Motorcycle Safety Is Everyone’s Responsibility

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

This is the first in a three-part series examining the safety of vulnerable road users, as new federal data show a rise in traffic deaths among motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians last year.

When it comes to learning, I’m one of those people who doesn’t just want to read about something — I want to experience it firsthand whenever possible.

That’s why I got my motorcycle endorsement.

In fact, enrolling in the training course was one of the first things I did when I became an NTSB Board Member back in 2018. I wanted to feel the thrill of operating a motorcycle, learn from my classmates about their love of riding, and gain a deeper understanding of the safety risks all riders face.

Most of all, I wanted to become a more effective safety advocate.

Photo of Chair Jennifer Homendy at a Wheels Up Motorcycle Training Course, in Fredericksburg, VA.

A Tragic New Record

Motorcyclists — motorcycle riders and their passengers — have the highest risk of fatal injury among all motor vehicle users. A major reason is that motorcycles afford riders less protection in a crash.

This means, for every mile they traveled in 2020, the average motorcyclist’s risk of death in a traffic crash was 28 times greater than that of a passenger car occupant.

The picture is only getting bleaker. New data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that 6,101 motorcyclists died on our roads last year. Not only is this an all-time high — it’s a 9% increase from 2020, which held the previous record.

That means the last two years are the deadliest on record for motorcyclists in the United States.

What Needs to be Done

We know what needs to happen to save motorcyclists’ lives.

First and foremost, we need to adopt the Safe System approach to protect  vulnerable road users, such as motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians. It’s so important that it’s on our 2021-2022 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.

A Safe System addresses all aspects of traffic safety: road users, vehicles, speeds, roads, and post-crash care. We must make better safety investments, from road treatments, vehicle design, and collision-avoidance systems to strong traffic safety laws to mitigate risk and save lives for all road users.

But what does that mean in practice? The first step is to change the way we think and talk about safety. When it comes to motorcycle safety, it means we must stop spending so much time talking about what riders should do to mitigate their risk.

It’s not only unfair to put the full safety responsibility on motorcyclists, but it’s also ineffective. In a truly safe system, no individual road user’s action or inaction can cost them their life; there are redundancies built in so that if one part fails, a person is still protected.

The NTSB took a deep dive into motorcycle safety with our 2018 research report, which has specific recommendations to protect motorcyclists. And, because motorcyclists are at such risk in crashes with passenger vehicles, we should also heed NTSB recommendations in our reports on speeding and substance-impaired driving.

Combined, these three reports have 50 safety recommendations — that’s 50 opportunities for regulators, states, policymakers, manufacturers, and associations to save lives on our roads.

As we close out Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month and head into the deadly days of summer, now’s the perfect moment to implement NTSB safety recommendations.

The Time is Now

Getting my motorcycle endorsement helped me see the road from a rider’s perspective. It also deepened my resolve to ensure every motorcycle rider and passenger is safe on our roads.

But you don’t need to have firsthand experience to understand how dire the situation is. After all, we set a tragic new record for motorcyclist deaths last year. 

We can’t wait another day. The families of the 6,101 riders we lost last year deserve action.

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