Motorcycle Safety Research: Reviewing the Hurt Study (1981) and Calling for Updated Efforts to Keep Riders Safe

Motorcycle accidents are a serious problem on our roadways, posing a risk to the health and safety of riders and automobile passengers alike. The Center for Disease Control reports that motorcycle fatalities doubled from 1999 to 2008. An increase in ridership is one clear factor, but statistics also show an increase in fatality rates from 2001 to 2008, suggesting increased numbers is not the sole factor. In the eyes of our Panama City motorcycle injury law firm, such statistics demand up-to-date research. It is therefore surprising that a study from more than 30 years ago remains perhaps the most comprehensive, detailed analysis of motorcycle accidents and their causes.

Rider Critically Injured in Crestview Motorcycle Crash

Just last Thursday, the fact that motorcycle crashes remain a reality was hammered home when a Crestview collision left a rider critically injured. Per The News Herald, 31-year-old Nicholas Posatiere of Ohio was riding southbound on State Road 85 near 77th Special Forces Way. He was riding in the right-hand lane and travelling above the posted speed limit. Florida Highway Patrol officials believe he failed to slow down as he came upon another vehicle, causing him to collide with the rear of a 2013 Chevrolet Traverse. The impact tossed Posatiere, who was not wearing a helmet, from his motorcycle. He was transported to Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola in critical condition. Anthony Tata, the 45-year-old Michigan resident who was driving the Traverse, suffered minor injuries. His 4 passengers were uninjured. Charges have not yet been filed and are pending additional investigation.

The 1981 Hurt Study

In 1981, a team of researchers led by Harry Hurt and funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a ground-breaking investigation into motorcycle crashes based on in-depth study of 900 Los Angeles-area accidents and review of 3,600 additional accident reports. Many continue to cite the Hurt report as the most important study to date in the area of motorcycle safety, although others note that changes to both motorcycles and riders have the report showing its age.

A PDF copy of the Hurt report (formally titled Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures) is available from the Department of Transportation. A few key points from the list of more than fifty findings:

  • Approximately 75% of accidents studied involved a motorcycle colliding with another vehicle. The remaining quarter involved single-vehicle accidents
  • The predominant cause of motorcycle accidents was the failure of motorists to see the motorcycle. In two-thirds of the multi-vehicle collisions, the other vehicle's driver caused the crash by violating the rider's right-of-way.
  • The most frequent configuration for a multi-vehicle accident was the cyclist traveling straight and a driver making a left turn in front of the oncoming motorcycle.
  • In single-vehicle crashes, rider error was the primary factor in two-thirds of the studied accidents.
  • Most motorcycle riders involved in crashes were essentially untrained, with 92% being self-taught or having learned from a friend or family member. Training reduced accident involvement. A majority of riders involved in incidents had fewer than 5 months experience on the cycle.
  • Across the study, many riders exhibited "collision avoidance problems" with over-braking or under-braking contributing to the inability to avoid the crash.
  • Helmet use ranked as "the single critical factor" in preventing/reducing head injuries.
  • Almost half of the fatal crashes involved alcohol.
  • 98% of the multi-vehicle accidents and 96% of the single-vehicle crashes led to some form of injury to the rider. In 45% of cases, this was more than a minor injury.

A Call for Updated Research

There are still crucial lessons contained in the Hurt project. However, a lot has changed in the past 30-plus years. Motorcycles travel significantly faster than they did in 1981 (the median speed at impact in the Hurt study was only 21 mph). Ridership has changed, including skewing much younger. On the other hand, motorcycles design has improved, resulting in vehicles that are safer and more conspicuous. As a result, many have questioned the continued validity of some of the Hurt study's findings.

Given that motorcycle accidents remain a problem, perhaps a growing one, it seems another study is long overdue. The Hurt study may continue to provide some safety guidance, but investing in up-to-date motorcycle safety research is essential to preventing accidents and keeping riders and all travelers on our roadways safe.

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