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Can't see a motorcyclist? Your car will

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CarInsurance.com

UMTRI Safety Pilot Model motorcyclesAccording to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) motorcyclists are 30 times more likely than occupants in a passenger car to die in a crash and five times more likely to be injured.

Statistics abound about the dangers faced by motorcyclists:

  • In 2011, 4,612 people were killed in motorcycle accidents, up 2.1 percent from 2010.
  • 55 out of every 100,000 registered motorcycles were involved in a fatal accident compared with nine per 100,000 of registered passenger cars.
  • In 2011, motorcyclists accounted for 14 percent of all traffic deaths.
  • 80 percent of all motorcycle accidents result in a death or injury compared with only 20 percent of car accidents.

Head-on collisions are responsible for over half of all fatal motorcycle accidents, NHTSA data show. The slim profile of a motorcycle can make them difficult for drivers of approaching vehicles to see. Visibility is also a key factor behind the second-biggest cause of fatal accidents: vehicles making left-hand turns in front of motorcycles.

The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) and U.S. Department of Transportation are hoping to change those statistics dramatically.

Making motorcycles more visible

The Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot Model Deployment, a $22 million partnership between the two groups, has been studying how wireless technology can be used to allow vehicles to communicate with each other.

For motorcycle riders, it could mean an extra set of digital eyes that sound a warning if an unseen car is approaching, a sharp curve is ahead or a stoplight is about to change.

NHTSA research has found that connected vehicle systems have the potential to address over 80 percent of unimpaired driver crashes. The benefits for motorcyclists could be even greater -- because a collision with a car almost always ends worse for the biker.

"Motorcycle drivers are some of the most vulnerable road users," says Jim Sayer, project manager for the Safety Pilot Model at UMTRI. "Connected technology is the foundational technology that will lead to a transportation system where the number of accidents is reduced."

The study, which ran from August 2012 to August 2013, involved almost 3,000 cars, trucks, and transit buses operating in a real-world situation in Ann Arbor, Mich. Six motorcycles -- four Hondas and two BMWs -- were added in spring 2013.

NHTSA is on target to decide by year's end if vehicle-to-vehicle communications will become required equipment on cars, trucks and motorcycles.

How cars and motorcycles can talk to each other

Connected vehicle systems work on Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) technology, which is closely related to Wi-Fi. It is fast, reliable and secure, which makes it the perfect technology to incorporate out on the open road.

The DSRC device sends out a basic safety message (BSM) that includes vehicle information such as speed, direction and location. A BSM is sent out 10 times per second to surrounding vehicles.

An onboard safety application interrupts all of the incoming information and warns drivers of potential collisions before they happen, giving drivers and riders time to react. DSRC devices come in a variety of configurations, all of which were tested in Ann Arbor.

  • At the top of the technology heap is a fully integrated device, installed during vehicle production and making use of built-in onboard sensors. It includes a driver interface that issues both visual and audio alerts.
  • While new cars may come with integrated DSRC functionality in the future, the system is only effective if the majority of cars on the road are broadcasting their data. Aftermarket devices installed by automotive professionals would broadcast and receive BSMs; a driver interface is included.
  • The most basic model, a vehicle awareness device, simply transmits a vehicle's speed and location; it cannot interpret information or issue warnings.

The motorcycles in the study were fitted with small aftermarket devices housed in a box on the back of the motorcycle. According to Sayer, the device itself is fairly small, a little bigger than two decks of cards side-by-side. In the study, the motorcycles were only broadcasting BSMs. An interface that provides warnings to vehicle drivers would have to be developed for the unique space issues a motorcycle presents.

How all of this benefits easy riders

While a human driver can easily miss the smaller profile of a motorcycle, a DSRC device won't. A warning of an imminent collision could give a biker the extra few seconds needed to avoid a potentially deadly accident. Those warnings could include:

  • Forward Collision: A car in the vehicle's path is stopped or moving slowly.
  • Lane Change/Blind Spot: Another vehicle is in the blind spot or overtaking the vehicle.
  • Emergency Electric Brake Light Warning: A vehicle ahead, or even several vehicles ahead, is braking hard.
  • Intersection Movement Assist: Warns a driver if it is not safe to enter an intersection, such as when a driver's view is blocked.

While there is no guarantee that that the federal government will mandate this technology, Sayer believes it is the future. "UMTRI and the University of Michigan strongly believe that connected technology is fundamental to the future of the transportation industry and is necessary as automakers are introducing automated and autonomous vehicles," Sayer says.

While connected vehicles could be a game-changer for motorcyclists, the benefits could still be years away. Even if the technology were required tomorrow, it could be a decade before a critical mass of vehicles is outfitted with the technology. Specific car insurance discounts directly related to safety improvements tend to lag by years, if not decades, too.

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