KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. — At the heart of the Air Force Safety Center’s mission is safeguarding the Airmen and Space Professionals who protect the nation. This requires digging into the core of mishaps, identifying hazards and practicing risk awareness. Looking at the last 10 years, the risks associated with Air Force motorcycle riders have brought to light trends to consider before riding.
Whether in an automobile or on a motorcycle, the Air Force goal is always zero roadway fatalities. Awareness of recurring factors that have contributed to past fatalities is one step we can all take in the prevention of losing our most important asset — our people.
There are more than 24,000 motorcycle riders in the Air Force (or about 6% of our population) yet 31% of all off-duty fatalities are related to motorcycle mishaps.
“We are saddened by the loss of any Airman or Space Professional to a preventable mishap,” said Michael Ballard, Air Force Occupational Safety chief. “The Air Force is determined to arm every rider with the knowledge and awareness they need to make sound risk decision-making before putting wheels to the pavement.
“I implore Air Force riders to take an active role in safe operations by honing their skills, learning best practices and deviating from risky activity,” Ballard added.
Over the past 10 years, the Air Force has lost 123 lives as a result of motorcycle accidents, with Fiscal Year 2020 ending with 13 fatalities alone. This was a significant increase from the previous historical low of four in 2019, and slightly higher than the 10-year average of 12 per year.
“Riding a motorcycle is an inherently risky activity,” said Michael Eckert, AFSEC Traffic Safety and Outreach Branch chief. “We work hard to ensure the Air Force motorcycle program provides all riders with the tools they need to navigate the hazards they may face.”
Eckert explained that since 2013, riders are required to complete a motorcycle safety course and a refresher course every five years as part of a lifelong learning approach. Additionally, riders receive annual safety briefings at the start of the riding season.
All training is recorded in the online Motorcycle Unit Safety Tracking Tool housed in the Air Force Safety Automated System database and vital to helping Airmen mitigate risks inherent to riding a motorcycle.
“Riding a motorcycle is a perishable skill,” Eckert said. “This is why we focus on providing the right training, at the right time, on the right bike.”
While any one risk factor doesn’t outweigh the importance of another, some stand out more than others do.
Dr. Bruce Burnham, an epidemiologist with AFSEC’s Occupational Safety Division, found that 55% of all mishaps only involved the motorcyclist.
“This was a considerable undertaking since much of the data had to be manually reviewed — fault, causal factor and number of vehicles were also considered to further investigate the true trends in motorcycle mishaps,” Burnham said.
The cost of motorcycle mishaps equate to an average of $97 million per year, and 4,490 lost workdays annually.
Gender and age also factor into mishaps as 95% of fatalities were male riders, including 62% being between 20 to 30 years old.
Drinking and operating a motorized vehicle of any type is risky, and can be illegal when blood alcohol content is over the limit; however, the risk is still being taken. When impaired by alcohol, a rider is almost three times more likely to be involved in a single vehicle mishap.
The most common causal factor associated with alcohol is excessive speed — this was found in almost half of the 73 alcohol-related motorcycle mishaps.
“There is an aspect of speed in most mishap factors, since negotiating curves, following too closely, improper braking, overcorrection are all easier when speed is reduced.” Burnham said.
Additionally, the odds of being involved in a fatal mishap are 16 times higher under the influence of alcohol and riders are nine times more likely to not wear a helmet. Finally, 80% of fatalities that happened between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. involved alcohol.
Overall, 47% of fatal mishaps occur during the weekend rather than the middle of the week with more accidents occurring on Sunday afternoon than any other day of the week.
Although May through September typically are the months in which the highest numbers of mishaps occur, every month of the year accounts for a percentage of all mishaps.
Every mishap is investigated thoroughly to determine findings and recommendations in the interest of mishap prevention. This data then provides the basis for trend analyses by units and safety professionals Air Force-wide.
“A lack of quality recommendations points to the continuing challenge the Air Force faces in affecting off-duty behavior.” Burnham said. “We hope to gain insight from the data to more effectively address the needs of riders.”
In the end, whether on a motorcycle or in a car, motorists have the power to drive down fatalities by taking the time to mitigate the risks before hitting the road.