Saturday, December 9, 2017

Going deep on motorcycle death rates

Earlier this week, I had one of those business trips where–right after landing in Washington, DC before even leaving the airport–I checked in for my flight home. So, I was destined to spend even less time in Washington than a typical West Wing staffer.

The purpose of my trip was to attend the initial meeting of the Motorcyclist Advisory Council, a 10-member committee assembled by the Federal Highway Administration, and charged with presenting recommendations to the Administrator on infrastructure issues of concern to motorcyclists. This is a broad remit, covering everything from the design of road barriers to V2V and other ITS technology.

One of the first presentations was essentially a statement of the problem: Motorcycles account for an increasingly disproportionate share of all road fatalities. While we account for less than 1% of all Vehicle-Miles Traveled, we make up over 14% of all road fatalities.

This presentation was made by MAC member Chanyoung Lee, who is on the faculty of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida. What follows are my own comments, based on Dr. Lee’s talking points.


Even at a glance, you can see that it’s not really as simple as, “Car deaths are decreasing, but motorcycle deaths are increasing.” Both car and motorcycle deaths have been holding relatively stable so far in this decade. But let’s look at a few interesting spots on this graph...

1–Sharply rising deaths in the late ’70s
Deaths rose sharply in this period, perhaps influenced by a double-whammy of widespread helmet-law repeals in the middle of the decade, followed by a gasoline price spike (which, at least anecdotally, is associated with people commuting on fuel efficient motorcycles.)

2–This trough in the ’90s tracks with a period of very slow sales
Deaths dropped to into the low 2000s in the ’90s. More than anything else, this likely reflects the fact that throughout that decade, only about a quarter of a million new bikes were sold per year in the U.S. Fewer new-bike sales isn’t a perfect analog for the number of new (read: most at-risk) riders, but it’s the best corollary that I have at my fingertips. Between the late ’90s and the 2008 crash, however, we make up for lost time by killing ourselves in sharply increasing numbers. This curve tracks almost perfectly with new bike sales.

3–Car fatalities level off. Or do they?
From the early ’90s until the mid-2000s, it looks as if car deaths have leveled off. But in fact, this is a period in which autos become a lot safer. The key to understanding these numbers is to realize that what matters is the rate of death per vehicle-mile traveled (VMT). According to the FHWA, Americans logged about 2.25 trillion VMT in 1992. That number increased to over 3 trillion VMT by 2007. Auto makers likely deserve most of the credit for holding fatalities largely steady.

4–The recession hurt undertakers too, I guess
The sudden drop in motorcycle fatalities after 2007 is explained by an even more dramatic drop in new bike sales, from a peak of about 1,125,000 in 2007 to barely half a million in 2009. Meanwhile, if auto makers could be proud of holding deaths constant in spite of the fact people drove more through the ’90s, they can bust their buttons over the long and impressive drop in auto fatalities from the early ’aughts to the early ’teens. Widespread adoption of advanced safety features like airbags and ABS.  The real question is, as dangerous old cars continue to age out of the total fleet, why hasn’t this trend continued? More on this later.


This photo’s a tad underexposed; sorry. The blue bars are deaths of riders under 29, the red bars are riders 30-49, and the green bars are riders over 50.

5–“Every new motorcycle sold with FREE body bag”
From the late ’70s through the early ’80s, the vast majority of deaths are young riders. At a glance, all the red bars appear about the same from the late ’70s until the mid-’90s. And those little green caps, indicating deaths of riders over 50, seem both constant and trivial.

6–When sales crash, riders don’t
The sales crash of the 1990s corresponds with a drop in young rider fatalities, but no apparent drop in older, and presumably more experienced, rider deaths.

7–“Let’s blame the old guys”
From the early ’aughts until now, younger rider deaths have held roughly steady (that slight rise in the early-to-mid ’aughts tracks perfectly with the last heyday of supersports-class sales.) Meanwhile deaths of over-50 riders have increased significantly. The easy conclusion: Suddenly there’s a bunch of crotchety old farts who can’t admit they should stop riding; they’re a hazard to themselves. But it’s not that simple, as the next graph’s open to at least two very different interpretations...


