Pennsylvania is home to some of the most scenic motorcycle routes in the country. Motorcyclists can follow the Lake Erie coastline, travel one of the federal or state-designated Scenic Byways, roll through the hills and valleys of the Pocono Mountains, visit one of the charming country towns in Amish country, or travel to the cradle of American independence in Philadelphia.
But no matter how enjoyable, traveling by motorcycle also comes with serious risks. Motorcycle riders have virtually no protection from the impact of a collision. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 4,985 motorcyclists died in crashes in 2018 on U.S. roads.
Although this number represents a welcome decrease of almost 5 percent from the previous year, motorcycle riders still account for 14 percent of all traffic-related fatalities. Based on 2018 statistics, in Pennsylvania, there were 164 motorcycle fatalities. Of these, 153 (93.3 percent) were riders, and 11 (6.7 percent) were passengers.
Before you hit the open road, get to know the answers to the following important questions about motorcycle accidents.
How is operating a motorcycle different than operating a car?
Many people love to ride a motorcycle because it is a full-sensory experience. That means, however, that riding requires different types of focus and concentration than those involved in driving a car. Motorcycles are two-wheeled vehicles, so they risk toppling over when they stop moving. Someone new to motorcycles must develop a new set of skills, including steering, braking and changing gears. Motorcyclists must also have heightened awareness of their surrounding environment. They feel free and at one with the road, but they are also more physically vulnerable.
Stay focused and aware at all times.
- Steering. It is fairly easy to steer a motorcycle at low speeds. However, if a motorcycle is going faster than about five miles an hour, the rider must use a different kind of steering, referred to as counter-steering, which means using the handlebars to initiate a turn, and then executing the turn by leaning rather than steering.
- Shifting. Knowing how to shift gears on a motorcycle is an essential skill. You must know how to use the clutch lever, gear shift lever, and the throttle. Practice is the key to mastering shifting. Find a safe place away from traffic and other obstacles. Practicing builds muscle memory, and your shifting will become more smooth.
- Braking. Balance is central to a motorcycle’s dynamics, and that’s why most bikes have individual front and rear brake controls. The driver’s right hand controls the front brake, and the driver’s right foot controls the rear brake. Although the driver should use both at the same time, the front brake typically provides 70 to 90 percent of the braking force. Proper braking may keep your motorcycle under control and possibly save your life, so practice is essential to safe braking.
What are Pennsylvania’s motorcycle license requirements?
You must have a motorcycle license to operate a motorcycle in Pennsylvania. To obtain a motorcycle license in Pennsylvania, you must:
- Be at least 16 years old
- Pass a motorcycle knowledge test and apply for a Class M (motorcycle) learner’s permit. An operator with a permit may ride during the daylight hours and only while under the instruction and supervision of an individual who holds a Class M license, except for a rider licensed to operate another class of vehicle
- If you are under 18, you must have your permit for at least six months and have 65 hours of supervised riding before taking your skills test.
- Enroll in a Pennsylvania Motorcycle Safety Program (PAMSP) education course.
- Pass the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s motorcycle road exam.
What do you need to know about Pennsylvania motorcycle law?
Pennsylvania law sets forth rules which limit the seating on and methods of riding a motorcycle. The motorcycle must have permanently-attached seats. If there is a passenger, the rider can only ride on the motorcycle if it has permanent regular seating for two people.
A rider must face forward with his or her legs on each side of the motorcycle unless riding in a sidecar. Passengers are not permitted to sit in front of the operator while the motorcycle is in motion.
In general, it is against the law to operate a motorcycle in any way that presents a risk to the safety of the operator or passenger. For example, the operator may not ride carrying an item that prevents him or her from using both hands to operate the motorcycle.
There are also laws governing the operation of motorcycles on roads divided into two or more lanes. On those roads the following rules apply:
- Right to use of lane – Other motor vehicles may not infringe on a motorcyclist’s right to full use of the lane.
- Overtaking and passing – A motorcyclist must not overtake and pass using the same lane that is occupied by the vehicle they are passing.
- Operation between lanes or vehicles – Lane splitting is illegal in Pennsylvania. It means driving between two cars on the road, essentially following the lines meant to divide the lanes.
- Limitations on operating abreast – Motorcyclists must not ride more than two abreast in a single lane.
- Police officers – Certain rules do not apply to police officers in the performance of their official duties.
Riding under the influence is illegal. It is against the law to operate a motorcycle under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The rules regarding riding under the influence are the same for motorcyclists as for regular motorists. Driving a vehicle while impaired is a dangerous crime that carries harsh penalties.
Pennsylvania’s helmet law. Motorcyclists involved in crashes risk suffering serious head injuries, making helmet use critically important. Helmets are approximately 67 percent effective in preventing traumatic brain injuries and about 37 percent effective in preventing motorcycle fatalities.
The helmet law in some states says that anyone on a motorcycle must wear a helmet. Pennsylvania has a motorcycle helmet law, but it is less inclusive. According to Pennsylvania’s motorcycle helmet law, anyone operating or riding a motorcycle must wear a helmet “unless they are over 21 years of age and have either two years of riding experience or have completed a motorcycle safety course approved by PennDOT or the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.”
