California has some of the safest roads in the country, but, still, around 10 percent of all traffic deaths nationwide occur in the state.
In 2016, the most recent year where data is available, nearly 5,000 of the roughly 37,000 nationwide roadway deaths were from motorcycle accidents and since 2015, California has contributed around 500 deaths to the national total.
Motorcycles make up a small percentage of registered vehicles across the country (around 3 percent of all registered vehicles) but accounted for 13 percent of all traffic accidents. Furthermore, per mile traveled, motorcycles are 29 times more likely to cause a death.
The number of registered motorcycles in California continues to rise and now tops over 17,000 riders. Safety researchers have also begun to note that the number of injuries has outpaced motorcycle registrations in the state.
This raises additional questions regarding motorcycle safety, leading many to wonder why California may be a hotspot for motorcycle accidents. Ken Kolosh of the National Safety Council explained to KPCC that, "Deaths are going up faster than the mileage would lead us to believe they should, so we know there are other safety issues at play as well as economic issues."
California Motorcycle Safety Requirements
Based on safety rules and regulations, California should be a comparatively safe state for motorcycle drivers. California is one of just 19 states (including the District of Columbia) in the country that require all riders to wear helmets.
In addition to helmet requirements, California has several other laws that are designed to make the roads safer for motorcycle riders. These include the following regulations:
- Motorcycles must have turn signals.
- Riders with learner’s permits cannot drive on freeways.
- All motorcycles be equipped with both left and right mirrors.
- Handlebars cannot be above a certain height.
Causes Behind More Motorcycle Accidents May Vary
There are a few limitations to California’s laws that may contributing factors to higher fatality and injury rates. Some observers have pointed to California’s allowance of motorcycle lane-splitting as a potential culprit.
Lane-splitting occurs when a motorcyclist bypasses traffic by moving in between lanes. At times, bikers may be traveling at speeds far greater than the movement of traffic, which can result in catastrophic accidents.
Between June 2012 and August 2013, California law enforcement studied the impact of lane-splitting. During that time, law enforcement officials recorded nearly 5,969 motorcycle accidents. A total of 997 were directly caused by lane-splitting. Their study found that lane-splitting could be safe in traffic moving less than 50 mph, if the lane-splitting motorcycle did not exceed 15 mph above the speed of traffic.
However, the study also found that lane-splitters were getting far closer to cars than was necessary or safe, leaving drivers little time to react to them. This means that even riders lane-splitting at safe speeds could have a heightened risk of getting into an accident.
Additionally, a 2015 Governor's Highway Safety Associate (GHSA) report found that better economic conditions, shorter and warmer winters, and cheaper fuel prices could also be influencing a rise in motorcycle accidents and deaths. This is especially true in California, with its long riding reason and bustling economy.
The GHSA also attributed worse weather conditions to a decrease in motorcycle deaths in 2017, making weather and potentially shorter winters in the long term due to global warming a notable factor to consider in motorcycle accident totals.
How Can California Riders Protect Themselves?
Given the inherent and growing safety risks associated with driving a motorcycle, bikers should take extra precautions while driving on the roads.
Strictly following helmet laws is an important step to increasing your chances of surviving an accident. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), bikers have a 37 percent better chance of surviving an accident while wearing a helmet. Their passengers have a 41 percent better chance as well, if wearing helmets.
And while there are no laws strictly enforcing lane-splitting in California, it may be prudent for motorcyclists to consider the potential negative consequences of lane-splitting at too high a speed, and in too close proximity to other vehicles. Following the recommendations given above regarding safe lane-splitting speeds may help reduce the potential for accidents caused by unaware drivers.
Bikers additionally should ensure they are carrying at least the minimum insurance required by the state for registered motorcycles. For Californians, that means having personal injury liability limits of $15,000 per person and $30,000 per accident, as well as $5,000 per accident in property damage liability coverage. Should you end up in an accident, whether at-fault or not, coverage is going to be important to protect you from burdensome liability and accident recovery costs.
However, note that California’s minimum coverage for bikers is among the lowest in the country for states where motorcycle insurance is required. NHTSA found the average medical cost for a motorcycle accident with a head injury to be $27,000, while those without head injuries can average $12,000. The medical numbers do not include the cost of recovery or the cost to repair of fix a broken vehicle. As a result, purchasing additional medical payment coverage may be necessary due to the increased risk of accidents and injuries facing motorcyclists.
Maxime Rieman is Product Manager at ValuePenguin. Educating and assisting shoppers about financial products has been Rieman's focus, which led her to joining ValuePenguin, a consumer research and advice company based in New York. Previously, she was product marketing director at CoverWallet and launched the personal insurance team at NerdWallet.
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