NHTSA: Motorcyclists Are Still Drinking And Riding

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NHTSA: Motorcyclists Are Still Drinking And Riding

Photo by Jerry Reynolds

Despite extensive federal and state awareness campaigns, motorcyclists are still the biggest percentage of road users in the U.S. most likely to die in an alcohol-impaired crash. More than 27 percent of motorcycle riders killed in crashes during 2012 were legally intoxicated.

According to the latest data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2012, 10,322 people killed on U.S. roads were under the influence of alcohol. That was 31 percent of all vehicle traffic fatalities in 2012, or put another way, in 2012 an average of one alcohol impaired driving fatality occurred every 51 minutes in the U.S.

In its latest report, NHTSA again classifies crashes by vehicle type (e.g. car, truck, large truck & motorcycle). Out of all four categories, motorcyclists had the highest percentage of alcohol impaired fatalities with more than 27 percent of riders (1,390) who died had a Blood Alcohol Content of 0.08 g/dL or higher.


To put that into context, 5,075 motorcyclists were killed on U.S. roads in 2012. More than a quarter of those were under the influence of alcohol. NHTSA’s report does not specify if it was the rider and or the passenger that were killed.  Nor does it elaborate on the type of crash, such as whether it was one or more vehicles or the type of other vehicle, if any, that was involved.

NHTSA’s figures also show that in 2003, 3,800 motorcyclists were killed in the U.S. with 1,106 (23%) of those alcohol impaired.  Disturbingly in 2012, the number of motorcycle fatalities not only increased again, but also the number of alcohol-related crashes among motorcyclists has climbed too.

According to this latest report all other categories, with the exception of motorcycles, showed a decrease between 2003 and 2012 in crash fatalities and alcohol-impaired fatalities. Only heavy truck drivers showed a slight increase in alcohol related traffic fatalities.

On a wider scale, the study also revealed that the 21-24-year-old age group was one of the most at risk in the U.S. It had the highest percentage of alcohol-impaired fatalities for its sector in 2012. Of the 4,738 people aged between 21-24-years-old killed in vehicle crashes, 1,539 of them were drivers with a BAC level of 0.08g/dL or higher.

Overall, the 2012 figures show that more than 59 percent of drink drivers involved in fatal crashes had a BAC level of 0.015g/dL or higher. The top three states with the highest alcohol related traffic fatalities were Texas at 1,269, California 807 and Florida 697.

So tell us, have you ever felt pressured to drink and ride? What’s your personal policy for yourself? Have you ever had to tell a friend they are too wasted to ride?

  • eddi

    I’m an odd man out in this one. I don’t drink, never have. If someone was or is trying peer pressure, it just seems to go right over my head. I have friends and associates who like a beer or two, and sometimes more. I’m quite happy to handle the driver role either scheduled or emergency. I have deliberately picked a guy’s pocket to steal his keys because nobody could tell him what to do. Not that it took much subtlety. He called a cab.

    • jessicadally

      Right there with you. Never got that peer pressure thing, not even at work events where everyone is drinking. I didn’t get it when I was a kid though either so I suppose that’s why it doesn’t work now. I think eventually you wind up with friends who don’t do that kind of thing.

      • eddi

        True, most of the people in my circles either don’t drink at all or enjoy a glass or two for the taste. Nobody goes out with the intent of attempting a blackout.

  • atomicalex

    It’s the opposite. I use my bike to avoid the pressure to drink. I just won’t drink if I’m riding. It’s kind of a relief to go to a social event and say “you know, I rode here, so I’m going to pass on the alcohol tonight”. Now, party at my house or someone else drove? I’m in for a few glasses of wine, for sure!

  • ThinkingInImages

    I made that mistake exactly once, early on. I had one drink thinking that it would wear off by the time I left for the short ride home. Several hours later, I went to leave, and although I felt perfectly OK walking, I felt a little “off” on the motorcycle. It was subtle, but “off”. I took the no traffic/back roads home, rode slowly and very carefully.

    I never did it again. It’s just wrong and not worth it.

    • James Jamerson

      I did the same thing. Was at a friends place and had two drinks, 90 minutes later I was feeling 100% sober and went to ride home. When I got to the entrance ramp I went to lean it over and everything felt a bit “off” – which pulled me out of the moment, distracted me, and made me panic that I was drunk and going to crash.

