most famous is known a bit unfortunately as the Hurt report. This report came out in the early 80s and is responsible for a lot of current U.S. bike safety regulations.

In that original report they found that three-quarters of bike accidents were a collision between a motorcycle and a car. Two thirds of accidents involving only the bike were put down to rider error – braking too hard and too late, entering a corner too fast; that sort of thing.

Half of fatal accidents involved alcohol. The bigger the bike the higher the speed, and the more alcohol involved the more severe the injuries.

On the flipside, when a car and a bike had an accident it was mostly because the car had not respected the motorcycle’s right of way. Unsurprisingly, wearing the right gear had a huge effect on how badly hurt a rider gets when involved in an accident.

An actual mechanical failure was almost never to blame and weather was also very unlikely to result in an accident. The biggest problem was that motorists simply did not see or hear motorcycles thanks to their speed and small size.

Newer reports have more or less agreed with the Hurt report over the years. From the Hurt report’s publication date, however, the number of rider fatalities has experienced a steady year-on-year decline. There may be many reasons for this, such as better bike brakes and tires. However, around 1998 this trend reversed and the fatalities began to climb again, probably because motorcycle performance began to increase significantly.

Learning The Hard Way

So what do these statistics teach us? First of all, yes, swinging your leg over a bike is on average way more dangerous than getting in a car. However, most of the things that cause crashes are actually something you have a bit of control over.

You can ensure that you are as visible as possible to motorists. You can make sure you don’t speed. NEVER drink and ride. Don’t write checks your skills can’t cash. Overcooking cornering, especially on a bike not built for that sort of horsing around, is asking for trouble.

The most important thing that it shows, in my opinion, is that you not only have to think for yourself on the road, but for other motorists as well. Keep an eye on what other drivers are doing and try to react to it before it happens. So many accidents happen because a car driver doesn’t give the proper right of way to a motorcycle. Turning into its path, thinking that it can get away with taking a chance.

Unfortunately car drivers both underestimate how fast bikes go and underestimate how much room they need to brake. So you end up T-boning a car, which is easily a fatal event for the rider.

Stayin’ Alive

The reports may not agree perfectly, but they all indicate that most fatal crashes are caused by things that the rider could have done something about. I have another article on the site that discusses some of the more common bike accidents and how you might avoid them.