Motorcycle Accidents: Common Causes

Learn about five of the most common causes of motorcycles accidents.

Motorcycle riders are overrepresented in fatal traffic accidents:

  • In 2019 alone, motorcycles accounted for 3% of all registered vehicles in the United States, but motorcyclists made up 14% of all traffic deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). And an estimated 84,000 motorcyclists were injured in accidents that year.
  • Riding a motorcycle is inherently risky. But safe riding practices (and helmets) can reduce the number of injuries and deaths.

This article will walk you through (and hopefully help you avoid) common kinds of motorcycle accidents.

To learn about the unique risks and challenges motorcycle riders face, check out Motorcycle Accidents: An Overview.

Cars Making Left-Hand Turns

Collisions between cars making left-hand turns and motorcycles are common, and often deadly. In 2019, NHTSA reported that in nearly half of all fatal crashes involving a car and a motorcycle, the car was turning left at the time of the crash.

Cars turning left typically strike oncoming or passing motorcycles in intersections. Common reasons for left-turn accidents include:

  • driver distraction
  • low visibility (it's often hard for drivers in cars to see and judge the speed of motorcycles), and
  • speeding.

Left-turn right-of-way laws are clear: drivers turning left must yield to other traffic. So, the driver of a car who hits a motorcycle while turning left will almost certainly be at fault. But motorcyclists might share fault in left-turn accidents if they speed, run a red light, or ride in the wrong lane.

To learn more about what happens when drivers share fault for an accident, take a look at Car Accident Defenses: Contributory and Comparative Negligence.

Collisions

Motorcyclists are uniquely vulnerable when they collide with other cars and fixed objects (like trees, guardrails, fences). Unlike passengers in a car, bikers aren't shielded by a box of metal, or cushioned by airbags. And motorcycles are much smaller and lighter than cars. Let's talk more about the most common types of motorcycle collisions.

Motorcycles in Head-On Collisions

According to the 2019 NHTSA report, just over half of the 5,114 motorcycles involved in fatal accidents included another moving vehicle. In three-quarters of those accidents, the car struck the motorcycle in the front. (Only 7% of motorcycles were rear-ended.)

Head-on collisions are one of the most dangerous kinds of accidents for riders because of the mismatched amount of force involved (cars typically weigh four times as much as motorcycles) and the lack of safety features on motorcycles.

Collisions Between Motorcycles and Fixed Objects

Motorcyclists were also more likely to die in collisions with fixed objects, compared with people in passenger cars in 2019. For example, motorcyclists can be severely injured or killed when they veer off a rain-slicked road and hit a tree or a fence. Of the 5,114 fatal motorcycle accidents in 2019, 23% were collisions with fixed objects, compared to 16% for passenger cars, 13% for light trucks, and 4% for large trucks.

Road hazards

The driver of a car might barely notice things like uneven road surfaces, gravel on pavement, and railway tracks. But bikers need to be on high alert for common hazards like these. Because motorcycles are smaller and less stable than a car, irregularities and unexpected objects in the road can cause a motorcycle to crash. Learn more about common road hazards that might cause a motorcycle accident. (Some, like leaves, might surprise you.)

Motorcycle Lane Splitting

Most drivers have seen it: A motorcycle snaking between a line of stopped or slowly moving cars. The practice is called line splitting (or sometimes lane sharing or lane filtering.) Lane splitting is a common cause of motorcycle accidents because cars simply aren't expecting any vehicle to pass them in slowed or stopped traffic, and there is very little room for motorcycles to maneuver when they weave between cars.

As of 2021, only a few states allow lane splitting. If an accident happens when a motorcycle is lane splitting, there's a good chance the motorcyclist will be found at fault. Learn about potential liability in lane-splitting accidents.

Motorcyclist Riding Behaviors

Motorcyclists might not be able to control factors like road hazards, but they can control their own risky behaviors. Some motorcyclists (often young and male, statistics show) are willing to break the law and violate safety rules when they ride. Let's take a closer look at how motorcyclist behaviors contribute to traffic accidents.

Alcohol Use

Riding a motorcycle while intoxicated is incredibly dangerous (and it's a crime). Nearly 30% of motorcyclists in fatal crashes in 2019 were alcohol-impaired (blood alcohol level of .08% or higher).

Speeding

Light and more powerful motorcycles (like sport and supersport bikes) encourage speeding and other high-risk behavior. A full 33% of motorcycle riders in fatal crashes in 2019 were speeding. Younger riders are even more likely to be involved in fatal accidents while speeding. Half of all riders in the 21-24 age group who died in motorcycle accidents were speeding when they crashed.

Not Wearing a Helmet

One of the easiest things a motorcyclist can do to stay safe is to wear a helmet. The NHTSA estimates that for every 100 motorcycle riders killed in crashes while not wearing helmets, 37 of them could have been saved had they worn a helmet.

Some states require all motorcycle riders to wear helmets. Other states require riders to wear helmets based on their age (similar to bicycle helmet laws). For a breakdown of helmet laws in your state, check out: State-by-State Motorcycle Helmet Laws.

Getting Legal Help After a Motorcycle Accident

If you're injured in a motorcycle accident, you should talk to a lawyer. An attorney who specializes in motorcycle accidents can help you handle your insurance claim, obtain an optimal settlement, or advocate for you in court. Learn more about how to find a personal injury lawyer and what to ask a potential personal injury lawyer. If you're ready to reach out, websites like Nolo.com (and All-About-Car-Accidents.com) offer a directory of auto accident lawyers and free case evaluations with qualified lawyers in your area.

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