      I forced myself to focus on the apex and everything was ok, but it spooked me. Now I go with “I rode, I’m not drinking tonight” which all my friends understand, but I guess if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be my friends. It’s also doubles as a great excuse to sleep over at a girls house… “I’d love to have some wine with you, but then I wouldn’t be able to ride home… so unless you think I should stay here tonight?”

  • KeithB

    I don’t drink so it’s not a problem.
    My wife does like a cold brew now and then but has a rule to never drink if riding.
    If she is pressured all she has to say is “I’m riding the bike” and people get it.

  • Naccache

    I can drink a beer or two and drive a car a while later, but ride a bike? Never.

  • zion

    Ancecdotal evidence: I’m a paramedic and I can comfortably say that the vast majority of single bike accidents I work are either alcohol related or inexperience. Usually, a good combination of both.

    As an MSF instructor, I usually try not to pontificate on how to ride or on safety gear. I lay the groundwork for their riding future. Sort of introduce the tools and explain it’s going to take a lot of time to learn how to utilize those tools and to practice. I lay the facts out to the students and I explain they are adults. They’re provided with the options out there and to weigh the risks that are inherent to motorcycling, then they can decide: Full helmet, 3/4….denim vs. leather, etc. However, when we get to the alcohol awareness portion, there’s no stopping my getting on the soap box. I don’t advocate people restart prohibition, but I paint a pretty ghastly overview of how little alcohol it takes to completely take away your judgement and reaction time on a bike.

    Okay…getting off the soap box.

    • http://www.pattonstrength.com/ PattonStrength

      Dumb question, how do you tell its an accident of inexperience?

      • zion

        Not a dumb question at all: I’m not saying I know every time, but there are usually a fair amount of clues. Seeing the line the rider took, (I live where I work, so I’m pretty familiar with most roads/highways), asking them what happened (if they’re conscious) and listening to their response can be very telling.

        Most of the single bike wrecks fall right into the statistics of occuring in curves and turns. Usually going in too hot for the curve, not staying on the throttle and increasing counter-steer. They either come off the throttle or hit the brake or both and then go even wider. Target fixating on what they’re going to hit, as opposed to looking where to go.. things like that.

        Again, I’m not saying I’m an expert by any means, but having ridden a fairly long time and being a student of the sport I get a pretty good read on what causes most wrecks. (My own included!)

    • Pablo Perez

      Not a bad soap box to be on.

  • Aaron

    Don’t drink anymore. I survive off of caffein and insulin.

  • E Brown

    I don’t drink and ride or drive, ever. I’m just as fun without, by all reports, and it’s handy knowing one person can give you a life. However, this is one of the downsides of me riding a motorcycle – I won’t ride with a drunk pillion. A very sweet friend of mine is a giggly, playful drunk and the one time I tried getting her home on my bike she was waving her harms, leaning crazily, trying to tickle me, etc – we didn’t make it a block before I pulled over and called a cab.

  • michaelse

    Only kind of on topic, but can drinking an energy drink before a ride impair or otherwise affect perception, judgment, and response? Let’s say a standard 16 oz can, which would be 150-200mg of caffeine.

    • Ben B

      Caffeine is a stimulant, so it actually makes you more alert. You would have to have at least 10g (10,000mg) of caffeine for it to pose any risk of being toxic.
      So no it can’t impair ones riding. If anything the amount in a cup of coffee or energy drink will make you slightly more responsive.

      • akrokdesign

        “safe limits of caffeine are up to 400 milligrams per day for healthy adults” -webmd.

        in the long run, i am pretty sure engery drinks are bad. but it’s a good cash cow for the bev. co. …cha ching.

    • eddi

      That can is only equal to one cup of strong coffee. No risk of any sort.

    • BigHank53

      It depends on your personal sensitivity to caffeine. 99.8% of us will be just fine.

    • Clint Keener

      If I go on a ride, and have to hit the highway for more than a little while, I will start to get tired. I have to get a redbull at the next fuel stop.

    • Piglet2010

      I get jittery if I have more than two cans per hour.

  • Scott Otte

    When I first starting riding I read the Hurt Report, or at least the highlights. It was a list of things not to do if I wanted not to crash. One of the things I recall is that something like 40% of motorcycle crashes involve alcohol. It was then that I decided I was never going to drink and ride. Ever.

    • eddi

      It is a wise person who prefers to learn from the mistakes of others, instead of trying them out for himself.

