In many low-income and middle-income countries, motorcycles and other types of powered two-wheelers are an increasingly common mean of transport, and the users make up a large proportion of those injured or killed on the roads. In some Asian countries they are the dominant vehicle and often carry whole families. Motorcycle riders are at an increased risk of being involved in a crash because they often share the traffic space with fast-moving cars, buses and trucks. They travel at high speed compared to other vulnerable road users and they are less visible. In addition, their lack of physical protection makes riders particularly vulnerable to being injured if they are involved in a collision.
In low-income and middle-income countries the ownership and use of motorcycles and other two-wheelers are generally relatively high - for example, in India 69% of the total number of motor vehicles are motorized two-wheelers and 27% of road deaths are among users of motorized two-wheelers. This fatality figure is between 70-90% in Thailand, about 60% in Malaysia, and the numbers are increasing in Africa as well. According to the Economic and Social Association for French Speaking West Africa (UEMOA), Burkina Faso, Togo, Mali, Benin, and Niger all have very high levels of motorcycles (more than 40% of the motorised fleet). Injuries to the head and neck are the main cause of death, severe injury and disability among users of motorcycles and bicycles.
Due to their comparatively low cost, motorcycles tend to be the first affordable motor vehicles that can be purchased. Unfortunately, these riders have high-risk thresholds, limited education, training and testing, and, obviously, a lack of experience, all of which affects their behaviour and contribute towards making them high-risk road users. With the heavier machines and higher speeds, they may present a danger to others as well. Being seen and being perceived correctly and accurately by other road users are extremely important factors in powered two wheel related crashes. Most of this simply stems from the relatively narrow frontal silhouette of the rider, in comparison to that of other road users. Conspicuity for both rider and vehicles are of utmost importance. Suitable clothing, particularly motorcycle oriented clothing, can reduce the risk of sustaining abrasions, lacerations or "road burn" and will, in many instances, reduce the level of injury.
The safety of powered two wheelers is complex. Often problems stem from human error resulting in a conflict either by the rider or another driver or there is just not enough time for the rider/driver to avoid the collision whatever the level of skill. Sometimes the rider looses control performing a manoeuvre. Proper training in collision avoidance techniques can help reduce the frequency of loss of control. Other conflicts are due to a failure of the other vehicle driver to see and correctly perceive the powered two wheeler and the rider prior to the impact. Often these crashes are due to the other road users not entirely understanding how powered two wheelers and their riders operate and function in traffic.
Though human failure is the primary cause of a crash, a large number of road crashes involving powered two wheelers are caused by shortcomings of the road environment. Urban crashes in general occur much more frequently than rural crashes. The presence of stationary objects which obstruct the view of the rider or driver and road maintenance (uneven surface with potholes, loose bitumen, gravel and low friction) defects are relatively common causes of powered two wheeler crashes. Bad weather and heavy rain also affect the riding a two wheeler.
Motorcycle safety can be increased with the separation of motorcycles from large, high-speed vehicles. This segregation can take one of two forms. Exclusive motorcycle lanes can be created, as in Malaysia. These lanes are separated from the main carriageway by a physical median; or joint motorcycle and small motorized vehicles lanes can be provided, as in Kuala Lumpur and Viet Nam. These joint lanes provide routes that pedal cyclists and other non-motorized vehicles can also use. Furthermore, motorised two wheelers will benefit from speed reduction measures where there is mixed traffic.
In Malaysia, motorcyclists contribute to almost 60% of fatal accidents. A pilot project introducing exclusive motorcycle lanes showed reductions of up to 39% in the number of crashes. Analysis suggests that the benefit to cost ratio for providing an exclusive motorcycle lane ranges from about 3 to 5 depending on the estimates of cost used. A recent study, also by Malaysian Institute of Road Safety Research (Miros), has shown that 3.80 meters is the safe control width in Malaysia to ensure that the lane is safe for all motorcycle riders and is comfortable to carry out overtaking manoeuvres. Though the crash numbers have decreased, crashes still happen (motorcycle-motorcycle) and new studies are focusing on guard rails and road markings to lower the number of injuries even further. Because of the overall good results, motorcycle lanes continue to be implemented in Malaysia.
Enforcement of helmet wearing for both rider and pillion passengers will increase the likelihood of crash survival by up to 40 % depending on the speed of the motorcycle, and quality of the helmet. Helmet wearing is compulsory in many countries, but in many low and middle income countries not enforced. Regulations concerning the size and speed of motorised two wheelers should also be considered, along with the use of graduated licences based upon age and experience.
Increasing helmet use in a country is an important way of improving road safety. A good practice helmet manual l has been developed and published as part of the work of the UN Road Safety Collaboration by WHO, the World Bank, FIA Foundation and Global Road Safety Partnership, backing up the World report on road traffic injury prevention. The manual provides the necessary background evidence that will be useful to anyone starting a helmet programme, it gives practical technical advice on how to assess the situation, and how to design, implement and evaluate a programme to achieve a higher proportion of helmet wearing rates.
Additioally, the WHO manual on powered two- and three-wheeler safety, a road safety manual for decision-makers and practitioners is a valuable resource as well. The manual includes guidance on magnitude of death and injury statistics; key risk factors; how to assess the safety situation in a country or area and prepare an action plan; and how to select, design, implement and evaluate effective interventions.
Finally a good pre-hospital care and emergency system is important in case of a road crash to shorten the crucial time between the occurrence of the crash to the arrival of rescue teams or at a health clinic, thereby reducing the risk of fatal or serious injuries.
To learn more about vulnerable road users we suggest downloading the following key documents:
- Safety of vulnerable road users, published by OECD
- Vulnerable road users in the Asian and Pacific Region, published by ADB
- GRSP Knowledge base: Helmets, published by the Global Road Safety Partnership
- Helmet good practice manual, published by the World Health Organization
- Powered two- and three-wheeler safety, a road safety manual for decision-makers and practitioners, published by the World Health Organization