Motorcycle Accidents: Common Causes

Motorcycle speeding, lane splitting, and other common factors causing motorcycle accidents.

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Motorcycle accidents, though not necessarily more frequent than other types of accidents, are more likely to result in serious injury or death. According to the federal government, per mile traveled in 2006, there were 35 times more deaths from motorcycle accidents than from car accidents. Because of these alarming statistics, it pays for motorcyclists to learn about the most frequent causes of accidents and then use this information to reduce their level of risk. (To learn about the special risks facing motorcycle riders, see Nolo's article Motorcycle Accidents: An Overview.)

Motorcycles in Head-On Collisions

Crashes involving motorcycles and other vehicles account for 56% of motorcycle accident deaths. In the vast majority of these accidents, the car strikes the motorcycle from the front --78% of the time. (The car strikes the motorcycle from the rear only 5% of the time.) Head-on collisions between a car and motorcycle are often fatal to the motorcyclist.

Cars Making Left-Hand Turns

The single most dangerous situation for motorcyclists occurs when cars are making left-hand turns. These collisions account for 42% of all accidents involving a motorcycle and car. Usually, the turning car strikes the motorcycle when the motorcycle is:

  • going straight through an intersection
  • passing the car, or
  • trying to overtake the car.

These types of accidents are common between two cars as well, but the motorcycle's smaller size makes it even less visible to the turning vehicle. Motorcycles that pass cars within the same lane are even more vulnerable --cars don't expect, and are often surprised by, such motorcycle maneuvers.

Almost always, a vehicle that hits another vehicle while making a left-hand turn will be found at fault for the accident. However, if the motorcyclist was speeding or in the wrong lane, the motorcyclist may be partly at fault for the accident. In most states, this means the motorcyclist will get less compensation from the driver of the car for injuries and damages caused during an accident. In a few states, the motorcyclists behavior could bar recovery altogether. (To learn more about the law when both drivers are partially at fault, see Nolo's article Car Accident Defenses: Contributory and Comparative Negligence.)

Motorcycle Lane Splitting

Lane splitting occurs when a motorcycle drives between two lanes of stopped or slowly moving cars, usually in traffic jams. Lane splitting is a common cause of motorcycle accidents due to several factors:

  • the close proximity of the cars to the motorcycle
  • the reduced space the motorcycle has to maneuver, and
  • the fact that the cars don't anticipate that any vehicle or motorcycle will be passing them in slowed or stopped traffic.

If an accident occurs while a motorcycle is lane splitting, whether the motorcycle or car is at fault depends on whether lane splitting is permissible in that state, the views of the police officer and judge on lane splitting, and the actions of both the driver of the car and motorcyclist prior to the accident. To learn more about lane splitting, including factors contributing to fault and how to more safely lane split, see Nolo's article Motorcycle Accidents: Lane Splitting.

Motorcyclist Speeding & Alcohol Use

About half of the accidents involving a single motorcycle are caused by speeding or alcohol use. This statistic is not surprising and these factors play a large role in accidents among cars and other vehicles as well. However, because motorcycles don't provide much protection to the rider, crashes involving speeding or alcohol are much more likely to result in death or serious injury.

Collisions Between Motorcycles and Fixed Objects

Motorcycles colliding with fixed objects accounts for 25% of motorcyclist deaths, but just 18% of car crash deaths. Again, because the motorcyclist is not surrounded by a box of metal and is likely to be thrown far and hard, such accidents are more deadly when riding a motorcycle.

Road Hazards Facing Motorcyclists

Motorcycles face higher dangers from road hazards than do cars and other vehicles. Due to the smaller size and less stable nature of the motorcycle, potholes, dead animals, slick pavement conditions, uneven heights between lanes, and other irregularities or unexpected objects in the road pose a serious safety threat to motorcycles. (To learn more about common road hazards and tips for avoiding them, see Nolo's article Motorcycle Accidents: Road Hazards.)

High Performance Motorcycles

High performance motorcycles, although comprising a small portion of the overall number of motorcycles on the road, account for a disproportionate number of motorcycle accidents. These motorcycles fall into two categories: supersport motorcycles and sport motorcycles.

Supersport motorcycles. Supersport motorcycles are built on racing platforms that are modified for highway use. Because these motorcycles are lightweight and have high-horsepower engines, they can go extremely fast -- up to 160 mph. Most supersport motorcycle riders are under the age of 30, another contributing factor to the higher accident rate since younger motorcycle riders tend to be less cautious and take more risks than older riders.

Sport motorcycles. Sport motorcycles are similar to supersport motorcycles, but have a lower power to weight ratio. Drivers of sport motorcycles tend to be under the age of 34.

The death rate among riders of supersport motorcycle accidents is four times that of riders of conventional motorcycles, like cruisers, standards, and touring motorcycles. The riders of the more conventional motorcycles are also older --usually age 40 and above. The death rate among riders of sport motorcycles is two times that of conventional motorcycle riders.

Motorcyclists are more at risk for fatal or serious accidents on the road than are drivers. Yet, motorcycle riders can increase safety by being aware of the common causes of accidents and taking steps to reduce or avoid the risk, whether it be taking extra care when lane splitting, anticipating road hazards, or resisting the temptation to speed. (To learn more about riding safely, see Nolo's article Motorcycle Safety Tips.)

Getting Help

For help on choosing a good personal injury attorney, read Nolo's article Finding a Personal Injury Lawyer. You can go to Nolo's Lawyer Directory for a list of personal injury attorneys in your geographical area (click on the "Types of Cases" and "Work History" tabs to learn about a particular lawyer's experience, if any, with motorcycle accident claims).

by: , J.D.

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