This graph looks at the number of fatalities by age of rider. The blue line compiles rider deaths in the 2003-’05 period, while the red line compiles deaths in the 2013-’15 period. It is a pretty cool visualization if you’re into stats, and it looks like the final proof for the doddering-old-fool theory of increased motorcycle fatality. Because, the two lines look remarkably similar but the later stats are all pushed to the right. But–and if you know me at all, this will come as no surprise–that’s not how I read it. Are more older riders dying? Of course. But this graph provides no evidence they’re dying because they’re older.

8–It’s 2013. Do you know where your kids are?
Not if you’re a motorcycle dealer. And that very steep rise between riders in their late teens and those in their early twenties simply reflects the fact that your first couple of years on a full-power motorcycle are as dangerous than all the subsequent ones.

The shift in very young fatalities is visible–those early deaths peaked at 21 in the early ’aughts, but at around 24 a decade later. But the rightward/older shift’s nowhere near as dramatic as it is amongst older cohorts. This shift almost certainly reflects something anyone in the business knows intuitively; there are fewer really young riders out there.

9–The early ’aughts seemed to have been a dangerous time for 30- and 40-somethings
That’s weird, eh? Or is it?..

10–Anyone in the motorcycle business between 2003-’13 knew buyers were getting older
Look at those two peaks: the blue peak by 9 and the red peak by 10. In the decade that separates these two sets of statistics, the average age of a motorcycle buyer increased by about a year with each passing year. All that rightward shift really means is that in 2013 when someone said, “Fifty is the new 40” they were right, at least where motorcycle buyers were concerned.

In fact, those two peaks are actually comprised of the very same cohort, seen ten years apart.

11–It’s easy to look at that red line shift and say, “Obviously, older riders are crashing more,” but you could only draw that conclusion if you had access to numbers no one has ever seen: motorcycle VMT by rider age–information that is not available as far as I know.

Anecdotal, I admit; but I am pretty confident that the larger number of older-rider fatalities reflects a far larger number of older riders, including older novices and/or riders returning after gaps so long they might as well be novices.

Look at the way the lines appear to converge for riders in their mid- to late-60s. If my gut instinct is correct, and there are a lot more riders in this cohort now, it suggests that today’s older riders are as safe as they ever were. Personally I suspect that at least where motorcycle safety’s concerned, seventy really is the new sixty.


This graph compiles three years of fatalities, from FARS data for 2013/’14/’15, broken down by motorcycle type. Sorry, but the exposure on this photo barely captures the ‘Other’ category of motorcycles, which includes everything from Naked/Standard to Dual Sport to MX bikes ridden on the street. I hand-drew lines capturing the other data at peaks and troughs. 

12–Everything their moms told them about motorcycles was true
That huge red bulge indicates the scale of carnage, when it comes to twenty-somethings on crotch rockets. The single most dangerous age appears to be 24; that cohort racked up around 450 fatalities. That’s a lot, but it’s even more striking when you realize the sport bike market is in the toilet and the whole U.S. motorcycle industry currently bemoans the lack of 20-somethings shopping on dealer floors.

13–One way to avoid running out of money in retirement
The second big bulge is comprised of riders in their 50s to early 60s, on cruisers and touring bikes. 52 year-olds topped off at about 360 deaths. The tailing-off of the red zone probably indicates that by the time you hit 60, you’re not riding sport bikes any more–although it could also mean that if you still ride sport bikes at that age, you’re more skilled and/or careful.

The bulge in deaths of middle-aged riders wouldn’t even be noticeable except for one thing: the corresponding dip in fatalities amongst thirty-somethings. Only about 260 people in the cohort of 37 year-olds died in motorcycle crashes. It’s easy to conclude that by the time riders hit their 50s, they’re 40% more likely to kill themselves than they were 20 years earlier. But I’m pretty sure that’s not true. There are a number of factors that could skew deaths by riders in their mid-30s lower. That’s a prime age to be married with children, which is a time of life that many people stop riding.

My suspicion is that this graph would really benefit from some additional information, looking at VMT by each cohort. I’m pretty sure that the first bulge would seem even more significant, while the second would seem less so. What I want to know, before concluding that “the problem is all these old riders” is, what is the number of miles traveled per fatality?

