I have to apologize in advance for this column. For one thing, I am going to discuss the most gruesome subject in motorcycling: road fatalities. It ain’t pretty. It doesn’t make for good coffee table talk. And it sure doesn’t make you want to jump on your Akropovic’ed R1 and really give ‘er.
The second reason I need to apologize is that, while I have copious amounts of data for the United States — where bikers seem to be dropping like flies — and the European Union (where they take their biking seriously), there’s precious little available for Canada, which is why I’ll present more American data than Canadian. That said, our numbers do seem a lot closer to the Yanks than to our continental cousins, which, as you’ll read in a few paragraphs, is not a good thing.
And finally, but perhaps more onerously, I might have to plead mea culpa for my conclusion that, much more often than we think, we’re the authors of our own demise. If recent local police reports are correct — and yes, I too treat them as more anecdotal than rigorous data — car drivers are a lot less responsible for motorcycle fatalities than I thought. Now, with those atonements out of the way, I’ll get down to the bad news:
According to the Insurance Information Institute, 5,014 American bikers died in motorcycle crashes and collisions in 2019. That’s down from the recent 2016 peak of 5,337, but still significantly higher than the 4,518 that perished in 2010. Since there were approximately the same number of motorcycles registered in the U.S. throughout the previous decade — 8,009,503 in 2010 versus 8,596,314 in 2019 — it does mean that the average fatality rate per motorcycle has risen from 56.41 deaths per 100,000 registered motorcyclists in 2010 to 58.33 in 2019. And yes, that does seem to imply that a staggering one in 1,714 motorcyclists died in 2019. Sobering to say the least.
As to why there have been increases over the last decade when both motorcycles (ABS and traction control) and riding gear (air bags, better helmets and CE-approved armour) have improved, most of the difference appears to be attributed to the aging of the biking population. Indeed, the increased age of the average biker seems to be the one consistent factor noted in every single study I have read detailing motorcycle accidents. We are infirm, therefore, we crash, seems to be the conclusion.
Now, at this point in every discussion of motorcycle safety, it’s customary to trot out the equivalent number of fatalities in passenger cars. And, no surprise, the number is smaller, with both cars and light trucks averaging about nine deaths per 100,000 vehicles in 2010, with trucks dropping down to seven in 2019. Even accounting for the far greater number of miles driven in automobiles — the fatality rate per million miles of motorcycling in the U.S.A. is truly frightening — that means that motorcycle owners are between six and nine times more likely to die than car drivers (quadruple or quintuple that number if you’re measuring on a per mile basis).
That’s it, then. Motorcycles are enormously more dangerous than cars.
Not so fast. I’m spending the summer in Europe (yes, lucky me). I’m In Italy, in point of fact, living right at the foot of the Stelvio Pass which, I can tell you, the locals basically use as an open-air racetrack. Italian riders are, shall we say, not the most cautious. Ditto for most of Europe. Germany is famous, of course, for its unlimited speed autobahns and the French, my lord, they’ll split lanes at 100 km/h … into oncoming traffic. And yet…
According to a study by the European Commission, there were just 11 biker deaths per 100,000 registered motorcycles in 2018. Even that number doesn’t tell the full story as that average is skewed by relatively large numbers of Polish, Slovenian and Croatian bikers perishing. Here in Italy, though the numbers are not exact, it appears that a mere seven motorcyclists die per 100,000 registrations.
That number is just a tick higher in autobahn-lined Germany. In other words, neither outrageous speed nor stupidly enthusiastic motorcycling are to be blamed for increased mortality. In fact, the numbers, if accurate, imply that, in motorcycling- and speed-mad Europe, you’re five times less likely to die on a bike than in severely restricted America. And, for the coup de grâce, the EU averages a little less than five occupant deaths per 100,000 registered cars.
Yes, motorcycles are still more dangerous in the EU, but a factor of twice as many fatalities is a lot easier to live with than the outrageous numbers we post here in North America. As to where Canada stands in these macabre sweepstakes, the numbers are sparse, but what limited information I found seems to suggest we hover around 30 deaths per 100,000 bikes. Basically, we’re Americans with a shorter riding season.
As for the why, well, that’s the third thing I have to apologize for, right? Normally, I’d blame the lack of awareness of bikers by North American car drivers as a major contributor to the gross number of motorcycling fatalities. And certainly, the number of times we all have been cut off or had some cager pull a left-hand turn right in front of us would seem to back up that contention.
Unfortunately, recent statistics from my native Ontario would beg to differ. According to the police statistics, in 2020, 37 of the 42 fatal motorcycle crashes investigated by the OPP involved only one vehicle. Almost half the riders involved were between the ages of 55 and 74. That may not rise to the level of rigorous data, but it does give pause.
Sorry for the bad news.