Motorcycle Accidents: Common Causes

Learn about five of the most common causes of motorcycles accidents and what to do if you've been injured in one.

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  • 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. You'll also learn what to do if you are in an accident and how to get compensation for accident-related losses.

    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 (see below for more on the importance of fault in car accident claims). 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 a 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.

    Step to Take If You've Been Injured in a Motorcycle Accident

    Your first priority after a motorcycle accident is to make sure you and others involved in the crash are safe. Call 911 immediately if you need emergency medical attention. If you're not sure if making the call is necessary, call 911 anyway.

    If you don't call 911, call the police. An officer will be sent to the scene. The officer will prepare a police report and speak to everyone involved. A police report can be very useful in settlement negotiations.

    You can take steps to help yourself get full compensation for your injuries. You should gather potential evidence for your car accident case, including:

    • insurance information for any person and vehicle involved in the accident
    • names and phone numbers of all witnesses
    • pictures of the accident scene and your injuries
    • video footage from traffic and security cameras, and
    • a copy of the police report when it's available.

    How to Handle Hit and Run Motorcycle Accidents

    Every state requires drivers to stop at the scene of a car accident. Hit-and-run accidents involve drivers who leave the scene of the crash without stopping to identify themselves and help anyone who might need assistance.

    Hit-and-run drivers flee for all kinds of reasons. The driver might be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, have outstanding tickets, or fear going to jail for hitting a motorcyclist.

    If you've been hit by a driver who flees the scene, don't follow the fleeing driver. Instead, call 911 if you need medical help and then call the police. A hit-and-run violation is a crime.

    Immediately after the accident, write down as much information as you can about the driver and the fleeing car, including the license plate number (even a partial number is helpful) and the make and model of the car. Pay attention to which direction the fleeing car is headed and let the investigating police officer know if the fleeing car has accident-related damage.

    Learn more about your options if you're injured by a hit-and-run driver.

    Filing a Motorcycle Accident Claim

    In most states, the person who is at fault for the motorcycle accident has to pay (typically through an insurance company) for accident-related losses and injuries. Proving fault for a car accident means proving negligence (carelessness).

    You'll probably be making your case to an insurance company first, not to a judge or jury in court. An injured motorcyclist might file a claim against one or more of the following:

    • the drivers involved in the accident
    • the owners of all cars involved in the accident if the owners are different from the drivers
    • anyone who contributed to the accident (like a jaywalking pedestrian)
    • the government agency responsible for road maintenance or planning if poor road conditions caused the accident, and
    • the motorcyclist's own auto and health insurers.

    Most car accident claims settle well before the case goes to court. But if insurance settlement negotiations break down or the responsible party's insurance coverage isn't enough to fully compensate you for your injuries, you can file a personal injury lawsuit. Learn more about steps in a personal injury lawsuit.

    How Much is a Motorcycle Accident Injury Case Worth?

    No two motorcycle accident claims are the same, so it's hard to predict how much compensation you will get for your losses (called "damages"). Most insurance adjusters (and judges and juries) consider:

    • the seriousness of your injuries
    • your past and future medical bills
    • your prognosis (likelihood of fully recovering from your injuries)
    • lost income (past and future), and
    • pain and suffering (physical and mental).

    Will My Motorcycle Accident Claim Settle?

    Your chances of reaching a settlement agreement in a motorcycle accident case depend on factors like:

    • how easy it will be for you to prove that someone else is legally responsible (liable) for your injuries
    • the availability and amount of insurance coverage, and
    • your ability to overcome anti-motorcycle bias.

    Many people, including insurance adjusters, have preconceived notions about motorcyclists. They might assume that motorcyclists are risk-takers who are more likely to be at fault for an accident than other drivers. You'll probably have to overcome this bias with concrete evidence to get a fair settlement offer or verdict in your favor.

    How Long Do I Have to File a Motorcycle Accident Lawsuit?

    Each state sets a limit on the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit (called a "statute of limitations"). The specific deadline varies from state to state and depends on the type of case you want to file.

    In most states, you'll have one to three years to file an injury-related car accident lawsuit. You might have more or less time to file a lawsuit based on property damage only in your state.

    The consequence for missing the deadline to file a lawsuit is harsh—you'll likely lose your right to sue and get compensation for your losses. When in doubt, don't delay and talk to a lawyer (see below).

    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, negotiate a fair 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. You can also fill out the form at the top or bottom of this page to connect with a lawyer for free.

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