"Will Monsieur be dying alone tonight?" Asked the Maitre d'Hotel.
Last but not least, this graph shows the ratio of single-vehicle crashes in blue, compared to crashes involving other moving vehicles (red). Each bar represents a year, between 1981-2015.

Not surprisingly, the ratio is remarkably constant. Between 40% and 45% of fatal crashes are single-vehicle crashes. You might just be able to see the arrival of the first real race-rep supersports bikes on this graph, in the form of a few years of rising single-vehicle fatalities in the late ’80s.

14–Hit me up. Or not.
The consistency of this graph makes the five-year slope from 2011-’15 look significant. For five straight years, the share of fatalities involving another vehicle increased. Is this the ‘distracted driver’ effect? That wouldn’t surprise me.

One way to change the single:multiple-vehicle ratio that much, would be to add about 200 fatalities to the multiple-vehicle tally. An extra 200 fatal crashes attributed to distracted driving, would mean a significant share of responsibility for the “rising death rate among motorcyclists” was actually car drivers’ fault.

In conclusion...
There was one moment at the MAC meeting when someone looked at the period in the mid-’90s when motorcycle fatalities were half what they are today, and said, “So you see, we can cut motorcycle fatalities in half, because we’ve done it before,” and pointed to that area I labeled '6' above. That’s not a solution the motorcycle industry wants to endorse, because it was a period of dreadful motorcycle sales.

15–Going back to what worked in the mid-'90s is not a safety solution the U.S. motorcycle industry can endorse.

 There have been times in the past when rising motorcycle death rates almost certainly were attributable to rising sales–in particular to new riders (or riders returning after a very long gap.) There is a wealth of data from the insurance industry that confirms the extreme risk to new riders; particularly new riders on sport bikes and/or riders in their first month. Many if not most new-rider training programs have been proved ineffective when it comes to reducing accident and death rates.

By contrast and unsurprisingly, the longer you ride without killing yourself, the less likely you are to kill yourself riding. Is there a limit to that observation? Of course; at some point, as we age, the time comes to hang up the helmet. But an analysis of current FARS data, etc., without information about VMT by those ‘danger-to-themselves’ fifty-somethings, must be seen as speculation. I’m old, so I’m a selective filter for old friends; I admit that, but I’m also certain that the people I know who rack up the most yearly mileage are in that 50+ age bracket.

What the motorcycle industry needs is some way to bring in noobs without exposing them to unnecessary risk. That’s a topic for a different post.

If you've read this far, you must feel that you got something out of this long post. I spent hundreds of dollars traveling to Washington, and writing it took a significant amount of time and brain power. Want to throw a little something my way? I've never asked for a donation (and don't even have a means to accept one on this site) but if you want to reward me, buy this book. It's cheap and funny, and makes a terrific gift for any motorcyclist. 


Note that the most recent NHTSA Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data suggests that in 2016 there were 5,286 motorcycle fatalities (out of 37,461 total) but that in some of these graphs, Dr. Lee used numbers provided by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, so they don’t necessarily add up exactly correctly. Any differences are statistically trivial, both databases appear to show the same trends.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

From 2012: Motorcycles saved my life

The other day was unseasonably warm here in Kansas City in spite of the mist. I thought, This might be one of the last nice days in a while for a training ride, so I lifted the trusty old SR from its hook in the rafters. My route was a variation on a common theme, 'Tour de Bottoms'; around KC's old stockyards and warehouses in the West Bottoms; over into the industrial East Bottoms; then a long climb against the wind into downtown, over Hospital Hill, and home to Hyde Park.

As I rode, it occurred to me that I've probably logged as many saddle hours on bicycles as motorcycles. In a slightly different world, I suppose I'd've been a bicycle writer with a serious motorcycle hobby, instead of the other way 'round.

With Thanksgiving on the way, I was also reminded of this column, which appeared on the old MotorcycleUSA website as a Thanksgiving column five years ago. 

It's all still true.

