Accident Statistics - dispelling some myths
There are a number of myths about motorcycle accidents. Some are
used by safety authorities to justify more legislation. Others are
used by riders to excuse their actions.
If you are a member of either the BMF or MAG, or just interested in
motorcycle politics, you'll know that the EC and various member
governments have had serious concerns about power and motorcycle
Motorcycle manufacturers are slowly waking up to the fact that there
has been a change of approach by road safety campaigners, and that
vehicles capable of such high speeds are being targeted as socially
unacceptable, and possible solutions include compulsory bhp limits
and speed restrictors.
Limiting speed of traffic has been on the agenda in the UK for
months, and Dutch and German governments have shown concern over
recent high performance models. Euro-wide plans for a power limit
have been around in one form or another for ten years. Some
countries have had power restrictions in place for years. Since 1984
French bikes have been restricted to 98 bhp and Swiss riders have to
make do with 85 bhp.
A 125 bhp "gentleman's agreement" in the UK was scuppered,
ironically enough, by Triumph when they released their 143 bhp
Daytona 1200, and since then the power race has been on, and speeds
have climbed to match, to the point where the Hayabusa and ZX12-R
are nudging the 200 mph barrier. The result of concerns in the UK is
that the Big Four Japanese manufacturers have put in place a
voluntary speed limit of 186mph on their most powerful models.
Power limits are generally justified on the grounds that power
equates directly to speed, and that speed causes accidents. The mid
90s Martin Bangemann-inspired 100 hp limit was only ditched by the
EC when the research on which it was based was shown to be flawed.
More recently a Dutch safety study into motorcycle accidents found
no link between accidents and bikes of 100 hp or more and clearly
showed that power is not an issue in motorcycle accidents. The
study, which was carried out by the Netherlands Organisation for
Applied Scientific Research, included a survey of existing reports,
as well as evidence from the Dutch police.
Existing reports clearly showed that the major factors in accident
risk were not engine power, but the motorcyclists themselves
and the accident circumstances
type and condition of the road
Evidence from the Dutch police accident investigators showed that
high speed and taking risks was also a significant factor :
losing control on a bend
other road users wrongly estimating speed
Even there though, there was no evidence that more than 100bhp was
being used at the time.
Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR)
figures published in February 1999 show that in 1998 there were:
24,969 Injury Accidents Involving Motorcycles
498 Motorcyclist Deaths
5,944 Serious Injuries
18,168 Slight Injuries
Motorcycle riders and passengers accounted for 15% of those killed
or seriously injured in 1998, but powered two wheeler traffic
represented less than 1% of all road traffic.
There were 17,422 two vehicle accidents involving motorcycles in
1998 and 5,529 single vehicle accidents. Of the single vehicle
accidents, 1,446 involved one or more pedestrians; in these
accidents there were 1,490 pedestrians hit, of whom 29 were killed
and 344 seriously injured.
On built-up roads, over three quarters of motorcycle accidents
occurred at junctions, and almost a half at T or Y junctions. By
comparison, on non built-up roads, less than a half of motorcycle
accidents occurred at junctions, and just under a fifth at T or Y
The motorcyclist casualty rate was higher on built-up than non
built-up roads. Less than half of motorcycle traffic was on built-up
roads, which accounted for 72% of casualties. The lowest casualty
rate was on motorways. However, the proportion of accidents
involving serious injury was higher on non-built up roads and
motorways, reflecting the higher speeds on these roads.
London had the highest rate of motorcyclists killed or seriously
injured in road accidents but was only slightly higher than that for
Scotland as a whole, but twice that of the South West region which
had the lowest rate. London had the highest rate and the North East
had the lowest rate for all severities of casualty.
Per registered motorcycle, Great Britain had a high death rate in
comparison with other countries. Ireland had the highest and Japan
the lowest. Britain's death rate of 6.8 per 10,000 licensed
motorcycles is about eight times that of the Czech Republic, with
the lowest rate.
When accidents occur
The average daily casualty count was higher during the week than at
the weekend, with Fridays having the most casualties in 1998.
