Motorcycle Safety: Fault vs Responsibility


How often have you heard a motorcyclist talk about an accident that “wasn’t their fault”?  Whether they collided with another vehicle or were involved in a single vehicle accident, it’s a phrase we hear all too often.

Motorcyclists need to think in terms of responsibility more so than fault because in the end, it’s usually the motorcyclist who pays the dearest price.

The notion of “fault” likely comes from the world of automobiles and automobile accidents, where insurance companies (and thereby drivers) are concerned with who the cause of the accident was, so they can apply demerit accordingly.  This has financial repercussions for the guilty party, thereby propagating the mentality of not wanting to be the one “at fault”.

In motorcycling however, the primary repercussions of an accident are usually physical (injury, debilitation, paraplegia and often death), so the notion of fault has little to no value.  Furthermore, with so many accidents involving a motorcycle and a car/truck, the rider is the one who stands to lose the most out of the accident.

There are 4 common motorcycle accident scenarios where “fault” is often blamed when the real failure was that the motorcyclist didn’t acknowledge their responsibility.  Being aware of these risks and changing our mindset is a great way to keep the rubber side down and continue enjoying everything motorcycling has to offer.

Getting Rear-Ended:

Anyone who hangs around motorcycle circles has heard horror stories of a bike being stopped at a red light or slowing down and suddenly being rear-ended by a motorist.  Clearly, the motorist is at fault, but it doesn’t matter because your bike’s rear wheel is under the car’s front bumper and you’ve got wicked whiplash…or worse.

Getting rear-ended at lower speeds often ends-up relocating your bike’s rear wheel under the colliding vehicle’s front bumper and sending you for some quality time at a chiropractor.

Most good riding schools teach new riders that part of slowing a motorcycle down involves checking the mirrors to confirm the vehicle behind you is also slowing down.  Furthermore, the best schools also teach new riders to keep the bike in 1st gear (with the clutch pulled in) at stoplights to minimize reaction time required to move, should a motorist behind you fail to stop.

Problem is that most experienced riders “graduate” from performing this critical check. With distracted driving stats on the rise (and no sign of that trend reversing), self-driving cars on the road and even recreational drug legalization, you’re putting a lot of trust in others if you are stopping your bike without checking your mirrors.  Your call.

Collisions with Oncoming Traffic

A particular danger on winding roads or roads with elevation changes (go figure -the two types of terrain that draw motorcyclists, like moths to a flame). Oncoming traffic is a legitimate concern because of the numerous factors that can influence vehicles that are heading your way.

Ever seen a sports car overcook a corner and end up running wide?  Ever crested a hill to find a stopped car in your lane?  Fault doesn’t really matter when your heading for the grill of a 2 ton pickup truck. Foresight however, does.

There are some telltale signs that we as riders can look for in order to predict when the risk of head-on collisions is heightened:

  • Long week ends & holidays:
    • Increased chance of drinking & driving
    • More people on smaller roads (cottages, sightseeing, etc)
    • Tourist who often stop or park vehicles illegally
  • Cyclists:
    • When in oncoming lane, can cause oncoming vehicles to run wide, into your lane (especially on narrow 2 lane roads)
    • When in your lane, may cause you to circle wide and closer to oncoming traffic than usual, increasing risk
  • Sports Car Clubs
    • Testosterone can cause people to do stupid things
    • A little too much throttle on a powerful RWD car and you can have a Viper ACR’s back end right where you don’t want it

Another important tip for staying clear of oncoming traffic is to be aware of how leaning the bike affects your proximity to oncoming traffic.  In North America for example (where we drive on the right side of the road), leaning the bike into a left hand turn on a winding road will effectively position the rider much closer to oncoming traffic.

Leaning a motorcycle on a 2-lane highway puts the rider much closer to oncoming traffic

“Surprises” in a Corner

If there’s a single thing all motorcyclists agree on, it’s that leaning a bike into a corner feels awesome.  Problem is that on public roads, you don’t know what you’re gunna get in a given corner -even if you pay taxes in that municipality!  Gravel, oil, water, small animals…you name it.  They can all lead to disaster.

The solution to avoiding these types of crashes has multiple components, ranging from keeping a keen eye on the road surface, through to managing your speed and lean angle so that you’re never leaned over farther than you can recuperate from, should something funky suddenly appear in your lane.  The same principle applies here as it does in the concept of overdriving your headlights and it’s good to keep this in mind as we lean deeper into a corner.

It’s been said multiple times before but worth repeating: if you want to reach maximum lean angle, do a track day or register for a course (such as FAST Riding School at Shannonville Motorsports Park) where you can learn to do that safely.

T-Boning Another Vehicle

I’m going to tell it to you plain and simple: Cars often come out of nowhere and turn in front of motorcyclists.  Whether it’s grandma who missed her turn and cuts across 2 lanes to make it, or someone who on their cell phone and runs a red light. The result is the same: your helmet has gotten intimately acquainted with their car’s passenger side door and they’ve got an appointment with an auto body shop to buff that mark out.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Intersections are deadly place:
    • They bring out the worst in drivers, whether it means cutting people off, failing to signal or plain running through lights or stop signs
    • Accelerating to “beat” a yellow light” (when oncoming drivers are likely to make a left turn) increases your risk exponentially
    • They are also likely places for road debris to accumulate, further increasing your risk on two wheels


  • Keep your head on a swivel:
    • Humans have pretty poor peripheral vision
    • Use that thing that’s holding your head up (your neck) and look around to spot threats before they become legitimate problems
  • Don’t assume other motorists can see you:
    • Eye contact is the only way to establish someone has seen you (and even then, I’ve seen motorists do stupid things…)
    • Moving the bike around in your lane and blipping the throttle can help ensure you are seen by drivers as motion and sound will help break their gaze

By choosing to ride motorcycles, we assume a risk and a responsibility that extends beyond the law and beyond the notion of fault.  Adopting this mindset and riding accordingly is a great way to reduce our risk.

Think about that next time you hear a rider say that an accident or close call “wasn’t their fault”.

Utah Department of Public Safety ad campaign for motorcycle safety

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