Motorcycle Safety: The Last Ride, The Final Mistake--And a Remedy

A look at one state's motorcycle accident reports reveals some disturbing trends and fatal rider errors...and also at least one simple safety remedy. From the June 2004 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine. By Steve Garets, Director of Team Oregon Motorcyc

About once a month a report appears on my desktop courtesy of the Oregon Department of Transportation. Its formal title is the Updated Motorcycle, Moped and Scooter Fatalities Report. It's an archive of last rides--a sterile and cryptic assessment of all fatal motorcycle crashes year-to-date, each one as witnessed through the eyes of the investigating police officer. I scan the report--date, time of day, location, presence of alcohol, weather condition, helmet and endorsement. I pause over the description.

  • MC vs. auto; motorcycle doing very high-speed wheelie on Stark St., 80-yr.-old woman pulled out; motorcyclist struck auto. Died at scene.

All states collect fatality data from traffic-related crashes that occur on public roads. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) compiles this data annually in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) database. Facts are analyzed, conclusions drawn and reports issued--and every January 1, the process begins anew.

  • Single vehicle--lost control, slid across oncoming lane, hit curb and retaining wall near tunnel. Borrowed bike, 600 Yamaha, DOA, passenger died two hours later.

The 2001 FARS report indicates that 3181 motorcyclists were killed and an additional 60,000 injured in traffic crashes across the country, an increase of 10 percent and four percent, respectively, from the previous year. The 40-and-older age group accounted for 40 percent of all motorcyclist fatalities. And what were they riding? Look around--big bikes (more than 1001cc) carried almost two-thirds of the fatalities involving riders 40 and over.

This is not to say that younger riders aren't involved--the 20- to 29-year-old group has the highest number of fatalities among all age groups, bringing the mean age of motorcyclists killed in '01 to 36.3.

So what's taking us out? According to the FARS, multiple-vehicle crashes accounted for 54 percent of the deaths in '01. Seventy-five percent of those were frontal impacts--only six percent were struck in the rear. This shows that most crashes develop from hazards right in front of us. It pays to be vigilant and watch where we're going!

  • MC vs. auto. Motorcycle rear-ended Jeep waiting to turn left. Another motorcycle missed Jeep.

The remaining 46 percent of deaths can be attributed to single-vehicle crashes. In almost half (41 percent) of these crashes the motorcycle operators were intoxicated.

  • Single vehicle--motorcycle attempted to pass semi on right side, went off shoulder, hit road sign. Alcohol was a factor in this crash.

Oregon's portion of the FARS report differs from the national perspective. That is to be expected, since each state has differing rules, regulations, climates, riding populations and urban/rural conditions. Oregon has more rural road crashes, with the majority being single-vehicle crashes. Tragically, most of these occur in corners.

  • _Single vehicle--lost control, left roadway on curve, hit power pole.
  • Single vehicle--lost control on curve, went over embankment. Dead at scene.
  • Single vehicle, missed 90-degree corner and landed in ditch. Left 37-ft. skid mark in attempt to stop. Helmet came off during crash._

Exploring Oregon's statistics further, I've discovered corners are a common factor in multivehicle crashes, too.

  • _MC vs. auto; MC rider cut inside on blind corner at speed too fast for conditions, hit BMW head-on.
  • MC vs. auto; MC crossed centerline on corner, struck Ford head-on. MC rider and passenger both died at scene.
  • MC vs. auto; Rider lost control on curve, too much speed, crossed center line approximately five feet over line and hit Dodge head-on._

Lacking any other evidence, it is easy to conclude that excessive speed is the cause of these crashes. Very often there is nothing else to explain the unplanned exit--no gouge marks, no signs of traction loss or mechanical failure, no other vehicle involved, no visible roadway defect or animal strike. Fellow riders accompanying the victim completed the same corner without incident. So why did these riders leave their lane? After coaching thousands of riders, from rank beginners to veteran motor officers, I'm convinced that the answer lies in the eyes. Quite simply, where you look is where you go.

I believe riders crash in corners because they override sight distance--they ride faster than they can see in time to stop, swerve or safely react when the road tightens or something unexpected appears in their paths. Typically, riders make it through the first two-thirds of the corner and then just straighten up the remainder. What rapidly comes into view is a tree, utility pole, highway sign or, in really bad cases, a rock wall, cliff or approaching vehicle. The rider's attention is distracted at the worst possible moment. His eyes lock on the object and he is drawn in that direction as if guided by wire. I've visited crash scenes where there is nothing near the impact area except for a rural mailbox that's been snapped off at the ground. The rider could have cleared it on the left or right if target fixation hadn't taken over his guidance system that day. Your eyes are your guidance system! They feed your shoulder-mounted supercomputer the critical information necessary to corner safely--speed, slope, radius, path, obstacles, etc. The only thing you have to do to begin collecting that information is face your intended path of travel.

To avoid crashing in corners, swivel your head and look through the turn. Look as far as you can, even if it feels uncomfortable at first. Position yourself toward the outside of the lane to increase your line of sight through the curve. Limit your speed at the curve's entrance until you can see the path. Begin your turn only after the clear pathway comes into view. Only then should you begin adding throttle-- when you know where the road leads and what hazards exist.

  • _Single vehicle--rider came around curve, lost control, left roadway and hit power pole.
  • Single vehicle--motorcycle lost control on curve, left roadway, struck small tree. Found next day by pedestrian.
  • Single vehicle--motorcycle lost control on blind curve passing another motorcycle, hit guardrail._

I've watched riders attack corners during our track courses. At the beginning, we hold the riders to lower speeds to show them how to link turns smoothly and precisely. But when the speed-up signal appears, their cornering discipline crumbles. Rather than carving smooth, fluid turns, riders dive into turns too fast while fixating on the entrance (what they see) rather than the exit (what they don't). They turn in too soon, acquire their pathway too late and end up staring at the shoulder as they paint a border-to-border line through the turn. It's ugly. Their turn exits are precariously wide, a condition that is made worse as the subsequent corner rushes into view.

A student rider told me the other day that maneuvering his motorcycle was like "stuffing a cow through barbed wire." It doesn't have to be. A smooth rider can get through corners with much more precision, fewer disruptions and a much greater margin of safety...quicker, too.

Safe and smooth cornering starts with getting good information. Put your guidance system to use by reminding yourself to look ahead very early in the cornering process. Limit your entry speed. Enter turns at speeds that will allow you to stop or escape if the turn tightens or something unexpected blocks your path. Be careful with line selection--stay to the outside of your lane until your pathway comes into view. You can always add more throttle once the pathway is defined. The last-ride archive clearly shows that you can't always take it back.

Steve Garets is director of the Team Oregon Motorcycle Safety Program at Oregon State University. He can be reached at Steve.Garets@oregonstate.edu.

For more information on safe-riding equipment, strategies, techniques and skills, see the Street Survival section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.

Illustration by John Breakey