However, the proportion of casualties killed or seriously injured
was higher at the weekend, at 32% compared with 24% during the week.
There is a marked difference between the proportion of motorcyclist
casualties injured during summer and winter, whilst there is much
less seasonal variation in all road user casualties. The highest
percentage of casualties occurred in August for motorcyclists and in
November for all road users.
Who causes accidents?
Riders have long taken (cold) comfort in the findings of the Booth
Report (1987) which, looking at accidents in urban areas, concluded
that car drivers were at fault in two thirds of accidents involving
motorcycles. Equally, high casualty rates amongst the under 25's
were often put down to youth and lack of experience.
The DETR figures show that accidents involving a motorcycle and
another vehicle still account for 2/3rds of all motorcycle
accidents. However, they also show that single vehicle accidents
with no pedestrians or other road users involved accounted for 18%
of all motorcycle accidents resulting in injury. This compares with
14% for cars and 7% for goods vehicles.
However, an in-depth analysis of accidents in Cheshire between 1
April 1998 and 31 October 1998 reported in Street Biker (Feb-Mar
2000), the MAG newspaper. John Moss MBE, Chief Road Safety Officer
for Cheshire (and MAG member) revealed that fully 67% of all the
crashes studied were due to rider error and that the traditional
view that most motorcycle accidents are down to blind Volvo drivers
is badly flawed.
Let's look at the bald statistics:
lost control on right hand bend - 16.7%
lost control on left hand bend - 13.7%
right turning vehicle hit by overtaking
motorcycle - 12.7%
motorcycle hit by emerging vehicle at junction -
motorcycle collides with rear of stationary
vehicle at junction - 7.8%
fell off - 6.9%
collisions on roundabouts - 6.9%
motorcycle crosses carriageway on l/h bend
and collides with oncoming vehicle - 5.9%
motorcycle crosses carriageway on r/h bend
and collides with oncoming vehicle - 3.9%
motorcycle collides with vehicle turning right
across its path - 7.8%
stationary motorcycle hit from behind - 5.9%
others - 2.0%
Sports bikes were involved in 43% of these accidents and the 26-40
age group in an overwhelming 55.3%. The supposedly high risk group
of under 25's accounted for 23.6%. Not unexpectedly in a survey area
which includes the infamous "Cat & Fiddle" over 50% of riders
lived outside the survey area.
How can we interpret these figures?
The fact that London dominates the casualty list is hardly
surprising. The population of London is something like 6 million,
around 10% of the entire population of the UK. In addition, several
million drivers and riders more commute into and out of London.
Traffic density is high over a very large area. What is rather more
of a surprise is that Scotland was only slightly lower. What is not
clear is whether the casualties are concentrated in the Glasgow and
Edinburgh areas or whether rural accidents make a significant
Neither is it surprising that over three quarter of motorcycle
accidents and just under three quarters of injuries occurred at
junctions. If you hit a car, even at twenty miles per hour speed you
are likely to be injured.
What is not so clear until you look at the figures more closely is
that the DETR figures show that accidents out of town occur at
higher speeds and result in more serious injury, even though the
figures for in-town accidents appear to dominate the statistics. The
problem is one of interpretation. Lumping together serious and fatal
injuries is misleading and many serious injuries are not necessarily
life threatening. As I understand it a broken finger requiring
medical treatment would be considered a serious injury and
relatively minor injuries of this kind are much more likely to occur
when you ride a bike and are involved in a minor accident than if
you drive a car.
The way the figures for serious injury and fatalities are taken
together tends to disguise the consequences of rural accidents.
Earlier statistics from 1994 show that 50% of all fatalities occur
out of town.
Although single vehicle accidents account for slightly less than
1/5th of all motorcycle accidents according to DETR figures, these
accidents usually occur outside town and at higher speeds and lead
to more serious injury. This is borne out by the higher proportion
of serious injuries and fatalities occurring at weekends and in the
middle of the summer, which implicates recreational riders rather
than workday commuters.
