This article appeared in Motorcyclist Magazine in 2017.
I know that talking about crashing can harsh your mellow. But, I’m betting you’ll want to know how to avoid the expense and embarrassment of an avoidable mishap. One way to increase your chances of arriving home unscathed is to learn from other riders’ mistakes. That’s where the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) come in.
These two organizations teamed up to create an updated study identifying factors that increase the risk of crashing. This is good news, because the last comprehensive study was published way back in 1981. That’s when USC professor Harry Hurt published his findings of 900 investigated accidents and 3,600 police reports of crashes in and around Los Angeles. The problem is that the results of The Hurt Report were based on eyewitness accounts, rider interviews and police reports, which are often unreliable and inaccurate.
What’s different about the new study is that it uses a “naturalistic” approach, recording the actions of 100 participating riders and then documenting factors that resulted in crashes and near-crashes as they happen. Data is captured by GPS, accelerometers, gyros, lane trackers, forward radar and five unobtrusive video cameras connected to the bikes. This technology dutifully observed and chronicled every move in actual riding conditions over the course of 366,000 miles in and around California, Florida, Virginia and Arizona. The average length of rider participation was one year.
The ages of the volunteer riders ranged from 21 to 79 years of age with roughly one-quarter being female. 41 riders owned a cruiser, 38 had a touring bike and 21 piloted sportbikes. Riding experience ranged from 1 month to over 50 years with pre-study annual mileage ranging from 40 to 40,000-miles. 65% attended and passed at least one rider course. For reference, the national average of formally trained riders in 2014 was only 44%.
Over the course of the study, 30 of the 100 riders crashed. That’s a rather big percentage, but it makes more sense when you consider that over half of the crashes (17) were low speed falls. Past studies didn’t include mundane tipovers, because nobody reported them.
The study doesn’t include conclusions about why riders crash or how to prevent a crash, so I will share my thoughts as we go on. First, let’s list the 30 crash scenarios:
- Low speed ground impact (17 crashes)
- Leaving the road (3 crashes)
- Colliding with a vehicle turning left at an intersection (3 crashes)
- Rider striking the back of another vehicle (2 crashes)
- Vehicle crossing the rider’s path (1 crash)
- Being rear-ended (1 crash)
- Getting cut-off by a driver traveling in the same direction (1 crash)
- Poor curve negotiation (1 crash)
- Falling once underway (1 crash).
The descriptions of the crashes are a bit vague, but you get the idea.
Besides crashes, the naturalistic approach allowed the researchers to “witness” and record 122 near misses. This information helps the researchers identify factors leading up to the mishap.
Many of the study’s tables combine both crashes and near-crashes to identify the most common situations that increase risk. I went ahead and paraphrased the report’s most significant findings to save you from having to decipher the data yourself. You’re welcome.
- Slow speed maneuvers are a problem. “Low speed ground impacts” account for over half of the recorded crashes. Whether you consider a slow speed tipover a “crash” or not, these pesky drops are quite common and can cause significant misery. Most are due to insufficient speed, mainly when starting, stopping or making a U-turn.
- Curves are dangerous. 55% of the recorded single-vehicle mishaps happened in curves, mostly in right-hand turns and are usually the result of weak cornering skill and/or a too fast entry speed. We can also include poor visual skills as a common contributor to cornering mishaps.
- Intersections are hazardous. No surprise here. Careless drivers surely can be blamed for not double-checking before proceeding, but too often a big load of responsibility lands squarely on the rider. You must remember that because of your bike’s relative small size it is difficult for drivers to see you or judge your approach speed and closing distance. Slowing down and selecting a lane position that allows others to see you can avoid the majority of mishaps at intersections. You also want to watch for signs of vehicle movement and cover your brakes just in case.
- Rear-ending other vehicles is more common than you think. The number of riders running into the back of another vehicle is surprising. Typically, insufficient following distance, inattention, and a failure to recognize and respond to stopping traffic are likely causes. You can also count on target fixation and weak emergency braking skills as factors.
- Beware of blind Spots. The study recorded several incidents where a vehicle traveling in the same direction nearly sideswiped the rider. This frequently happens when a driver fails to check twice before changing lanes, but is also caused by riders surfing in drivers’ blind spots. Don’t blame the driver if you are hiding.
- Lack of knowledge, inattention and weak control skills increase risk by 9 times. This combo can result in a multitude of problems like running a red traffic light, failing to recognize a crash as it unfolds, failing to negotiate a corner, dropping the bike during a slow speed maneuver, or running into the back of a stopped vehicle.
- Excessive speed and aggressive riding are particularly perilous. The study concludes that riding too fast and passing, particularly on the right, increases the risk of crashing by 18 times.
- Aggressive riding combined with a lack of skill is very bad news. The risk of a mishap increases by a whopping 30 times if you mix squidly behavior with lack of knowledge, skill, and attention. That’s 30 times, people!
- Tricky road conditions are challenging. Participating riders had issues with sloped surfaces and gravel or dirt roads. Uphill starts present problems for many riders as does maintaining control when riding downhill. Riders also have problems managing balance and traction on gravely surfaces.
- Swerving may not be the best choice. Swerving to avoid an object often causes the bike to leave the roadway. This is likely if the rider has weak swerving skills. Many times it’s better to focus on stopping rather than swerving.
- Animals, pedestrians and bicyclists need to be watched. People and animals can be unpredictable, so keep an eye out and cover your brakes!
The VTTI/MSF study confirms much of what we already know: that intersections and curves are dangerous and that aggressive riding is just plain foolish. It also reminds us of the importance of rider judgment, attitude, attention and knowledge so we can avoid situations that call for evasive action. And of course, it reinforces the need for excellent bike control.
You’d be smart to identify your own risky behaviors and then get to work to bolster your survival strategies and improve your control skills. And please don’t think that reducing risk comes at the expense of fun. It just isn’t true. The best riders know that a serious attitude, in partnership with well-developed mental and physical skills, makes riding both safer and more fun.
What are your thoughts?