In recent years, carmakers have outfitted new vehicles with many new features designed to increase safety. These include sensors, rear cameras, airbags and various designs meant to protect the occupants in the event of a crash.
In many ways, these new developments appear to be doing what they are designed to do. The number of U.S. motor vehicle accident fatalities goes up and down from year to year — and the past few years have generated some troubling data — but when researchers look at decades of reports, they detect a downward trend in fatalities among the occupants of passenger vehicles.
Unfortunately, these gains in safety haven’t done much to help motorcycle riders.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 6.084 motorcyclists were killed on American roads in 2021, marking the highest annual number ever recorded. It was a 21% increase over the statistics from just two years earlier, and almost three times the number recorded in 1997.
While motorcycles make up only about 3% of motor vehicles on U.S. roads, motorcyclist fatalities account for 14% of all traffic deaths in the nation. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that, per mile traveled, the fatality rate for motorcyclists is nearly 24 times the rate for people in cars.
There are several possible explanations for this, but the most compelling one is that motorcycles are just less safe than cars by design. Riding on two wheels is inherently less stable than riding on four. Unlike occupants of cars, motorcyclists aren’t protected by a steel cage. If anything goes wrong at high speed, a motorcyclist can easily be seriously hurt or killed.
But, just as technology is improving safety for people in cars, it can help with safety for motorcyclists.
Some manufacturers are now selling motorcycle clothing with built-in airbags, which can inflate extremely quickly to protect riders in the event of an accident. This technology has been available for professional racing for some time, but is now becoming more widely available.
Manufacturers also promise motorcycle safety improvements in the form of anti-lock brake systems, automatic clutches, high-tech tire pressure monitors and adaptive headlights.
One of the most promising new technologies involves electronic communication between motorcycles and other vehicles on the road. This would involve sensors in vehicles that recognize when other vehicles are nearby and warn against collision even when the vehicles’ drivers fail to notice each other.
It may be years before vehicle-to-vehicle communication becomes commonplace, but it could be especially valuable for motorcyclists. A huge number of motorcycle accidents are caused by car or truck drivers who fail to spot motorcycles and violate their right-of-way. Because motorcyclists are so vulnerable to collisions, this kind of accident can have severe consequences for the motorcyclist even when the occupant of the other vehicle emerges unhurt.
Perhaps some day, technology will help prevent this type of accident from ever happening. For now, too many motorcyclists experience permanent injury or death. The injured and the families of those killed deserve compensation for what they’ve lost due to the negligence of other drivers.