Motorcycle Awareness Month: A Crash Investigator’s Perspective

By Michael Fox

Side view of a motorcycle rider wearing protective gearAs an NTSB highway safety investigator, I’ve seen far too many fatal motor vehicle crashes. No matter how many times I’ve been deployed to investigate these crashes, each time I’m moved by what I encounter.

When I arrive on the scene and see the devastation left behind—crunched, twisted metal that once resembled vehicles—I am immediately flooded with thoughts of the people involved. Maybe she was a wife and a mother; he might have been a husband and father; they were someone’s children. Was this person the family breadwinner or caregiver? Someone’s soul mate? A doctor, a teacher, a preacher, a business owner, a police officer, an athlete, a student, a stay-at-home parent?

The reality that the people involved in these crashes are not coming home weighs heavy on me, both while at the scene and later, as I reflect on what I saw at the scene. But I’m not the only one affected. These tragedies have a tremendous effect on the families involved, as well as on their communities. In a single moment, lives are changed forever.

And, yet, in almost every case, the accident was preventable.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data showed that more than 35,000 people were killed in traffic crashes in 2015—a 7 percent rise over the previous year. And nearly 5,000 of those killed were motorcycle riders or their passengers. That equates to about 14 people each day! That’s an unacceptable number. Motorcycles represent just 3 percent of registered vehicles, yet are overrepresented in our crash statistics.

The fact is that riding a motorcycle is very dangerous—it’s 27 times more dangerous than driving a car. That doesn’t mean motorcycle riding is a bad thing, but the dangers associated with riding are something we must acknowledge and address.

As the weather gets warmer and riders become anxious to enjoy it, more and more motorcyclists will emerge on our roadways, and I’ll likely be among them. I’ve been riding motorcycles for more than 30 years, beginning with a Honda 350 when I was in the Army stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. For a while, my motorcycle was my only source of transportation. I also rode a motorcycle while I was stationed in Germany. When I came back stateside and left the Army, I bought a Kawasaki 454 LTD, which I rode for about 5 years before I transitioned to a Honda Shadow 1100 when I turned 40 years old. From there, I moved to the Suzuki 1500 Boulevard that I ride today.

I love riding, and I appreciate these two-wheeled recreational vehicles. But when I get on my motorcycle, I remind myself that, because of its open, exposed design, I’m left vulnerable. Riding a motorcycle is dangerous and I must always be extremely cautious. With more than 30 years of riding experience and numerous years as an investigator, I have learned to be a defensive driver and take appropriate precautions.

As we close out Motorcycle Awareness Month, if you’re a rider, I encourage you to do what I do—not just this month, but every day you ride:

  • Ride sober.
  • Wear safety gear—helmet, gloves, leather protective jacket, boots, and hi-visibility vest.
  • Watch for road hazards and always leave a cushion around yourself.
  • Avoid bad weather.
  • Conduct a pre-trip inspection, looking over the bike before you ride and making sure it’s in sound mechanical order.

I hope that, as a society and a nation, we can work together to eliminate the loss of life we are seeing on our highways in all vehicle types. If you operate a car, bus, or truck, please watch out for motorcycles. If you ride a motorcycle, consider my tips above and put safety first. Recognize that riding a motorcycle is more dangerous than riding in a car, and it’s critical to take every precaution while riding.

Enjoy the freedom of riding, but please, be safe out there!

 

To read some of the motorcycle safety recommendations the NTSB has issued, visit our website.

Also, see the latest NHTSA 2015 Motorcycles Traffic Safety Fact Sheet.

Michael Fox is an investigator in the NTSB Office of Highway Safety.

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