    • IRS4

      Safe riding is all about managing risk, and this is one of the clearest, and most manageable risks. My drink and ride rule is 1 drink per 90 minutes, never more than 2, and never within an hour of departure. Served me well (pun intended) these last 24 years.

  • Bad Kev

    NEW LAW: anyone that wants to drive a vehicle while drunk MUST be on a motorcycle. That way, they’re the ones that get killed/injured and the innocent people just driving are far less likely to get hurt.

    • Pablo Perez

      Apparently you’ve never seen a car cut in half by a speeding motorcycle. Or a bike wedged so deeply into a car’s passenger compartment that you can’t see where the bike ends and the car begins.

      • Bad Kev

        Links to photos of a car that has been cut in half by motorcycle?

        • Tim Watson

          How about this one?

          • eddi

            Here is the scoop from Snopes. tl;dr version accurate picture, stories with it not always accurate. http://www.snopes.com/photos/accident/seemotorcycle.asp

            • Pablo Perez

              Right. I guess the point I was trying to make is that a drunk motorcyclist can harm or kill motorists. Physics are a bitch.

          • Bad Kev

            I wonder what would have happened it another car or truck broadsided that red car at 150 MPH… That’s a pretty extreme case there and I see the car is mostly just in one piece.
            My point (even though I was joking) is that it sucks when drunk people kill innocent people behind the wheel. It would be far better if all those drunk people that were trying to drive were in a much, much smaller vehicle like a motorcycle so they are far more likely to be injured or killed in a crash INSTEAD of the innocent person they hit.

            • eddi

              Better and cheaper to just lock them out of their car/bike. The technology is there, it’s how to apply it without making things harder for everybody else.

          • octodad


    • Piglet2010

      You should go to Oregon, where a conviction for riding a pedal bicycle drunk goes on a person’s motor vehicle driving record – provides an incentive to drive a car drunk rather the ride a bicycle drunk. Sometime legislators can be stupid f****, since drunk push bike riders almost never kill anyone else.

  • http://www.eastwestbrothersgarage.com/ East-West Brothers Garage

    This seems like common sense. A motorcycle is inherently more difficult to control than a vehicle with 4 wheels and as a result, trying to control one drunk is more likely to result in a bad decision or accident. The lack of a safety cage and the tendency of some riders to go out without appropriate protective gear inevitably means that there are going to be more fatalities.

    Also, the number of people who drink has not changed. All the campaigns and efforts to get people to stop drinking and driving have reduced the numbers, but it still happens, so it should really not be a surprise that it has not convinced people to stop drinking and riding.

    • A P

      Agreed. Another thought, how do these fatality/alcohol stats balance against the total number of licensed/registered riders/bikes or miles travelled. The percentages may have actually fallen in relation to the number or riders/distance…

      How about the % of unlicensed riders in the fatality list?

      Again, critical pieces of information omitted…

      • Mark37724

        I don’t agree that it necessary to include unlicensed drivers to this article. It’s an article about intoxicated driving, much in the same way as it is not necessary to state how many were wearing helmets or going way too fast for road conditions.

        Only criticism I have of this article is the amusing video, I think it would be more appropriate to show something that will truly shock people from driving under the influence.

        • A P

          Hurt found a significant % of injury/fatality riders were unlicensed. The logic being, if these riders are not going to do the right thing and get a license, let alone ride impaired, how can it be proper for these stats not to point that out?

          Law abiding riders should no be painted with the same brush as scofflaws. The scofflaws will not pay any attention to this article, others like it or the statistics they are based on.

          More likely such “shock” will move legislators/enforcement to allow/encourage unconstitutional indiscriminate or “random” mass motorcycle stops. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it…

          • Mark37724

            I don’t dispute your facts, only the relevance to this topic. If you can make an argument that convincingly shows that inebriated licenced driver’s are less likely to be involved in an accident than unlicensed then perhaps that’d be appropriate to this article.

            I am just suggesting that Tim’s article has removed extraneous data involving involving inexperienced vs. experienced, stunt driving vs. cautious driving, etc. and has focused exclusively on intoxicated motorcyclists, likely some of his statistics will also include unlicenced motorcyclists.

            Again, don’t dispute what you are saying, just don’t believe it is terribly pertinent to this article.

            • A P

              I don’t think his article removed the non-licensed (or any other) rider data, I don’t think the NHTSA paid any attention to it in the study. The full range of data may contain the wider daat, but Hurt commneted that one of the major problems was that information was not consistently gathered. If nothing else, it may help in going back to the NHTSA and having them set better guidleins for enforcement/EMS and hospitals to gather the info.

