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How Dangerous Are Motorcycles?

People love to talk about how dangerous motorcycles are without actually saying how dangerous motorcycles are. Vague terms like “donorcycle” and “street lethal” can make someone feel better about driving a Volvo, but they don’t actually mean anything.

So I set about putting a number on it, and I found that motorcycling can be much safer than people expect!

Motorcycle Accident Statistics

I don’t trust statistics pulled from thin air. Or worse – news articles. So I did the math myself; feel free to follow along or skip ahead to the result.

Transport Canada has the cheerful job of counting traffic fatalities each year. It takes them a while, so our most recent report covers up to 2013. To account for statistical error, we’ll take averages across the last five years of data (2009-2013).

  • In Canada, there was an average of ~ 635 000 registered motorcycles / year between 2009 and 2013.
  • Over the same time span, there were ~ 20 533 400 registered light vehicles / year.

But most Canadian motorcyclists don’t ride during the winter. And during the summer, an average rider will still use their car for certain tasks. We must account for that.

  • Polling the office and various used motorcycle websites, I estimate that the average Canadian motorcycle travels ~ 6500 kilometers / year.
  • Looking at light vehicle kilometer trends, we can estimate that each Canadian light vehicle traveled an average of ~ 15 072 kilometers / year from 2009-2013.

So, the ratio of light vehicle kilometers to motorcycle kilometers is:

(~ 20 533 400 RLV * 15 072 kms) :  ( ~ 635 000 RM * 6500 kms) =  74.98 : 1

In other words, Canadian cars travel about 75 kilometers for every kilometer that Canadian motorcycles travel.

Now:

  • An average of ~ 187.4 motorcyclists died in traffic collisions per year between 2009 and 2013.
  • Over the same time period, an average of ~ 1064.6 drivers died in traffic collisions per year.

That last number includes commercial vehicle drivers, which we need to discount. Everyone wants to know if motorcycles are more dangerous than cars. On the flip side, nobody ever asks: “How dangerous is riding a motorcycle, when compared to driving a school bus?”

  • In Canada, roughly 19% of fatal incidents involve a commercial vehicle. Of these, only 13% result in the death of the commercial vehicle driver.

So:

~ 1064.4 driver deaths * (1 – 0.19) * (1 – 0.13) = 1038.4 light vehicle driver deaths / year in Canada.

Therefore, the ratio of light vehicle driver deaths to motorcycle rider deaths is:

1038.4 : 187.4 = 5.541 : 1

And from before, we know that 74.98 : 1 is the ratio between light vehicle kilometers and motorcycle kilometers.

We would expect these ratios to be equal if driving a car and riding a motorcycle were equally dangerous. But they’re off by a factor of 13.532.

How Dangerous Are Motorcycles?

We conclude that motorcyclists are 13.5 times more likely to die in a traffic collision when compared to car drivers. But that’s for a statistically average Canadian motorcyclist. I’m not one of those. Are you?

Let’s dig deeper.

Motorcycle Experience

According to the Hurt Report, over 50% of all motorcycle accidents involve riders who have been on their bikes for less than 5 months. So if you’ve been riding the same motorcycle for a while, go ahead and drop your risk factor!

Blood Alcohol Level

In Ontario, alcohol was a factor in 25% of motorcycle deaths between 2008 and 2014. So if you always ride sober, you can safely slash that risk factor some more.

Speed Limit

In the same survey of Ontario, motorcycle speed was the top contributing factor in 12% of deaths. So if you keep it within the limits, knock your number down again!

Motorcycle Safety Course

According to the Canada Safety Council's stats on Quebec, mandatory motorcycle training can prevent roughly 46% of rider fatalities. So if you recently graduated from Moto School or took a refresher course, then your danger level is decreased even more.

Motorcycle Safety Gear

NHTSA suggests that wearing a helmet is 37% effective at preventing fatalities. Most Canadians wear helmets while riding, so this has little bearing on our stats. However, not every Canadian wears a full face helmet. And according to Dietmar Otte’s motorcycle helmet impact statistics, full face helmets offer 61.4% more impact coverage than half helmets. Likewise, armoured jackets and pants offer more protection than street clothes.

The numeric benefit of ATGATT is hard to nail down. But if you always ride with full gear, you can safely assume that your risk factor will drop.

Motorcycle ABS

In America (which is similar to Canada in this respect), motorcycles with ABS are 37% less likely to be involved in a fatal collision. Many modern machines come with traction control too, which is bound to decrease your danger even more.

Motorcycles Are Safe (When Ridden Safely)

The average Canadian motorcyclist is in 13.5 times more danger than a car driver. But statistically, the “average Canadian motorcyclist” is not 100% familiar with their motorcycle. They are not 100% sober nor 100% within speed limits. The average rider is not 100% decked-out in safety equipment nor 100% graduated from rider training. And the day when 100% of motorcycles have ABS and traction control will probably never arrive.

The good news is, YOU can choose to be 100% covered in all these areas. And for every way that you become better than average, the number “13.5” starts to drop.

So the next time someone condescends about your "donorcycle," you can take them down from their high horse. Or high Volvo, as it were...

More Information on Motorcycle Safety

See these articles on motorcycle safety to learn more about decreasing your risk factor.

Do you think the danger of motorcycle riding is exaggerated? Is the number “13.5” what you expected? Let me know in the comments below!

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