Riding has an undeniable charm and thrill. But there’s always danger lurking close by, and the statistics are grim and indisputable. When motorcycles are in accidents, riders usually get hurt and, in some instances, loss their life. In fact, at the very least, we are 35 times more likely to perish in a traffic crash than people in cars. Despite this, the exhilaration of the ride keeps us coming back for more. Even enough to make you wonder — where is the safest place to ride a motorcycle?
The top three places to safely ride a motorcycle are off-road trails, race tracks, and on highways. On the road, and in comparison to city streets, highways are significantly safer, even though the higher speeds might make them seem more risky. The truth is that barely 1 in 1,000 accidents happen at speeds more than 86 mph. Being able to ride at faster speeds often allows you to react more quickly to potentially dangerous situations, preventing many crashes. To further enhance your safety, it’s best to ride in the leftmost third of the lane.
Place Patterns on Motorcycle Crashes
A tragic scene unfolds on Washington State Route 161 as a severely damaged black Honda Rebel 300 motorcycle lays overturned by the curb. The rider, who was heading north on the highway, had their life tragically cut short when a driver suspected of DUI made an illegal left turn on a red light at the Enchanted Park intersection, colliding with the motorcyclist. Despite being within the speed limit, the rider found themselves in an unfortunate and dangerous situation that ultimately led to their untimely death.
Let’s take a closer look at the facts on such unfortunate scenarios…
While motorcycle crashes are common, several studies have put together data showing where most accidents occur:
1. Rural vs. Urban Locations
Depending on land use, state highway departments, with the approval of the Federal Highway Administration (FWHA), delimit certain roadways as urban. Roads outside these bounds are characterized as rural with reduced traffic and fewer stops and intersections. We want to see the distribution of accidents between rural and urban roads i.e., city streets versus the wide-open stretches of back country roads to determine which are safer to ride.
Table 1: Overall and Rural vs. Urban Annual Road Accident Fatalities and Fatalities Per 100 Million Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) Between 2011 and 2020 (1)
|Fatalities||Fatality Rates Per 100 Million VMT||Fatalities||Fatality Rates Per 100 Million VMT|
Source: (FARS) Fatality Analysis Reporting System 2011–2019 Final File, 2020 Annual Report File (ARF)
The data in Table 1 shows a slight dip in rural road accident fatalities from 17,769 in 2011 to 16,665 in 2020 representing a 6% decrease while urban casualties rose by a staggering 49% from 14,575 to 21,650 during the same period.
From this standpoint, it might appear like that urban roads are more risky, but this perception changes when we factor in the higher volume of traffic (Vehicle Miles Traveled) in urban areas compared to rural areas. The “per million vehicle miles traveled” metric allows for a fair comparison by accounting for the lower traffic levels in rural settings. This way, we can compare apples to apples and have a clearer understanding of the dangers of driving on urban and rural roads.
The NHTSA report, however, notes a 1% increase in fatality rates per million VMT on rural roads (1.83 to 1.84). And corresponding to the 49% increase in fatalities on urban roads (as expected) is a 46% increase in the fatality rate per million VMT (0.74 to 1.08). Despite this, rural roads remain more dangerous considering VMT — rural roads posted 1.84 against the 1.08 for their urban counterparts. Interestingly, this is the closest these rates have been in 10 years, with rural roads always having been relatively more dangerous than urban ones.
In 2020, the fatal traffic accidents between rural and urban locations were nearly three fifths — 57% (20,233) — and two fifths — 42% (15,033), resulting in 56% (21,650) and 43% (16,665) casualties, respectively. A small percentage (1%) of fatal crashes occurred in areas where type of land use was undefined
Several factors make the crashes more prevalent in urban areas than rural ones. For example, there is usually a higher traffic concentration, including bicyclists and pedestrians, in urban environments than in rural ones. Moreover, road conditions in urban settings are often significantly worse, with more potholes and debris that can cause a rider to lose control. The higher number of emergency vehicles in urban locations also increases the accident risk.
However, most deadly motorcycle accidents happen on primary, non-interstate roads in both rural and urban areas.
2. Interstate vs. Non-Interstate Roads
A radar chart illustrates the percentage of fatal motorcycle crashes by highway function classification. Accidents are least likely to occur on interstate highways, with only 9% of incidents taking place there. In contrast, 32% of accidents happen on non-interstate principal arterial motorways. A smaller percentage, 6%, of crashes occur on non-interstate expressways. Local roads account for 12% of motorcycle crash fatalities nationwide. Lastly, non-interstate minor arterial and collector roadways each account for roughly 20% of total accidents.
