Motorcycles make up more than 3 percent—over 6.5 million— of all registered vehicles in the United States. There are almost twice as many motorcycles registered today as there were 10 years ago. Per vehicle mile traveled, motorcyclists are about 37 times more likely than passenger car occupants to die in a motor vehicle crash and eight times more likely to be injured.
Approximately three-fourths of motorcycle accidents involve a collision with another vehicle, usually a passenger car. In two-thirds of such accidents, the passenger car driver violated the motorcyclist’s right of way. The most frequent passenger car-motorcycle collisions involve the motorcycle proceeding straight through an intersection and the passenger car making a left turn in front of the oncoming motorcycle.
In motorcycle accidents involving another vehicle, 27 percent of all fatally injured motorcycle operators had blood alcohol contents (BAC) of .08 percent (the national and state standard for drunk driving). Forty-one percent of motorcycle drivers who died in single-vehicle crashes had BAC levels of .08 percent or higher. Motorcycle drivers killed in traffic collisions at night were more than three times more likely to have BAC levels of .08 percent or higher than those killed during the day. Seventy-two percent of the fatalities in the operator age group of 40-49 involved alcohol. Almost half of all fatal motorcycleinvolved accidents have alcohol involvement.
The highest number of motorcycle fatalities involves people in the 20-29 age group, many of whom ride the “supersports” type of motorcycles: sleek and powerful machines that can reach speeds of 190 mph. Speeding is a main or contributing factor in many cases involving fatalities and injuries among this sector of the motorcycle riding population. The percentage of riders aged 40 and above who get injured or killed in a motorcycle accident has been increasing significantly in the last 10 years, and the number of deaths among this group is catching up to the 20-29 age group. Motorcycle accidents involving larger motorcycles with bigger engines have also been increasing significantly. One reason for this is the increase in over-40 men buying large cruisers—many of them Harley-Davidsons— for recreational riding on weekends and holidays.
Because of their vulnerability and the lack of safety features on motorcycles, motorcycle drivers and their passengers are at higher risk for more serious injuries than occupants of a passenger car. A motorcyclist is more likely to break bones, suffer head injuries, and sustain severe friction burn injuries in an accident, particularly if he was not wearing protective clothing. Fuel system leaks and spills are present in about 60 percent of motorcycle accidents, posing an undue hazard for fire and heat (“thermal”) burns.
Suppose you are operating a motorcycle at rush hour, and traffic is “stop and go.” You decide to ride in the space between cars. While you’re doing so, a car makes an abrupt lane change, crashing into you or causing you to lose control and go down. You suffer serious injuries. Can the driver of the car claim that you were at fault for “lane splitting” or “lane sharing?”
In California, a motorcyclist may drive between cars, whether the automobiles are stopped or moving, as long as it is safe to do so. Whether it was “safe” to drive between the cars is determined on a case-by-case basis. There are no hard and fast rules. However, the driver of the car may be negligent in failing to signal an upcoming lane change to warn lane-splitting motorcyclists of the impending danger. The car driver may also be negligent in failing to look in her rear-view and side mirrors to see whether any motorcycles were approaching from behind before changing lanes.
A significant number of motorcycle accidents are single vehicle accidents in which the motorcyclist collides with the roadway or a fixed object. In accidents involving only the motorcycle, operator error is the main factor in approximately two-thirds of such accidents, the typical error being a slideout and fall resulting from over-braking or running wide on a curve due to excess speed or under-cornering. While such accidents are usually operator-caused, preventing the motorcycle operator from suing anyone for his injuries (unless there was a faulty design of the road or other condition of the road that caused or contributed to the accident), a passenger on the motorcycle generally may seek monetary damages for her injuries from the errant operator.
California law requires the operator/driver of a motorcycle on public streets to be properly licensed and insured. Statistics put out by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reveal that 26 percent of motorcyclists were riding without a valid motorcycle license in 2007. Without a valid motorcycle license, a person may not be able to obtain insurance for operating a motorcycle. Proof of insurance is required to be submitted to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) when registering a motorcycle.
According to the NHTSA, wearing a helmet reduces the chance of being killed in a motorcycle accident by some 30 percent, and it reduces the risk of suffering a traumatic brain injury by approximately 65 percent. California law requires the motorcycle operator and his passenger, if any, to be wearing an approved helmet. In California, an approved helmet must carry the seal of the federal Department of Transportation (DOT).
If you were not wearing an approved helmet or not wearing any helmet at all when involved in a motorcycle accident, the person who was responsible for the accident can use this fact against you to reduce the amount of monetary damages for your injuries. For instance, if a helmet would have prevented 45 percent of your injuries, your failure to be helmeted at the time of the accident will reduce damages by that percent. This is known as the doctrine of “comparative negligence,” discussed in Chapter 2. Similarly, if you were speeding at the time of the accident and the speeding contributed to the accident, your monetary award will be reduced by the percent that the speeding contributed to the accident. If your speeding was the sole cause of the accident, then you would not be entitled to any recover from the other party, and may indeed be held legally responsible (“liable”) for the other party’s injuries and damage to her vehicle.
Added to the inherent dangers of riding a motorcycle, the motorcycle operator must often deal with less than ideal road surfaces and various obstructions, such as uneven asphalt, potholes, poor surface conditions, bad road designs, and hazards such as blind corners, placement of light standards, speed bumps, low curbing, ruts, debris, uncovered drainage pits, and others. Where a defective design or condition of the roadway causes the motorcyclist to lose control of her bike and go down, suffering injuries, it may be possible to seek compensation from the city, county, or state that owns and/or maintains the road. You need to be aware, however, that if you wish to hold a state, county, or city liable for your injuries, a claim for damages must be made with the appropriate government agency within six months or less, or your right to sue the public entity may be forever lost.