GAO Says Motorcycle Crashes Cost $16 Billion

November 30, 2012
Bart Madson
By Bart Madson
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Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for nine years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to industry analysis and motorcycle racing reports.

Government Accountability Office

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports the annual cost of motorcycle crashes totals $16 billion. The GAO findings, published in a November report for congressional committees, sourced data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as well as other government agencies. It also consulted with officials from 16 states, and conducted interviews with industry organizations, including the AMA and MSF. The report recommends that Congress allow more flexibility for states to use NHTSA funding, which is currently restricted to only motorcycle training and motorist awareness.

(Download the full 65-page GAO Motorcycle Safety Report in PDF)

The GAO’s $16 billion annual cost was tallied for motorcycle accidents in the year 2010. Approximately 95,000 motorcycle accidents occurred that year, with 4423 fatalities. The report projects costs, adjusted for inflation, from an earlier 2002 study by NHTSA, which analyzed accidents in the year 2000.

Medical costs accounted for only 18% of the $16 billion total. The biggest contributor was “loss of market productivity,” the wages lost from accident victims, reckoned at 44%. The associated factor of “loss of household productivity” was 14%.

Fatalities on average incur $1.2 million in costs. However, the most severe non-fatal accidents can be even more expensive. The GAO report estimates injuries resulting in total incapacitation, like severe brain injury, average $1.4 million.

The GAO report sites an NHTSA estimate that three-quarters of the costs of motorcycle vehicle crashes are born by society, largely through medical and insurance payments. The GAO also claims that true costs likely exceed its $16 billion figure, stating: “accurately determining the full costs is difficult because some—such as long-term medical costs and intangible costs related to emotional pain and suffering—are difficult to measure. Thus, the full costs of motorcycle crashes are likely higher than our estimate.”

Reason for GAO Study

The GAO states three reasons for its report, to review: “(1) What is known about the cost of motorcycle crashes; (2) The factors that contribute to motorcycle crashes and fatalities, and strategies states are pursuing to address these factors; and (3) The extent to which NHTSA assists states in pursuing strategies that address these factors.”

The agency cites familiar NHTSA stats regarding the inherent increased dangers of motorcycle riding, particularly mortality rates. Motorcycles are 3% of registered vehicles but account for 15% of fatalities, with riders 30 times more likely to die in an accident. The GAO report also notes that non-fatal crashes are typically more severe for motorcyclists.

Helmet Issue

The GAO report acknowledges several contributing factors to motorcycle accidents, like alcohol, speeding, rider training and motorist awareness. However, it determines that universal helmet laws are the most effective means for lowering fatality rates. The report states that: “laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear helmets are the only strategy proven to be effective in reducing fatalities” and goes on to clarify that “lack of helmet use, does not affect the likelihood of a crash but increases the risk of a fatality when a crash occurs.”

The report cites several studies supporting these safety claims, stating that helmet use reduces fatalities from 34-39%. The GAO report also claims 1550 lives were saved by wearing helmets in 2010, and it notes the NHTSA claim that helmets reduce the likelihood of severe brain injury by 41-69%.

While the GAO report clearly advocates universal helmet laws, it acknowledges this is not a feasible strategy to implement, with only 19 states enforcing them. The report notes the last 10 years have seen such laws repealed, specifying Michigan as the most recent state to ditch a universal helmet law. Instead the GAO stresses promotion of voluntary helmet use. It also suggests states with active helmet laws enforce DOT-approved helmet use.

GAO Recommendations

The GAO report recommends that Congress offers more flexibility to states in the use of NHTSA safety grant money, which is currently restricted to only motorcyclist training and motorist awareness programs. The report states: “Congress should consider expanding the strategies for which NHTSA’s motorcyclist safety grants can be used to give states more flexibility in how to use these funds.”

It goes on to explain: “Congress has allowed these funds to be used for motorcyclist training and motorist awareness efforts only. However, major studies on motorcycle safety issues have recommended a range of additional strategies for reducing crashes and fatalities, some of which NHTSA has identified as a high priority for states to pursue. These strategies include increasing helmet use and motorcyclist safety awareness, and educating police about motorcycle safety in order to strengthen enforcement. NHTSA and state officials noted that expanding the allowable uses for the grants would better enable states to use such strategies.”

The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), one of the agencies interviewed by the GAO for its report, has issued a press release in support of the GAO recommendation for more flexibility on the use of NHSTA funds, stating the “GHSA supports a comprehensive approach to motorcycle safety, and we commend GAO for its recognition of the need for this strategy. We urge Congress to incorporate this change during the next transportation reauthorization.”

The AMA has lobbied against the use of federal funds for such efforts as motorcycle-only checkpoints and opposes universal helmet laws. It has yet to issue a statement regarding the GAO report.

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