The data analysis suggests that non-interstate roads are more dangerous for riders than interstate roads, despite NHTSA reporting a significant (15%) increase in accidents on the interstate roadways in 2020 above the previous year. In 2021, about 91% of all deadly motorcycle accidents were on non-interstate roads. The reason behind this massive disparity could be that most motorcyclists are usually out to enjoy the landscape and choose non-interstate roads, which often have the most scenic views.
It is possible that while enjoying the landscape on non-interstate roads, many riders may not be as focused on the road as they should be, which can lead to accidents. In contrast, motorcyclists who frequently use interstate highways are likely more focused on getting to their destination quickly and efficiently, which may make them more aware of the road and their surroundings. This difference in focus and mindset may contribute to the higher accident rate on non-interstate roads.
3. Two-Lane Roads vs. Three-Lane Roads
You are more likely to have an accident on two-lane roads than on three-lane roads due to space constraints. Vehicles pass too close to others on two-lane roads, meaning that riders have very little room to maneuver in case of a collision hazard and can easily veer into the opposing traffic lane. It’s no surprise that head-on collisions are common for bikers on two-lane roads and most end in fatalities.
4. Intersections vs. Non-Intersections
A pie chart shows the frequency of crashes at intersections compared to other locations on the road (non-intersections). Most accidents (56%) occur at intersections, with the rest (44%) happening on non-intersections.
The NHTSA report further provides insight on the areas on the road where accidents are likely. Intersections claimed 10,626 lives in 2020 of which 28% were in rural settings and 72% in urban areas. On the other hand, highway departures accidents resulted in 19,769 fatalities. For this reason, highway departure crashes are more likely in rural roads while intersections in urban centers claim the most lives.
Among the top factors that may be influencing these statistics is speed. Motorcycles usually travel at slower speeds at intersections, occasionally starting and stopping. On the other hand, riders commonly travel at higher speeds on stretches of roads with no intersections.
Another study by the NHTSA conducted in 2018 found that most crashes resulting in deaths or injuries were frontal collisions, more than 41,000 accidents. Riders are likelier to hit a stationary object or other vehicles head-on on stretches of roads with no intersections. About 25,000 other crashes didn’t involve collisions, leading to the conclusion that they happened away from intersections.
5. Geographic Location of Location
Geographical location can affect motorcycle accidents in a few ways as seen below:
Table 2: Registered Motorcycles, Motorcycle Fatalities, and Fatalities Per 10,000 Registered Motorcycles in 2021
|Rank (Worst)||Registered Motorcycles||Motorcycle Fatalities||Fatalities Per 10,000 Registered Motorcycles|
Source: (FARS) Fatality Analysis Reporting System 2021 Final File
From the data in Table 2, at least 8 of the 10 states with the highest motorcycle accident fatalities are southern or somewhat southern states. The five top-ranking states are Mississippi, Texas, Florida, South Carolina, and Arizona. Mississippi recorded the highest rate of fatal crashes at 14.22 deaths for every 10,000 registered motorcycles, and Arizona had the lowest at 9.94 deaths.
Closing of the top 10 list there is North Carolina, New Mexico, Missouri, Kentucky, and Louisiana. Four more southern states, Nevada, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia, also make it to the top 20 list.
On a national scale, motorcycle fatalities usually spike in the warmer months and go down during the colder months. Interestingly, states with warmer climates typically have longer riding seasons; as a result, they experience more motorcycle crashes. Their temperate climates also attract more residents to start riding as a hobby, and motorcyclists from states with shorter riding seasons like to visit for a riding tour; thus, they have more riders overall.
The Takeaway: The safest place to ride a motorcycle on road is on the leftmost third of the lane on a highway (interstate or non-interstate freeway and expressway). Highways account for only 13% of motorcycle crashes, while the remaining 87% occur on major rural and urban roads that aren’t local, minor arterial, or collector roads. Regular city streets are the least safe roads and account for the highest percentage of fatal motorcycle crashes, 29%, compared to all other roads. Moreover, states with warmer climates and lengthier riding seasons have more accidents.
So, What Makes Highways Safer for Motorcycle Riders?