              I feel it is pertinent because this data is presented to the general public and to legislators/policy makers and insurance companies. Non-riders will (consciously or not) use this information to form attitudes towards motorcycling, which may affect how they set insurance rates, how they vote on motorcycle-related issues or decide to road-stop riders “to see if they are drunk”.

              If the unlicensed rider numbers were known, it shows the problem is more about them ignoring laws in general, rather than lawful riders not getting the message. Different tactics to be taken to resolve the problem, if in fact habitual law breakers would respond positively anyway.

  • A P

    This is Darwin in action. Riders who insist on drinking and riding hopefully will learn the errors of their ways before they eliminate themselves from the gene/driving pool. Unfortunately, history shows no easy, effective way to convince certain sectors of society that they are not invincible and are subjet to biological realities and the laws of physics.

    Even if 1/3 of rider fatalities had over .08, do these incidents follow the Hurt Report patten of 50% at-fault to the car/truck driver? We don’t know because the stats are seldom presenting the entire story.

    Certainly educate as best we can, but in the end amplifying the safetycrat/MADD alarmist media blitzes will encourage legislators and enforcement agencies to introduce another piece of motorcycle surly legislation. Even if no new laws are made, politicians, courts and enforcement agencies may find it “constitutional” to reinstate motorcycle-specific roadside stops/initiatives.

    It is bad enough we are easily targeted in the road population, lets not give the powers that be more excuses to single all of us out.

  • El Isbani

    I guess it’s a good thing that I don’t drink. I know it’s up to me to be safe, so I won’t revel too much knowing that by being a soda guy and wearing a full face that I’ve cut down chances of a major injury by more than a third. Now just to keep my eyes peeled and brakes in order.

  • HoldenL

    I’ll drive a car after a beer or two. But the bike? Not. One. Gulp.

    Early in my riding career I read the Hurt Report. Like Scott Otte says, that report made the decision easy. Join the gang at happy hour after work? Great. They drink beer, I drink iced tea.

  • Jack Meoph

    I quit drinking when I was in my early 20′s. Think of the money I’ve saved over the decades!!!!

  • http://metabomber.com/ Jesse

    I think there is a typo, and missed punctuation in that headline.

    WTF: Motorcyclists are still drinking and riding?

  • jessicadally

    Fortunately I don’t get the idea of being pressured to drink. As someone who rarely drinks the idea that someone would insist that I do is baffling to me. If I need to do what you’re doing to make you feel OK about yourself I’m guessing we probably shouldn’t hang out anyway. For that reason most of my friends tend to be folks who don’t need others to justify their decisions by doing the same. That said I see plenty of people drinking and riding. There are plenty of events you can go to and watch people drink many drinks only to hop on a bike and ride off. It’s still very socially acceptable for some reason. So here’s the question (since I don’t get it)… why? I get that folks always believe it’s the other guy and certainly with the age of the demographic most affected we’re talking about folks who still believe that (and also believe they’re never going to die anyway) but when you see people in their 40′s, 50′s and beyond, often with kids, often with young kids who will also drink, often quite a bit and then get on a bike… did they just never get past the “it’s always the other person” mentality or is it “I want to fit in” or is it something else? How do you get these folks to stop?

  • akrokdesign

    common sense = no alcohol, if you going to drive or ride.

    • eddi

      Too bad common sense is an uncommon thing. Although, not surprisingly the Ride Apart readers (good name for a club-if we were the joining types) are a smarter overall bunch. Too busy trying to pick up a steel washer with a magnetized knee puck for fun to want to ruin their reflexes.

  • William Connor

    I am a non drinking rider as well. I will have a couple when I don’t need to ride or drive but otherwise none. I run a military mentorship program to try to keep soldiers safer. Getting them MSF classes, advanced training, coordinating other types of training events to help keep them safe for mission. This is one of my biggest talking points in every brief, this and watching out for cell phone using drivers.

  • http://metabomber.com/ Jesse

    Ouch. That could not have gone well for either party.

    Aw. that’s an F2 or early gen F3. Dammit, those bits are getting hard to come by.

  • Justin McClintock

    Times I’m prone to drink: Sitting at home, enjoying a nice beer. Tailgating prior to a football game (but not at it….NCAA games and I’m cool with that). Otherwise, I’m probably not drinking. Times either of those coincide with the need to use a motorcycle (or car): 0.