The operator or passenger of a three-wheeled motorcycle equipped with an enclosed cab is not required to wear a helmet. Motorcycle helmets must comply with the standards provided by the United States Department of Transportation. This is indicated by the “DOT” sticker on the helmet. It must also be labeled with the manufacturer’s name, model number, size, and month/year of the helmet’s manufacturing date.
In addition, all motorcycle riders and operators must wear safety glasses, goggles, or similar protective eyewear while riding on a motorcycle.
What commonly causes motorcycle crashes?
There are many potential causes of motorcycle accidents. Some of the most common include:
- Driving under the influence. Alcohol and drugs affect brain function. They can slow down your reflexes and make it difficult to react quickly to changing conditions. Drugs and alcohol can impair your vision and your ability to judge depth and distance. All of these functions are critical for operating a motorcycle safely. In one recent year, alcohol-related accident deaths accounted for 314 fatalities, which were 27.6 percent of the total fatalities.
- Speeding. Speeding is a significant factor in crashes. Speed increases the chance of loss of control, and a driver who is speeding is less able to see and react to other drivers. Approximately 33 percent of all motorcycle riders involved in fatal crashes in 2016 were speeding, compared to 19 percent for passenger vehicles, and the injuries suffered in a high-speed accident are usually more severe.
- Left-turn accidents. Statistics show that 42 percent of all accidents involving a motorcycle and a car happen when cars are making left-hand turns, such as when a motorcyclist travels through an intersection or passes a car at the moment a carless motorist turns across the motorcyclist’s path.
- Unsafe lane changes. A motorcycle’s small size makes it less visible to other motorists than other vehicles. Accidents frequently happen when a motorist fails to check a blind spot and turns into a motorcyclist’s path.
- Lane splitting. Lane splitting is especially risky for new or inexperienced motorcyclists. It is not permitted in Pennsylvania.
- Abrupt stops. When other vehicles stop suddenly, it may lead to a rear-end collision. A motorcyclist trying to swerve may lose control of the bike.
- Car doors. A driver seated in a parked car may fail to see a motorcycle approaching from the rear and open the car door directly into the motorcyclist’s path.
- Unlicensed motorcyclists. In one recent year, 24 percent of motorcyclists involved in fatal collisions did not have a valid motorcycle license.
- Unsafe road conditions. Motorcycles are less stable than 4-wheeled vehicles, so uneven road surfaces, ruts, or other poor road conditions can cause accidents.
- Motorcycle defects. The defective design or manufacturing of a motorcycle may lead to an accident.
- Collisions between motorcycles and fixed objects. Even when wearing a helmet, motorcyclists are relatively unprotected. Crashing into a stationary object on a motorcycle throws the rider from the bike and causes serious injuries.
What if another driver is negligent?
Anyone operating a motor vehicle should always be attentive behind the wheel and give motorcyclists plenty of space to ride safely. However, when riding a motorcycle, sometimes it is not possible to evade negligent drivers. Negligence is defined as “a failure to behave with the level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised under the same circumstances.”
If a negligent (or intentionally reckless) driver causes an accident, motorcyclists can recover damages if they can prove:
- The at-fault driver had a duty to take reasonable care.
- The driver failed to take reasonable care.
- The driver’s actions caused the motorcyclist’s injuries.
- The motorcyclist suffered injuries and other damages.
Some motorcycle accidents result from a defect in the design or manufacture of the motorcycle, or its components, in which case the company that designed or built the motorcycle or its parts may have legal liability for damages.
Motorcycles are much more sensitive to road conditions. Therefore, poorly maintained roads may contribute to an accident.
What are common motorcycle accident injuries?
Over 80 percent of all motorcycle accidents result in injury or death. Accidents typically throw the motorcyclist from the seat of the motorcycle against objects in the vehicle’s path or to the ground. Major injuries resulting from a typical motorcycle accident frequently include:
- Traumatic brain injuries
- Head injuries
- Injuries to the spinal cord, back or neck
- Broken bones
- Strained muscles
- Injuries to the arms or legs
- Cuts, burns or scrapes
What compensation can a motorcycle accident victim recover?
If you have been injured in a motorcycle accident, you may have the right to recover financial compensation for the harm the accident caused, including:
- Medical bills,
- Lost wages,
- Lost earning capacity,
- Loss of consortium for a spouse or domestic partner,
- Disfigurement or loss of limb,
- Scarring, and
- Pain and suffering.
What safety tips can motorcyclists follow?
The nearly 850,000 licensed motorcyclists in Pennsylvania cannot control how other motorists drive, and thus cannot avoid all accidents. They can, however, improve their safety on the road by following some simple safety tips:
- Always practice defensive driving and assume that no one can see you on the road.
- Wear a U.S. DOT-approved helmet, face or eye protection, and protective clothing.
- Know your motorcycle and conduct a pre-ride check.
- Be seen. Wear bright-colored or reflective clothing.
- Maintain a safe distance from other vehicles.
- Always signal before changing lanes or merging.
- Obey all rules of the road and never drive under the influence.
- Learn techniques for safe riding in all kinds of weather.
- Watch out for hazardous road surfaces.
- Consider attending free training via PennDOT’s Motorcycle Safety Program.
- If you notice gravel buildup or other road maintenance problems, you can report them to 1-800-FIX-ROAD.
If you or a loved one were injured in a motorcycle accident, contact an experienced motorcycle accident injury attorney as soon as possible.