Safer Motorcycles? Let’s Start With Safer Cars!

Because serious motorcycle accidents usually involve a car that violates a motorcyclist’s right of way.

avoiding a crash, motorcycle safety
BMW’s “ConnectedDrive” project is developing vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology meant to protect motorcyclists.©Motorcyclist

Motorcycling is on the edge of a revolution. In the next five to 10 years, fatalities and serious injuries are going to fall like unicycles on ice.

There’s a demographic factor: Old baby boomers crash less than young baby boomers. But the main difference will come from improvements in the cars we so often hit. At least half of all serious-to-fatal motorcycle accidents involve an auto “violating the motorcycle’s right of way.” Mr. Distracted Driver, waiting to turn left, doesn’t see me on my GPz550 and pulls into my path. Boom. So we keep our eyes peeled and our antennae up. We send noobs to MSF courses, we practice our trail braking and swerving, and we wear glowing high-viz jackets. But we still get nailed. As long as car drivers can ignore incoming Kawasakis, these accidents will keep happening.

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One solution is coming from Sweden, of all places. In 2012 Volvo announced that by 2020, nobody would be killed or seriously hurt in a new Volvo. The Swedes already make their cars as crashworthy as possible. But the main focus of this latest effort is preventing accidents from happening at all. Volvo engineers realized that by preventing cars from leaving the road or hitting anything on the road, they could eliminate deaths altogether.

motorcycle crashes, accidents
©Motorcyclist

Volvos will soon be driver-proof. If drivers can’t avoid cars, pedestrians, or V-Stroms, their Volvos will do it for them. Using radio, acoustic, and visual sensors, they will brake and steer automatically. Leaving your lane? Your Volvo will steer you back. Moose in the road? Your Volvo will dodge it. Humans have two eyes and use them sporadically. A modern car can have its virtual eyes looking left and right, forward and back, up and down, all at the same time.

Cars are also becoming telepathically connected. Soon, if the car ahead dodges that moose it will also alert your car. Which will be able to warn you, change lanes, slow down, even tune its steering response and suspension settings for optimum moose-avoidance. Like the rider ahead of you pointing out a rock with his foot—if his foot could reach all the way to your brake pedal, that is.

I like the idea of a car I can’t hit. I like knowing I can’t be in the blind spot of a car that has no blind spots. A driver might not see me, but if her car doesn’t lurch into me, I still make it home. Volvo is leading this charge, but the other major car companies are drafting close behind. I rented a new Volvo V60 in England last summer, and it could drive itself on the motorways, holding its place in traffic while I sat back and relaxed. When traffic braked for Stonehenge, so did Mr. Volvo, as smooth as Pharrell Williams.

vehicle-to-vehicle communication
©Motorcyclist

Libertarians are howling. I hear you. I like to steer myself. That’s why I drive an old, analog sports car and ride motorcycles that, for the time being, still need me. But for every car driver who enjoys driving and does it well, there are three or four who don’t. I’m fine with riding undamaged past a crappy driver, even if that means the crappy driver gets to watch the game.

Motorcycle technology, of course, will soon catch up. KTM, BMW, and Ducati already offer Bosch Motorcycle Stability Control, which tailors braking and power to available traction. Car companies like Honda, BMW, and Audi (which owns Ducati) also make motorcycles, which will soon be able to detect and avoid bad stuff just like their cars. Lives will be saved. We’ll have more old friends to talk to.

Nobody’s going to force us to buy these smarter motorcycles. But because of what Volvo is doing to save ditzy soccer parents today, there might be a lot more of us motorcyclists still riding around in 2025.