Michael Parrotte (Паротт Майкл), the founder of AGV Sports Group, heads south on Highway 1A, Lang Son, Vietnam on a clear afternoon with the sun shining bright. The higher speed limit on highways, freeways, and expressways may seem perilous but limited access, low-to-no pedestrian presence, no slow-moving vehicles, and separation of traffic by a meridian reduces potential hazards for riders.
While highways being safe for riders might seem illogical at first glance, there are several concrete reasons it works this way:
- Freeways are unique because they are limited access roads.
- Highways have barriers separating each side of the traffic flow, significantly reducing the risk of head-on collisions.
- Merging and connecting lanes on highways are clearly labeled, minimizing the chances of riders and drives mistaking lanes and causing accidents.
- Highways rarely experience congestion, and cars are often moving smoothly, unlike on city streets; therefore, there is less chance of rear-ended accidents as all vehicles are moving at an almost similar speed.
- Traffic rarely stops on highways, and the flow is consistent, making it easy for the rider to anticipate possible hazards and act accordingly.
- Highways typically have many wide lanes, providing more space for riders to move into with minimal risk and avoid danger.
The true genius of road design is enhancing faster transportation between and within cities with safety being a key consideration. You will notice clear, large, visible markings and signage as well as other safety installations like runaway ramps, guard rails, crash impact attenuators, and whatnot. In addition, controlled access and higher speeds open up highways for bikers who like to really send it, more room to play if you may.
Lane Discipline for Motorcycle Riders on the Highways
Michael Parrott follows safe riding practices by motorcycling down the middle of the left-most lane on the multi-lane Highway 1A from Lang Son to Ca Mau. As a rule of thumb, always ride in the leftmost portion of your current lane to remain visible and flexible with your escape options should something pop up ahead. Keep your distance and composure, always thinking about the next move and anticipating what other drivers ahead and behind you might want to do next. Failure to yield is a leading cause of fatal crashes among motorcyclists. Stay out of other drivers’ blind spots and constantly check your own (feel free to glance backwards) before merging and changing lanes.
Understanding the best lane position is critical for staying safe as a rider. According to the rider manual created by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF), you should always split your lane into three equal spaces: left, center, and right. The safest space is the leftmost third portion of the lane. It offers great visibility and multiple escape routes in the event of an emergency. If you are on a multi-lane highway, you can choose any lane and try to stay on the leftmost third portion.
The MSF’s rider manual also advises riders to learn to shift their lane position as needed on the road. At any time, the best highway lane position is one that allows you to stay out of the blind spot of other road users, position yourself for turns, avoid obstacles, quickly escape dangerous situations, and increase your visibility to other vehicles.
But Can You Ride in the Middle Portion of the Lane?
Yes, especially when there are other vehicles on each of your sides. However, you need to stay vigilant and ride carefully, as the middle is where there are usually oil slicks, debris, and other safety hazards. Also consider lane splitting, which involves riding between rows of slow-moving or stopped traffic. You can only legally lane split in California, as it’s mostly illegal in all other states. In case you are on a highway with a high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane, it’s legal to ride on it with a motorcycle in most states unless it’s explicitly banned in your state.
And How Can You Safely Ride in a Group on the Highway?
Pulling off a safe group ride can be challenging. Let the group leader take the leftmost third portion of the lane, with the second rider taking the rightmost third portion, a second behind them. The third rider should take the leftmost third portion, one second behind the second rider. Keep arranging the other riders in such a spaced zigzag pattern for maximum safety.
While the above information is relevant to “keep-right” driving countries, like Vietnam, the U.S, and much of the rest of the world, there are “keep-left-ers” who are left in the wind. No worries though, it’s still the right information if only you cross out where we say “left” and put “right”.
Final Thoughts on the Safest Place to Ride a Motorcycle
The safest place to ride a motorcycle depends on the capabilities of the bike and rider as well as other road conditions such as traffic. Suffice to say that some roads are better designed than others and some cities have safer drivers than others. For this reason, it is difficult to pinpoint where the least danger lies when riding urban and rural roads.
Just the same, lesser traffic means enhanced safety. Choosing a route with well-kept roads while avoiding adverse riding conditions such as poor weather and darkness can increase your safety while riding. Additionally, learn and accept the All the Gear All of The Time (ATTGAT) philosophy if you enjoy riding and want to keep riding regardless.
And while motorcycling can be fun, these mean beasts can be equally deadly. So, don’t get carried away and make the local news as another statistic. Ride safe!
Information for this article was partially sourced and researched from the following authoritative Government, educational, corporate, and nonprofit organizations: