U.S. Motorcycle Fatalities Climbed Again in 2003

Motorcyclists are dying in ever-increasing numbers, but no one wants to fund a study that might determine why.

Preliminary highway accident statistics released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) indicate that motorcycling fatalities rose for the sixth consecutive year during 2003. The number of motorcyclists killed on U.S. highways jumped by 348 to 3,592 in 2003, an increase of 11%.

The increased number of motorcycling deaths plus a rise in the number of SUV occupants killed (up from 3995 during 2002 to 4451 last year) helped to increase the total number of vehicle-related deaths on American highways, by .9% (405) to 43220 total traffic deaths. This number has been trending down in recent years.

However, the statistics also show a decline in the number of reported highway injuries—down overall by 1.2% to 2,891,000, and a decline in injuries sustained in motorcycle accidents from 65,000 during 2002 to 64,000. We don't know if these injury statistics are accurate, but if they are, they seem to indicate a higher ratio of deaths to crashes. A possible explanation is the growing number of states that have repealed or softened helmet laws, and the the greater number of riders riding—and crashing—without helmets.

However, with no recent comprehensive study of U.S. motorcycle accidents, virtually any simple reporting of numbers is likely to raise more questions and debate than it is to answer questions and point to solutions. That's why the American Motorcyclist Association has used the occasion of this announcement to renew its call for a comprehensive study of motorcycle accidents. A bill working its way through Congress provides for such a study, though even if the bill passes it will be some time before we learn if the quality of the study is comparable to the landmark "Hurt Report" of a quarter-century ago.

The complete NHTSA report, "Motor Vehicle Traffic Crash Fatality and Injury Estimates for 2003," is available online as a large PDF on the NHTSA site. Though the numbers are characterized as preliminary they have not changed significantly in the past.

This traffic-camera photo, which appears to show a car (no brake lights) running a light and colliding with a motorcyclist who was waiting at the light, is a reminder that you never know when you might wish you were wearing protective gear.