Motorcycle Accidents: An Overview

The basics of motorcycle accidents -- risks, liability, defects, and what to do if you are in an accident.

Motorcycle accidents are like other vehicle accidents in some ways, but because of some unique factors inherent in motorcycles and motorcycle riding, the causes of motorcycle accidents, the injuries resulting from motorcycle accidents, and the liability issues surrounding motorcycle accidents can be very different from car accidents.

Here's a primer on the unique factors to and risks inherent in motorcycle riding, how liability is determined in these accidents, when you might have a defective product claim for your motorcycle, and what to do if you are in a motorcycle accident.

The Risks of Motorcycle Riding

Motorcycles are much smaller and lighter than cars, have only two wheels, and do not enclose the rider in a box of metal. These characteristics, along with others, make motorcycle riding riskier than riding in a car. As compared to car accidents, motorcycle accidents are more likely to result in death or serious injury. For example, according to the federal government, per mile traveled in 2006, there were 35 times more deaths from motorcycle accidents than from car accidents.

Some of the risks unique to motorcycle riding include:

Less visibility to cars. Because motorcycles are smaller and more easily hidden by objects on or off the road, cars are less likely to see them, especially at intersections.

Road hazards. Things that have little effect on a car, like debris, uneven road surfaces, small objects, or wet pavement, can cause a motorcycle to crash. (To learn more about common road hazards for motorcycles, see Nolo's article Motorcycle Accidents: Road Hazards.)

No barrier between rider and road. Unlike passengers in a car, bikers are not protected by a container of metal. Motorcycles also don't have seatbelts, and most don't have airbags (although manufacturers have recently introduced airbags into some models). Wearing a motorcycle helmet can offer some protection to bikers, and motorcyclists who don't wear helmets are more likely to die in an accident than those that do. (To learn more about motorcycle helmet safety and state laws requiring helmet use, see Nolo's article Motorcycle Helmet Laws and Recovery for Injuries.)

Less stability. Vehicles with two wheels are less stable than those with four, especially during emergency braking and swerving. Also, some motorcycle accidents are caused by front wheel "wobble" that can occur at high speeds.

Skill level and difficulty. Riding a motorcycle requires more skills than driving a car. Unskilled riders account for a disproportionate number of motorcycle accidents. In 2001, more than one quarter of all motorcyclists killed in crashes did not have a proper motorcycle license.

High-risk behavior. Lighter and more powerful motorcycles such as sport and supersport bikes can encourage speeding, fast accelerating, and other high-risk behavior.

The good news is that bikers can take steps to reduce the risk of being in an accident, including getting professional training, being aware of and avoiding road hazards, maintaining the bike, and not sharing lanes with cars. Other steps, such as wearing proper protective clothing and a helmet, can reduce risk of injury in motorcycle accidents. (To learn more about safely riding a motorcycle, see Nolo's article Motorcycle Safety Tips.)

Liability in Motorcycle Accidents

Liability in most motorcycle accidents is governed by the law of "negligence." A person is negligent when he or she behaves in a thoughtless or careless manner and causes injury to another person. A driver must use care to avoid injuring other motorists, passengers, or pedestrians -- basically, anyone that he or she encounters on the road. If a driver is not reasonably careful and injures someone as a result, the driver is liable for injuring the accident victim.

In many motorcycle accidents, it is the driver of another car or truck that is negligent. The driver can be negligent by doing something that he or she should not have done (for example, speeding through a red light) or by failing to do something that he or she should have done (for example, failing to check mirrors before making a left-hand turn).

Of course, the motorcycle rider might be the negligent one. An inebriated biker that swerves in front of a car, causing the car to crash, would most likely be liable for injuries suffered by the car's occupants. (To learn about common causes of motorcycle accidents, see Nolo's article Motorcycle Accidents: Common Causes.)

Elements of a Negligence Claim

There are four elements to a negligence claim. The plaintiff (the person suing or making the claim) must show that:

  • The law required the defendant (the person who is being sued) to be reasonably careful. In car and motorcycle accident cases, this is a given. Motorists must exercise care when riding or driving.
  • The defendant was not careful. In determining if the defendant was careful, the law compares the driver's conduct to that of a "reasonable person."
  • The defendant's conduct caused the plaintiff's injuries.
  • The plaintiff was injured or suffered losses. If the motorcyclist didn't get hurt or can't prove any damages, he or she can't recover anything, even if the defendant behaved in a careless manner. (To learn more about the four elements of a negligence claim, see Nolo's article Car Accidents and Negligence: When You Are Liable for Another Person's Driving.)

Defenses in a Motorcycle Accident Case

There are times when a driver of a car is negligent or reckless and causes injury to a motorcyclist, but the motorcyclist also did something that contributed to the crash. In such cases, the vehicle driver might raise the motorcyclist's behavior as a defense to the negligence claim. In some states, such a defense, if proven, might reduce the amount of the motorcyclist's recovery. In others, the motorcyclist's behavior might prevent the motorcyclist from getting any monetary recovery from the defendant. (To learn more about these defenses, see Nolo's article Car Accident Defenses: Contributory and Comparative Negligence.)

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