Overview of motorcycle crash issues

Motorcycle riders face more risks of crashing and being injured than passengers in four-wheeled vehicles. Two-wheeled motorcycles are more difficult to operate and more unstable than four-wheeled cars and trucks. Some roadway design and maintenance features add additional risks. Other vehicle drivers may not expect to see motorcycles on the road, may not watch for them, and may not know how to accommodate them in traffic. And when they crash, motorcycles provide almost no protection to their riders.

Crash data confirms these risks. NHTSA estimates that 80 percent of motorcycle crashes injure or kill a motorcycle rider, while only 20 percent of passenger car crashes injure or kill an occupant. For each mile of travel in 2004, motorcycle riders were eight times more likely to be injured in a crash, and 34 times more likely to die, than passenger car occupants. Motorcycle riders now account for about 10 percent of all traffic fatalities nationwide.


As NAMS was being developed in 1998 and 1999, motorcycle rider fatalities had begun increasing slightly from an all-time low of 2,116 in 1997. Since then, they have risen rapidly: up 115 percent to 4,553 in 2005, the last year with complete data. See NHTSA (2005a, 2006a, and 2006b) for data.

bar chart

To get a complete picture, these fatality increases should be compared to motorcycle travel changes. Unfortunately, vehicle miles of travel (VMT) data for motorcycles are not reported directly and must be estimated. These estimates show no change in motorcycle travel from 1997 to 2004. To the extent that the estimates are consistent across the years, they suggest that each mile of motorcycle travel in 2004 was almost twice as likely to kill a motorcycle rider as it was in 1997.

Motorcycle registrations are known quite accurately. From 1997 to 2004 registrations increased 51 percent, slightly more than half as fast as rider fatalities. So rider fatalities per registered motorcycle increased 26 percent during this time. If the travel estimates are accurate, the increase in registrations means that average travel per motorcycle decreased.

Motorcycle trends




Motorcycle rider fatalities



+ 90.4 %

Registrations (thousands)



+ 51.0 %

Miles of travel (thousands)



   - 0.3 %

A final important trend is that motorcyclists are getting older. In 2005, 36 percent of the motorcycle operators in fatal crashes were age 45 or older, compared to 22 percent in 1997.

Conclusions: In 2004, compared to 1997, there were:

  • more motorcycles on the road,
  • operated by older motorcyclists,
  • riding fewer average miles per year, and
  • with higher rider fatality rates both per motorcycle and per mile.

Key problem areas

Three key problem areas stand out in the data. In 2005, in all fatal crashes involving motorcycles:

  • 24 percent of the motorcycle operators involved were not properly licensed,
  • 34 percent of the fatally injured motorcycle operators had been drinking (with a positive BAC), and
  • 42 percent of those who were killed were not wearing a helmet.

The first four sections of this guide address these problem areas: Section 1 on alcohol and other drugs, Section 2 on motorcycle helmets and other personal protective equipment, and Sections 3 and 4 on the related areas of operator training, education, and licensing. Section 5 then addresses other motorists, followed by Section 6 on highway and environmental issues. The guide concludes with Section 7 on management.

General references for the overview and subsequent sections



  • NHTSA (2005a). Traffic Safety Facts 2004. DOT HS 809 919. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pdf/nrd-30/NCSA/TSFAnn/TSF2004.pdf. The annual report of traffic crash, injury, and fatality data from NHTSA’s FARS and GES systems; source of data in this overview. Usually released in August of the following year.

  • NHTSA (2006a). Motor Vehicle Traffic Crash Fatality Counts and Estimates of People Injured for 2005. DOT HS 810 639. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pdf/nrd-30/NCSA/PPT/2006/810639.pdf.

  • NHTSA (2006b). Traffic Safety Facts 2005: Motorcycles. DOT HS 810 620. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pdf/nrd-30/NCSA/TSF2005/MotorcyclesTSF05.pdf. A 6-page summary of key motorcycle crash data from Traffic Safety Facts 2005. Issued annually.

  • Shanker, U., and Varghese, C. (2006). Recent Trends in Fatal Motorcycle Crashes: An Update. DOT HS 810 606. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pdf/nrd-30/NCSA/Rpts/2006/810606.pdf. Data from 1995 through 2004 together with projections for 2005.

Overviews and summaries

  • NHTSA (2006b). 2006 Motorcycle Safety Program Plan. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. DOT HS 810 615. www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/pedbimot/motorcycle/MotorcycleSafety.pdf. An overview of motorcycle safety as of 2006 and a summary of recent, current, and proposed NHTSA motorcycle safety initiatives.

  • NHTSA’s Motorcycle Safety Program Guideline outlines a comprehensive State program. The guideline and other NHTSA motorcycle program resources are available at www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/pedbimot/motorcycle/general.htm. NHTSA plans to update this guideline in 2006.

  • NCHRP (under review). Guide for Addressing Collisions Involving Motorcycles. This guide for States, produced through the National Cooperative Highway Research Program to support the American Association of State Highway Safety and Transportation Officials Strategic Highway Safety Plan, includes discussions and strategies for roadway and environmental issues, rider impairment, operator training and licensing, motorcyclist conspicuity, personal protective equipment, rider and motorist awareness, and research. It contains extensive references. When released, the guide will be available at www.ch2m.com/nchrp/over/default.htm.

  • Hedlund, J.H. (2006). Countermeasures That Work: A Highway Safety Countermeasure Guide for State Highway Safety Offices, DOT HS 809 980, www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/airbags/Countermeasures/. Chapter 5 covers motorcycle safety and discusses operator training and licensing, helmets, alcohol impairment, and communications and outreach. It contains extensive references.