Motorcycle Safety:

Increasing Federal Funding Flexibility and Identifying Research Priorities Would Help Support States' Safety Efforts

GAO-13-42: Published: Nov 14, 2012. Publicly Released: Nov 14, 2012.

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Susan A. Fleming
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What GAO Found

GAO estimated that the total direct measurable costs of motorcycle crashes-- costs that directly result from a crash and that can and have been measured-- were approximately $16 billion in 2010. However, the full costs of motorcycle crashes are likely higher because some difficult-to-measure costs--such as longer-term medical costs--are not included. Victims and their families, as well as society--including employers, private insurers, healthcare providers, government, and others--bear these costs. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimated that society bears about three-quarters of the measurable costs of all motor vehicle crashes. Society's share of the costs of motorcycle crashes may be similar or higher, in part because injuries from these crashes are generally more severe than those from other motor vehicle crashes.

Various factors contribute to motorcycle crashes and states pursue a range of strategies to address them. These factors include alcohol impairment; speeding; lack of a license, training, or riding skills; and lack of motorist awareness of motorcycles. Another factor, lack of helmet use, does not affect the likelihood of a crash but increases the risk of a fatality when a crash occurs. State strategies include: licensing approaches, training programs, enforcement of alcohol impairment and speed limit laws, efforts to improve motorcyclist safety awareness and motorist awareness, and helmet-use laws. Laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear helmets are the only strategy proved to be effective in reducing motorcyclist fatalities, but some opposition to such laws exists, and only 19 states currently have them. According to NHTSA, proven approaches used in some other highway safety efforts, such as combining strong enforcement with public education, may hold promise for improving motorcycle safety.

NHTSA helps states develop and implement motorcycle safety strategies through various efforts. It has provided states with guidance, outreach, and training which according to state officials, has improved their ability to address motorcycle safety. From fiscal years 2006 to 2012, NHTSA awarded $45.9 million in motorcyclist safety grants to states; 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. NHTSA has conducted research--totaling $7.3 million in the last 5 fiscal years--to identify new and evaluate existing state strategies. For example, one new study will identify factors and programs that may be related to higher rates of helmet use in states that do not require all motorcyclists to wear helmets. NHTSA does not have a current plan to guide its motorcycle safety research efforts but intends to develop one by spring 2013.

Why GAO Did This Study

According to NHTSA, per vehicle mile traveled in 2010, motorcyclists were about 30 times more likely to die in a traffic crash than passenger car occupants. States have implemented various strategies to address the factors contributing to motorcycle crashes and fatalities, and NHTSA has assisted these efforts through guidance, grants, and research. GAO reviewed: (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. GAO reviewed studies, analyzed documents and data from NHTSA and other sources, and interviewed officials in the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and 16 states as well as representatives of various stakeholder organizations. GAO selected states that were geographically diverse and that had varying fatality rates, laws and policies, and ridership levels.

What GAO Recommends

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. In addition, GAO recommends that NHTSA identify research priorities for motorcycle safety that address gaps in knowledge about the effectiveness of state strategies, particularly those strategies it has identified as high priority or promising. DOT officials agreed to consider this recommendation and provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate.

For more information, contact Susan Fleming at (202) 512-2834 or

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When GAO determines that Congress has taken action regarding this matter, GAO will provide updated information.

    Matter: In order to provide states with greater flexibility to pursue a range of strategies to address the various factors contributing to motorcycle crashes and fatalities, Congress should consider allowing states to use the Motorcyclist Safety Grants for purposes beyond motorcyclist training and raising motorist awareness of motorcycles.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: DOT concurred with our recommendation. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) initially told us that it planned to focus its motorcycle research program on issues that offer the greatest potential for safety improvement and to use research priorities identified in its upcoming Motorcycle Safety Plan to guide future research investments. In February 2018, NHTSA informed us that it had completed a draft of this plan and that it expected it to be finalized in March 2018. NHTSA also informed us that it had awarded a contract on identifying barriers to conspicuity and that the study was underway. However, NHTSA has not been able to take action on evaluating a graduated licensing model for motorcycle licensing because no state has adopted a graduated licensing model.

    Recommendation: To provide the states with information that could better enable them to effectively address the factors that contribute to motorcycle crashes and fatalities, NHTSA should (1) as part of its expected comprehensive plan for motorcycle safety, identify research priorities that address these factors as well as gaps in knowledge about the effectiveness of state strategies, particularly those that it has identified as a high priority or promising. (2) in addition to setting these research priorities, conduct research on the following strategies that it has identified as a high priority or promising: (a) encouraging motorcyclists to increase their conspicuity, and (b) implementing a graduated-licensing model for motorcyclists.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration


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