From 2012: Motorcycles saved my life


A couple of weeks ago, on one of the many perfect fall days we've had this year in Kansas City, I went out on my usual bicycle training ride. The ride wasn't a huge deal; on my single-speed, out of my loft and over into the West Bottoms then up the 12th Street viaduct, through downtown, past River Market and down into the East Bottoms, and back. Basically, it was up and over the biggest hills I could find around my house; an hour and a bit in which I try to make up with quality what I lack in quantity.

Most of the route passed through largely un-, or at least under-used warehouse districts, and the roads, as usual, were pretty empty. The Kansas and Missouri rivers meet here, hence the 'Bottoms' in those neighborhood names, but I only occasionally caught a glimpse of the water. The American Royal, a huge rodeo and stock fair, was on and there were horses hobbled in parking lots, and pastured along the levee.

It was late afternoon. The sun raked in. The sky was a deep, deep blue. Black shadows. Backlit trees in fall colors; as if the the world was created for  cinematographers. I rocked it; if my quads got any more pumped, I'd've been at risk for compartment syndrome. As I approached my turn around point, down in the East Bottoms I came to the long straightaway where I sprinted into a headwind.

The East Bottoms is, well, sort of a weird area. It's mostly industrial, with some run-down residential and a great honky-tonk bar – Knucklehead's – hidden away there, too. I passed a trailer park, and heard the sound of a compressor and a nail gun. The place was was mostly filled with actual trailers like the ones you'd pull on a vacation, as opposed to mobile homes. The nail gun was being used to skirt one of the trailers to keep winter drafts out from beneath it. I thought, The guy should've taken care of that last winter – which was KC's hardest winter in decades. Or, had he just been foreclosed out of some warm home and moved into those new digs?

I turned around, caught the tailwind, and cranked up my cadence, as fast as I could spin. Ripping back down the straight with my head down, for the nth time I felt intense gratitude for such simple pleasures, and for having managed to stay in shape. I spent a few weekends last summer watching Kevin Atherton limp around the Lloyd Brothers Motorsports Ducati at flat track races. While he's resolutely cheerful, it's clear his racing career took a huge toll on him. I've had friends pay far higher prices than that, too, enduring injuries I know I couldn't bear. 

Our sport is dangerous; that's not news. I wasn't one of those riders who thought, It won't happen to me. I thought about danger often. It was never dying that scared me, it was not dying that scared me. I've got some expensive Ti components (and I'm missing some cognitive functions; if you tell me your phone number, I have to write it down one digit at a time) but so far, I've come off lightly.

In fact, I'm able to enjoy simple physical pleasures not in spite of motorcycles and motorcycle racing, but because of it. It's not just that motorcycles haven't killed me (yes, I'm touching wood as I type this.) Motorcycles actually kept me alive.

I've never really told this story in much detail, but 15 or 20 years ago, when I was a club racer up in Canada, I got sick. I had some kind of autoimmune disorder, which depending on which doctor I asked was either lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. You know the expression, 'off the charts'? My white counts were literally off the charts. I got a graphic output after one lab test and the bar graph went off the edge of the page. When I finally got in to see a specialist, after a long wait, he looked up from that lab result and said, “I wouldn't have been surprised to see you come in in a wheelchair.” 

I was lucky that when it came on, I was in outstanding physical condition; I'd been training hard since university. I had a lot to lose before I'd ever be incapacitated. And, typical of people with lupus, I found that while it was painful and utterly exhausting to keep working out, the harder I trained the less I felt the symptoms. Still, I could only slow – not reverse – the course of the disease.

Month by month and year by year, I lost strength and range of motion in virtually every part of my body. It was frustrating because I was club racing and learning to ride better, but I couldn't really capitalize on it. I had to be super-careful not to crash; the drugs I was taking made the risks of injury much higher and besides, just getting out of bed in the morning already hurt like hell. By the time I raced in the TT, in 2002, I was careful not to let my friends see how hard I had to struggle just to get into my leathers or let them know that I'd almost bleed out from a shaving nick. And after that... It was as if my body had been holding out just to let me live out that dream, because in the next year, symptoms took a turn for the worse.

