European Safety Study Finds Familiar Causes for Motorcycle Accidents

European's most thorough study of motorcycle accidents to date points to the usual culprits in crashes but also has a few surprise. For example, speed may not be all that dangerous.

European safety researchers have published what is being termed "the most comprehensive in-depth data currently available for Powered Two Wheelers (PTWs) accidents in Europe." Based on investigations of 921 motorcycle accidents (with 103 fatalities) in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain, Motorcycle Accidents In Depth Study (MAIDS), provides the sort of comprehensive results rarely seen in motorcycle safety research. Funded by the Association of European Motorcycle Manufacturers (ACEM) with support from the European Commission and other partners, the study employed the widely recognized Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) methodology for on-scene in-depth motorcycle accident investigations. Employing the OECD methodology not only maintained a consistency between the groups conducting the accident investigations for MAIDS but also allows the data to be compared directly with that of other researchers who use the same system.

The study also collected exposure data, i.e., information about riders who did not crash, which permits researchers to explore how operators or vehicles that crash are different than the control group that does not crash. The MAIDS authors explain it thus: "This exposure information on non-accident involved PTW riders was essential for establishing the significance of the data collected from the accident cases and the identification of potential risk factors in PTW accidents. For example, if 20% of non-accident involved PTWs in the sampling area were red, it would be significant if 60% of those PTWs involved in an accident were reported to be red, suggesting that there is an increased risk of riding a red PTW. On the other hand, if none of the PTWs in the accident sample were red, it would be an interesting finding, needing further study."

Although there are differences in the highway systems, culture, vehicles, and other factors between the European countries where the study was conducted and the United States or other places, we still believe that many of the findings are useful and probably relevant to American riders. Here are some of the findings that might concern all riders and those with an interest in motorcycle safety anywhere.

** * The Other Guy is still deadly: **The object motorcyclists most often collided with were passenger cars. In half of the collision accidents, the driver of the other vehicle was judged to have made the primary error that caused the crash, and he failed to "perceive" the motorcyclist in 70 percent of the two--vehicle collisions. In 37 percent of the the accidents with a partner, it was the motorcyclist who created the problem. As other research has concluded, drivers with motorcycling experience are more likely to see and avoid motorcyclists.

** * But you don't always need his help: **The second most common point of impact was the roadway itself. Yes, some of these non-collision accidents happened as the rider attempted to avoid hitting a car, but plenty of riders managed to crash all by themselves. In rural areas over half the accidents happened without the help of another vehicle. This still leaves plenty of opportunity for serious injuries from curbs and roadside "furniture," especially those barriers intended to corral out-of-control cars. The authors note that collisions with such barriers often results in "serious lower extremity and spinal injuries as well as serious head injuries." Rider inattention was cited in 10.6 percent of the crashes.

** * It's not the speed. It's the sudden stop: **"There were relatively few cases in which excess speed was an issue related to accident causation," The MAIDS authors note. However, the authors point that a speed differential—going either faster or slower than nearby traffic—was a contributing factor in 18 percent of the crashes. They also point out that the typical accident speed was fairly low. In 70 percent of the crashes, the rider hit the car or other object at under 30 mph. Of course, the severity of injuries went up with crash speed.

** * Don't leave the protective gear at home—or wear it casually: **Since this was Europe, 90 percent of the crashers were wearing helmets, and they did a good job—when they stayed on. However, 9 percent of the helmeted riders lost their helmets during the crash, either because they didn't fit properly, weren't fastened properly, or were damaged during the crash. Other protective gear also did a good job of attenuating the most common injuries—to arms and legs, though such gear didn't prevent all injuries.

** * Because your skills aren't going to save you: ** The study concludes that "73.1% of all PTW riders attempted some form of collision avoidance immediately prior to impact. Of these, 32% experienced some type of loss of control during the manoeuvre."

** * Fewer drinkers crashed more: **Only 5 percent of the crashers had been drinking, which is much lower that in other studies, but the exposure data revealed that drinkers were still over-represented among the crashers. Crashing motorcyclists were more likely to have been drinking than the drivers they collided with.

** * Youth and enthusiasm: **Riders between 18 and 25 years of age crashed more than their fair share, while riders aged 41 to 55 crashed less frequently than the exposure data said they should. In America, riders over 40 have been showing up as a larger percentage of the crash victims, and since there is no exposure data, there has been concern that they are over-represented. The MAIDS study suggests that issue is not their age.

** * Hidden threats: **Both riders and drivers "failed to account for visual obstructions" in as many as a third of the accident. A parked truck, roadside bushes or glare can hide something and we need to allow for the possibility that it might be there. Riders wearing dark clothing were more likely to crash than others. Other studies have shownm that bright clothing helped riders to avoid collisions.

** * Right there in front of you: **The study found that 90 percent of all threats were in front of the riders who crashed as a result of them.

** * It's not what you ride: **The only type of bike that was over-represented in the MAIDS data was "modified conventional street motorcycles." Engine size also didn't show up as a risk factor. There were not enough bikes equipped with anti-lock brakes to draw any conclusion about their effectiveness.

** * Check those tires: **Tire failure was the only technical failure that made a real blip in the MAIDS data, at 3.6%. Brake problems were cited in 1.2% of the accidents.

** * Beware the crossroads: **Over half the accidents happened in intersections.

** * Weather or not: **Weather was deemed to be a factor in 7.5% of the accidents.

** * Mean streets: **"Roadway design defects" caused or contributed to the crashes 3% of the time.

** * The license matters: **Riders with no licenses or improper licenses crashed more than riders who were properly licensed for what they were riding. This reiterates the conclusions of other studies.

** * Trained for this? **Riders who took some sort of rider training were more likely to try some sort of avoidance maneuver, such as braking or swerving. Untrained riders were more likely to sit there and crash without doing anything to prevent it. Riding experience also worked in the rider's favor, both total and on the bike being ridden. Inexperienced riders are also more likely to do something that causes the accident. As other studies have found, you are in more danger on a bike that is new to you (bad news for motorcycle testers).

The full 173-page report can be downloaded as a PDF file from the site of the ACEM, (Association des Constructeurs Europeens de Motocycles, a European motorcycle industry organization). You must go through a free registration and confirmation process for access to it.

The other driver and his failure to perceive the motorcyclist is still a common cause of motorcycle accidents.