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Evolution of Motorcycle Safety

Posted on: July 8, 2019

Motorcycle riding, like other forms of transportation, has come a long way over the years. In reality, it’s much safer to ride today than ever before. Statistics show that motorcycle riders are less likely to die in a crash than they were in previous years. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

  • 4,990 motorcyclists lost their lives on U.S. roads in 2017
  • While that number was tragically far too high, it marked 296 fewer fatalities than in 2016 (or a 5.6 percent drop)
  • The number of fatalities in 2017 was also 322 fewer than in 2008, the 10-year peak for motorcyclist deaths (or 6.0 percent fewer).

Why are fatal motorcycle accidents on a downward trend? A number of factors likely contribute to the decline, which is undeniably positive news. Three specific factors stand out:

  • Research – Today, we know more about brain injuries and, as a result, we better understand the benefits of safety equipment such as helmets.
  • Regulations – Our laws address motorcycle safety from a more knowledgeable perspective. Most laws put safety at the forefront.
  • Technology – We also have made tremendous strides in motorcycle safety technology. Anti-lock braking systems, vehicle-to-vehicle communication and many other advances make riding much safer today.

Here, we take a closer look at the evolution of motorcycle safety in those three areas:

Motorcycle Safety Research

In May 1935, T.E. Lawrence (widely known as “Lawrence of Arabia”) died in a motorcycle crash in which he had not been wearing a helmet. A young Australian neurosurgeon who treated him, Sir Hugh Cairns, went on to pioneer research into the safety benefits of motorcycle helmets and pushed for wider use of helmets.

In 1957, several researchers and safety advocates formed the Snell Memorial Foundation in honor of Pete “William” Snell. Two years later, Snell published its first set of helmet standards, with a focus on helmets for racing. Non-racers soon began to look for Snell standards in their helmets. The non-profit organization has since been a driving force in the advancement of helmet safety technology.

In 1974, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) set strict standards for helmet manufacturers with Safety Standard No. 218. Today, you can tell whether a helmet meets this standard by looking for a DOT-approved sticker on the helmet. Most states with helmet laws require the helmet to meet DOT standards or highly similar state standards. These standards drive helmet improvements.

Motorcycle Safety Regulations

One of the most important developments in motorcycle safety laws was the federal Highway Safety Act of 1966. The law forced states to create and enforce motorcycle helmet laws in exchange for highway funds. By 1975, only three states lacked such laws, the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) reports.

However, a monumental change occurred in 1976. Congress stripped the federal government of its authority to penalize states for failing to have helmet laws. In the years that followed, numerous states repealed or limited their helmet laws to certain groups such as young and/or novice riders.

Today, the GHSA reports:

  • 47 states have some form of helmet law
  • 19 states have a “universal” helmet law – one that applies to all riders
  • 28 states require helmets for only certain riders – typically young and novice riders
  • 3 states have no helmet law.

Oklahoma is a good example of a state whose helmet laws have evolved over time. The state once had a universal helmet law. However, after Congress took away the federal government’s ability to take away highway dollars if states did not require motorcycle helmets, Oklahoma repealed its universal law. Today, the state requires helmets only for riders under the age of 18.

Debate over helmet laws continues. For instance, in Missouri, a bill awaits the governor’s signature that would repeal the state’s universal helmet law and require helmets for only riders under age 18. At the same time, a bill is gaining traction in Connecticut that would expand the state’s helmet requirement to riders age 21 and under. Many people in that state still push for a universal law.

Motorcycle Safety Technology

When we think of advances in motorcycle safety technology, most of our focus is on helmets. They clearly play a key role in preventing brain injury, spinal cord damage and death among motorcyclists. Helmets are 37 percent effective when it comes to saving motorcyclists’ lives, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s last study of the issue.

However, today, safety advances go well beyond the helmet. Some current developments are:

  • Air-bag clothing – Motorcyclists can now wear suits with air bags that deploy at impact just like air bags in the steering wheels and dashboards of cars.
  • Anti-lock braking systems – Sensor-activated technology can prevent motorcycle wheels from locking up when a rider has to suddenly hit the brakes. Some bikes today also feature equipment that stabilizes the bike in tight turns.
  • Adaptive headlights – Fixed headlights have long been the standard on motorcycles. Headlights on newer models pivot and shine light into corners.
  • Electronic tire pressure monitors – A motorcyclist can struggle to handle a bike when tire pressure is too low. An electronic monitor will let a motorcyclist know when it is time to check the air.
  • Automatic clutch and shift – While it may seem like sacrilege to die-hard motorcyclists, companies are putting out automatic transmission motorcycles today. They can be helpful for newer riders.
  • Vehicle-to-vehicle communication – If motorcycles can communicate with other vehicles on the road, it opens the door to a new world of safety technology, including crash-avoidance systems.

What’s the Future of Motorcycle Safety?

As you can see, the combination of research, regulations and technology should continue to drive the evolution of motorcycle safety in our country. The future may very well see helmets that are designed to provide both greater comfort and enhanced protection for the rider’s brain. We may also see a trend towards motorcycles that cut down on the ability of operator error to contribute to crashes (a trend that would mirror the movement towards self-driving cars). As safety technology evolves, laws will need to keep pace with these advances and may even incentivize advances in safety.

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