I’m 47 years old and I’ve been on motorcycles since I was about seven.
Do the math. That’s 40 years on motorbikes. Bicycles started when I was about four years old. I’m good on two wheels.
During that time, I’ve laid over a few bicycles, and a few motorcycles. Running into something else – or worse, being run into – is a very different experience.
To date, I’ve been in only two somewhat serious motorcycle accidents. I’m not yet a fatality statistic, in part because I wear leather and a helmet and armor.
In this year, 2019, Mississippi is the most dangerous place in these United States to be on a motorcycle, according to stats recently released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
We consistently don’t do well when it comes to not killing people on motorcycles. In 2016, motorcyclists accounted for 14 percent of all traffic fatalities, despite the fact that motorcycles are only 3 percent of all registered vehicles in the U.S., and that they account for only 0.6 percent of all vehicle miles traveled.
According to the new study, Mississippi had 14.57 fatalities per 10,000 registered motorcycles. Coming in at number 2 was South Carolina, with 11.93 fatalities per 10,000. After that, the numbers drop more slowly through the ìtop 10î, down to Missouri’s 8.17 per 10,000.
Of the 10 states with the most motorcycle fatalities, at least seven are in the southeast. Eight, if you count Missouri, but that would be a bit of a stretch. (Missouri is almost Midwestern.) In order from top to bottom, the 10 are: Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Florida, Hawaii, Kentucky, Arizona, and Missouri.
I live in Mississippi. Hattiesburg, to be specific. I’ve been here for eight years. We moved here from Columbia, South Carolina, which at that time had the worst drivers in the nation, according to a previous study by the NHTSA.
I’ve ridden across Texas several times. I was born in Tennessee and spent over half my life there. I’ve spent a good bit of time in North Carolina and Florida. (Love NC. Not Florida, so much.) Kentucky: I’ve criss-crossed that state more than 100 times, and Missouri more than a dozen. I’ve ridden motorcycles through Arizona six times that I can recall. Never been to Hawaii.
It comes as no surprise to me that the Southeast is over-represented when it comes to people dying in motorcycle accidents.
As a corollary, it also comes as no surprise to me that the midwestern and northern states have fewer incidents.
I follow a good number of motorcycle Web sites, and people from those northern states typically say that ìcome riding weatherî they’re going to do something. Go on a particular ride. De-winterize a bike. If you can’t (or won’t) ride for four or more months out of the year, your likelihood of dying while doing so is bound to drop drastically.
One of my first questions is, which states on the top-10 list don’t require helmets for motorcycle people?
The most recent information I could find is from 2016. That study, done by the Governors Highway Safety Association, showed that in states that don’t require wearing a helmet on a motorcycle, 60 percent of motorcyclist fatalities weren’t wearing a helmet. Compare that to 8 percent in states with universal helmet laws.
Mississippi requires helmets for all motorcyclists, as do some other states that managed to reach the top 10. (Or is it the bottom?) Tennessee and North Carolina also require helmets for all riders.
Texas, Florida, South Carolina, and Kentucky require helmets for riders who are younger than 21, while Hawaii and Arizona make age 18 the dividing line.
More important than wearing a helmet, though, should be an emphasis on Not Doing Stupid Shit. Of the 4,885 motorcycle riders killed in crashes in 2017, 1,357 (28%) had a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher, and 32% were speeding.
There is, of course, a good bit of overlap. Approximately half of single-vehicle motorcycle crashes have speeding and alcohol use as factors.
The NHTSA also looks at environmental conditions surrounding accidents. Almost 60 percent (57%) of motorcycle fatalities occur in urban areas. That’s not surprising to me.
But some of the statistics are surprising.
For example: Only 34 percent happen at intersection areas. 59 percent occur during daylight hours, with only 36 percent in the dark. 97 percent happen in cloudy or clear conditions, with only 2 percent in the rain. And only 9 percent happen on Interstate highways, with 91 percent happening on non-Interstate roads.
I have been in only two relatively serious wrecks in 40 years on motorcycles. The first was textbook: On a rural highway in Tennessee, surrounded by farmland, in autumn’s broad daylight, with no rain, and not at an intersection. Collided with a careless farm truck, resulting in surgery to repair a dislocated shoulder. (It also totaled my bike and my camera, which was slung over my shoulder.) That accident was in November 1998.
The other incident was just this past spring, and almost every condition was different. In February, in the dark, in the rain, at an intersection. I managed to slide the old Beemer under the back of an ambulance, but didn’t even need their services. Some bruising, and I decided to buy a new leather jacket.
I was fortunate in both situations: Somehow, in neither accident did my helmet even touch the ground. I credit years of martial arts training with that particular miracle. (Tuck and roll, Cloud! Tuck and roll!)
Yeah, helmets are important.
But statistically, the most dangerous situation for people on motorcycles is when cars coming the opposite direction turn left in front of the motorcycle, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That particular situation accounts for more than 40 percent of all crashes between motorcycles and other vehicles, with the vast majority occurring as head-on collisions – resulting in a higher fatality rate than any other type of crash.
The only type of motorcycle wreck that even comes close is when a bike hits a stationary object (25 percent of all motorcycle fatalities), and those crashes frequently happen when the motorcyclist swerves to avoid a road hazard such as a pothole, debris, or vehicles whose drivers are driving erratically.
According to the NHTSA, most wrecks where a motorcycle and another vehicle are involved ìare caused when other drivers simply didn’t see the motorcyclistî.
A couple of examples:
The Mississippi Highway Patrol is currently investigating a wreck that occurred on Nov. 30. The driver of a Hyundai car ran into the back of a motorcycle in Simpson County, killing the biker, while the car’s driver was uninjured.
Also still being investigated is a Nov. 20 wreck involving two cars and one motorcycle, at the intersection of Hwy. 49 and William Carey Parkway in Hattiesburg.
Apparently, one car struck the motorcycle, which then struck the other car. The motorcyclist later died from his injuries, while two people in the cars also suffered minor injuries.
To a certain extent, I can understand the NHTSA’s statement that cage drivers just don’t see motorcycles.
But I’d take it a step further and point out that frequently, people don’t see motorcycles because they don’t bother trying. Helmet and leather and armor or not, if somebody on a motorcycle gets caught between two larger vehicles, it’s not going to go well for the biker.
As my wife has pointed out, if motorcycles are at risk, so are people on bicycles. And so are pedestrians. We have these conversations often, since I ride a motorcycle or bicycle pretty much any time I don’t have to give the kids a ride, and typically walk my daughter to school.
We live right next to a four-way stop sign, and people routinely fly through it without even thinking about slowing down, much less stopping.
Recently, as I was driving my son to school, five cars drove through a stop light on West Pine Street after the light had changed. The last came through after the cars in front of me were already in the intersection.
My daughter is only 10 years old, but I’ve already started teaching her: ìAlways drive as if someone who drives just like you is coming the other way.î
In other words, please, exercise the Golden Rule when on the road. Please. Drive the way you’d want someone else to. Follow as many traffic laws as you can remember. Stay within spitting range of the nearest posted speed limit.
And as the bumper sticker says, Look twice. Save a life.
Daniel Cloud is a Hattiesburg writer, photographer, and motorcycle enthusiast.