So who is at fault for rural accidents? A common factor between
Californian, Dutch and UK research into motorcycle accidents is that
many could have been avoided it the motorcyclist had the rider shown
more awareness of potential danger, been more visible or had been
capable of braking, steering or cornering properly. Alcohol,
experience, attitude, high speed and risk taking were other
contributory factors, as were the type and state of the road and
The Dutch study in particular showed that losing control in bends
was a significant factor. The Cheshire figures show that accidents
involving misjudging bends make up 40% of accidents in rural areas.
The fatality rate for these kind of accidents is high. This was made
clear in our local IAM magazine a couple of years ago when a serving
police officer revealed that out of twelve riders killed in Kent in
a year, eleven lost control on bends. The Dutch study also found
that many of the accidents investigated would have been less
serious, or avoided altogether, if the rider had been able to make
an emergency stop.
Other more recent statistics than the DETR report showed that there
has been a shift in location of accidents from urban to rural
environments and that the peak age for accidents has moved away from
young to "born again" riders.
The Cheshire report should shake the traditionally-held view that
bikers are usually the innocent victims of car drivers, which the
DETR figures appear at first glance to support, or that only young
riders are at risk. The reduction in accident rates amongst
youngsters resulting from Compulsory Basic Training is well
documented, and these figures highlight that the 25-40 age group of
riders who largely predate the widespread emergence of training
schools and would have been mostly self-taught are very much at risk
Mr. Moss goes on to consider what conclusions can be drawn from the
research. He says:
"Consideration of the various factors relating to rural motorcycle
crashes leads unerringly to the conclusion that riders are failing
to ride their machines within their personal capabilities even
though the bike itself may have been well within its performance
envelope at the time of the crash. The vast majority of the "bend"
crashes had clues which indicated that the riders had either braked
or shut their throttles mid-bend, resulting in understeer crashes.
In the crashes where right turning vehicles were hit by overtaking
motorcyclists, it seemed that the rider should have foreseen the
likelihood of the turning movement e.g. garage forecourt, side road
Look at the figures. 20.5% of the accidents, the total of bikes
hitting cars turning right or hitting them from behind, can be
largely attributed to poor observation and anticipation, probably
made worse by excess speed, and in my opinion this is not entirely
However, the fact that 40.2% of the accidents occurred when riders
either lost control in, or ran wide in bends is chilling and far
worse than I thought. Bend-swinging is so fundamental to our
enjoyment of the sport that we take it for granted. Now it seems
that we have to think again. As well as a lack of the observation
and judgement skills we need to ride safely, it also betrays that
most riders lack a fundamental lack of understanding of the way a
motorcycle steers and behaves in a corner.
Mr. Moss recognises that whilst police enforcement of existing
traffic laws is important in restricting the activities of a
"lunatic fringe" of riders who flout deliberately regulations, it
cannot by itself tackle the underlying problem of lack of skill, and
cites the North Yorkshire BikeSafe 2000 initiative as kind of mix of
enforcement, education and encouragement that police forces across
the country should be pursuing. However, he rightly points out that
it places heavy demand on police manpower so that its impact is not
as widespread as would be desirable, and indicated that some forces
have declined to join the scheme as they "do not have a problem",
even though their riders may be crashing on another county's roads.
He goes on to say "there is a countywide need to equip riders with
the skills needed for them to avoid or minimise crashes caused by
their shortcomings in machine control, otherwise increased machine
sales will be reflected in a parallel increase in casualties" and
points out the valuable role that the IAM, RoSPA and commercial
advanced riding schools have to play in rider training.
So, research shows that claims that power causes accidents is
flawed. But so is the traditional motorcyclist's view that it is
blind Volvo drivers that kill motorcyclists.
Riding experts like the IAM agree that speed and power alone don't
kill. Speed in the wrong place, speed without judgement, speed
without skill can and does.
The evidence also pinpoints the sad fact that a lot of us can't
manage to negotiate corners without falling off or hitting oncoming
vehicles, and when we get it wrong, the result is often very bad
indeed. The message John Moss is giving is that it is down to us as
riders to put our house in order. As a member of MAG, he can hardly
be classed as a killjoy or a scaremongerer. "Get trained and improve
your riding skills" he says. With the proper skills you can have
fun, but be safe at the same time.