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What is #1 cause of motorcycle accidents?

December 4, 2017 by Steven M. Gursten

Study finds ‘traffic scanning errors’ make up 70% of motorcycle accidents. What can we do to make that number go down?

Motorcycle accidents

As a motorcycle accident attorney, I know that the cause of most motorcycle accidents is the motorist, not the motorcyclist.

That’s why the preliminary results of a new study on what is the cause of motorcycle crashes did not come as a surprise.

The Federal Highway Administration’s Motorcycle Crash Causation Study, which looked at motorcycle crashes from 1997 to 2015, found that “traffic scanning errors” by other drivers — in other words, drivers in cars not paying attention to the surrounding traffic — were to blame for 70% of motorcycle accidents.

This sounds right on track with what the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) has said about car drivers in motorcycle accidents:

“Research and state-level data has and continues to consistently identify motorists as being at-fault in over half of all multi-vehicle motorcycle-involved collisions.”

It’s also consistent with the majority of motorcycle accident injury lawsuits that I’ve litigated over the past two decades.

Why are motorists so often to blame for causing motorcycle accidents?

As drivers we’ve trained ourselves, whether we’ve thought about it or not, to expect to see other cars around us — not motorcycles, which are much smaller than cars. But it goes much further than that.

Because of how our brain works, motorcycles aren’t things we can perceive even if they’re right in our field of vision. Road and Track magazine describes it best:

“A motorcycle approaching head-on from a distance occupies a very small part of a driver’s vision. If it’s going quickly, it’s possible that the eye simply won’t get around to looking at it enough to make it ‘stick’ in the brain before it arrives in the driver’s immediate vicinity. That part is important because the brain can really only see things that it understands.”

The time of day can have something to do with it, too:

“[I]f you don’t expect to see a motorcycle or pedestrian during a certain part of your morning commute, your brain will often ignore a motorcycle or pedestrian right in front of you, particularly if they aren’t moving sideways across your field of vision.”

But our field of vision is only useful if we’re actually seeing what is there to be seen.  Seeing is different from looking.

Districted driving — from using a cell phone to text to reaching for a candy bar dropped on the floor to putting on makeup in the visor mirror — takes our eyes off the road completely. We’re not “traffic scanning” at all. We’re practically blindfolded, becoming speeding hazards for motorcyclists and other cars alike.

How can I do a better job as a driver at detecting and avoiding motorcycle accidents?

If you’re driving a car or truck, follow these tips to help prevent motorcycle crashes and save lives:

  • Look in your mirrors carefully: As mentioned, motorcycles are smaller than cars (you can fit about 4 of them into a regular-sized parking space) and are difficult to spot while merging or changing lanes. Plus, unlike a large automobile, the shape of a motorcycle and its rider can blend into anything else you see in your rearview and sideview mirrors.
  • Always check your blind spots: 40% of a vehicle’s outer perimeter zones are hidden by blind spots. If you don’t have a convex mirror attachment on your sideview mirror to catch your blind spots, give a look back on both the driver and passenger sides to be sure a motorcycle isn’t creeping up on you.
  • Don’t judge the motorcycle by its distance, but by its speed: Because of its small size, a motorcycle may look farther away than it is. It may also be difficult to determine its speed. When checking traffic to turn left at an intersection, predict that the motorcycle in the oncoming lane is closer than it looks.
  • When turning, don’t go until obstructions are cleared: If you’re turning at an intersection and your view of oncoming traffic is partially obstructed, wait until you can see around the obstruction. Watch for motorcyclists (pedestrians, too) that were or would have been blocked, then proceed with caution.
  • Don’t drive distracted: Car wrecks caused by distracted driving are exploding in number. The Michigan State Police Criminal Justice Information Center reports that distracted driving-related fatalities increased approximately 200% from 2014 to 2016 — from 14 to 42 fatalities. Research shows texting and driving is more dangerous than drunk driving. Put the cell phone down and avoid all distractions behind the wheel.

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