Can making changes to roadways lead to fewer motorcycle fatalities?

motorcycle approaches a stopped car

Image: Texas A&M Transportation Institute

A rare but innovative approach to motorcycle safety is underway by an expert research team assembled by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI). Instead of looking at improving safety through driver behavior changes, the motorcycle research project takes a look at changes to the roadway itself, and estimates how those specific infrastructure changes could improve safety.

“The sheer number of motorcycle-related fatalities continues to rise and is out of proportion to the total number of motor-vehicle fatalities,” says Project Co-lead Michael Manser, a senior research scientist and Human Factors Program manager in the Center for Transportation Safety. “It’s clear that a different approach needs to be added to existing safety research.”

Manser points out that motorcycle fatalities now account for 14 percent of all roadway deaths, even though motorcycle miles represent less than 1 percent of all vehicle miles traveled. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2015 alone, nearly 5,000 motorcyclists were killed and 88,000 injuries resulted from motorcycle crashes.

At the direction of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), this new infrastructure approach to motorcycle safety focuses on specific roadway changes — things like adding guardrails, creating protected left-turn arrows at dangerous intersections, installing energy-absorbing barriers, adding grooved pavements in curves, and creating signage specific to motorcyclists.

In the first phase of the project — Identifying Infrastructure-Based Motorcycle Crash Countermeasures — the team identified 25 possible motorcycle countermeasures after an in-depth examination of literature in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.

The second task was an analysis of the Motorcycle Crash Causation Study (MCCS) database. (MCCS was designed as an update to the famous Hurt Report, which is now well over 30 years old.) Similar to the Hurt Report, data were collected on nearly every aspect of motorcycle crashes occurring in Orange County, California — only from a more recent time period (2011–2016). MCCS is valuable because it includes detailed information on the roadway infrastructure at the time of the crash.

“We examined the crash data from that unique project, determined the infrastructure-based countermeasures that could have prevented each crash or lessened its severity, and then used this information to estimate how many crashes each countermeasure could address if applied nationally,” explains Project Co-Lead and Research Scientist Eva Shipp, manager of TTI’s Crash Analytics Program. “We then presented that information along with information from the literature review during a four-hour workshop with stakeholders.”

Attendees of the workshop, which was held in mid-February, prioritized a list of potential countermeasures, and presented that to FHWA.

“After examining all the material, FHWA will come up with a handful of countermeasures that should be considered for further study,” Shipp says.

From the final FHWA list, Karen Dixon — TTI senior research engineer and head of the Roadway Safety Division — will develop plans to evaluate the effectiveness of the countermeasures and plans that can be used to conduct a cost benefit analysis.

“Once the countermeasures are selected that appear to have the best chance of making a real impact on motorcycle safety, I imagine further research, potentially including full-scale crash testing, could be a next step,” Manser says. “Whichever countermeasures are selected, I think FHWA is right to look at new ways to make motorcyclists safer. Something has to be done.”

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