During that year of precipitous physical decline, I found myself wondering, At what point would in not be worth living? My life had, for decades, been defined more by physicality than intellectuality or spirituality. I decided that at the point where I couldn't wipe my own butt, I didn't want to live. Let me tell you, it was seriously depressing and I frequently rehearsed, in my mind, that hunting accident.

Through that period, I really wanted to finish my memoir, Riding Man, and I was grateful that I could at least type. But the thing that kept me going was that I could still ride motorcycles. Maybe not well, or nearly at the level I once had ridden; getting a leg over the saddle was a real trick. You really don't need Too Much Information on this so I won't go into detail, but even though there days when I wasn't flexible enough to reach my butt, I still put in 1,000 kilometers in the alps, unearthing the story of Pierlucio 'Spadino' Tinazzi, the hero of the Mont Blanc Tunnel fire.

So I put off the hunting accident.

Before I reached that point, I found a doctor who changed my drug regimen to one that worked way better, at least in the short-to-medium term. The drugs I was taking were literally toxic – one of them is used to kill cancer cells in chemotherapy – but they radically improved my life. Once they really kicked in, I could ride OK. I could cycle and swim and, as before, the harder I trained the better I felt. For the first time in over a decade, I started to feel better and better, not worse and worse.

After a year and half in France, I moved back to North America, to San Diego. I started working at Motorcyclist, had health coverage for a while, and found a new specialist. By that point, I was an expert on lupus and rheumatoid arthritis myself, and we had a long discussion about which of those two diseases affected me. It didn't really matter, since I had a treatment that worked for the time being, and in any case, neither disease is curable. At that point, when I looked at friends my age who weren't sick, they were mostly in such crappy shape that I wouldn't have traded places with them.

Then my cool job fell apart, I got divorced and remarried – poor but happy – and I started to feel... good. My doctor and I developed a plan to wean me off drugs and, for the first time in well over a decade, my blood tests started to look... normal. I don't use the phrase 'miracle,' that would be too strong. But about two years ago, my doctor – a very experienced rheumatologist – got a little teary when he said, “Don't call me again unless you get sick.” That's not something those guys get to say. Their patients don't get better, the job is just to mitigate the symptoms as long as possible.

I know that the thing that got me through to that point, was, there was a part of me that was determined to stay healthy enough to ride motorcycles. The weights, the cycling, swimming, yoga; the glucosamine sulfate, the 30,000 aspirin, the prednisone, the methotrexate... all that stuff wasn't to ward off pain and depression and slow the progress of the disease, it was, This is what you have to do to ride. You know those idiots in the German-inspired half-helmets who wear those “Live to ride, ride to live” patches? Well, for me that was literal truth.

I climbed up out of the East Bottoms through downtown KC, and right up at the top of that hill in the financial district, I was distracted by something I saw on the sidewalk. Two private security guards were sort of wrestling an unconscious street person upright on bus stop bench, and he ended up slumping heavily to the sidewalk. It only took a few seconds for me to process the situation. It wasn't violent and as far as I could tell, they were just getting ready to call the cops or an ambulance which would be doing the guy a favor. He wasn't very warmly dressed, and when the sun went down the temperature would quickly drop into the thirties. One of the guards noticed me noticing them and as I rode past called out, “Good afternoon sir, how are you?” They'd said similar things to me when I'd passed before under normal circumstances, but his question was incongruous when there was someone lying right there at his feet who was clearly not having a good afternoon .

The light turned green and I pedalled away. At the next light I stopped beside a limousine. The passenger window rolled smoothly down. I looked in at the driver, who called out, “Want to trade?” It crossed my mind that his job paid better than motorcycle journalism, but then I remembered that my job allowed me to the freedom to hop on my bicycle and train, or go for a motorcycle ride, on any unseasonably fine day.

I laughed and said, “No.”

“I'd rather be where you are,” he said. “This is the wrong kind of saddle-sore!”

Then, he rolled up the window and the light turned green.


A few blocks later, one short final sprint, I was home. I locked up my bicycle downstairs, glanced at the Triumph and my '65 Dream, and thought, You deserve to take the elevator today. Before I'd even reached my door, I could smell chili simmering on the stove.