With the rising cost of fuel, consumers are looking at other transportation options to ease the burden on their wallets. Consequently, interest in motorcycles and motor scooters has increased dramatically of late, evidenced by both sales and feedback from our readers. Because of this two-wheeler trend, Consumer Reports is taking a closer look at these products, including with this segment overview and reality check on safety.
Sales are revving up
Historically, motorcycles (which include on-highway scooters) have been increasing in sales and registrations since the mid-1990s, with cruisers and touring bikes having particular appeal to empty-nest baby boomers. In 2006, there were over 6.6 million motorcycle registrations, which is an increase of almost 500,000 from the previous year and up significantly over the past 10 years. Sales in 2006 are estimated to be just under 1.2 million.
According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, sales of scooters are up about 24 percent for the first few months of 2008. Yamaha scooter sales to date this year are up 65 percent over last year. Vespa set an all-time sales record in May, moving 2,758 scooters in the United States, besting the previous record from June, 2007, of 1,675.
The attraction of two wheels
Motorcycles and scooters offer increased fuel economy over traditional vehicles, ranging anywhere from manufacturer claims of 40 to more than 100 mpg depending on the engine size, vehicle weight, and passenger size, which can mean significant savings over most cars.
While the fuel benefits are alluring to buyers, there are some compromises—one is the limitation from driving in all seasons and the second is safety. Scooters and motorcycles are not good year- round transportation if you live in the Snow Belt. Even in southern states, summer heat and the rainy season can limit time for safe, enjoyable riding. So in many areas, riders need a traditional vehicle for certain seasons, inclement weather, carrying cargo, and for family travel.
Reality check on safety
Simply stated: motorcycles are far more dangerous than cars and can be quite deadly. Fatalities have increased by 127 percent since 1997, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and a motorcyclist is about 34 times more likely to die in a crash than someone in a passenger car. In 2006, motorcycle fatalities accounted for more than 10 percent of all motor vehicle crash deaths, despite accounting for only a fraction of total vehicle miles traveled. The rise in motorcycle use may partially explain this trend, but the rising death toll exceeds the increase in registrations and miles traveled.
Some explanation for the high death rate is that inherently motorcycles aren’t as stable or visible as cars. (This may be complicated by recent automotive styling trends, which have reduced visibility in some cars and SUVs.) Crash protection is also lacking as occupants are driving in the open air, without any restraint device, and don’t have the safety benefits of an enclosed vehicle.
Another safety issue is helmet use. Head injury is the leading cause of death in motorcycle crashes. NHTSA estimates that using a helmet could reduce crash fatalities by 37 percent. During the 30 months after Florida repealed its helmet law in 2002, there were 40 percent more hospitalizations and a 24 percent increase in deaths compared to the 30 months before the law was changed. But currently, only 20 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico have a universal law that requires all drivers to wear a helmet when operating a motorcycle. Twenty-seven states require one only for young people (usually under the age of 18) and three states (New Hampshire, Illinois, and Iowa) have no law requiring helmet use.
Even with all the safety issues related to motorcycles and scooters, there is growing consumer interest in purchasing these vehicles as a cost-saving measure, mainly for short commutes.
Where we stand
Consumer Reports is researching this segment and is looking into developing a test protocol to evaluate scooters and entry-level motorcycles. We approach these products with grave concern for rider safety and caution readers against a hasty decision to move to two-wheeled transportation without proper training and safety gear.