Technology that has made cars far safer is now being used to improve motorcycles, and some of it to greater effect.
Motorcycles are never going to be as safe as cars, said Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety,but they can be made safer.
Perhaps the best example is anti-lock brakes. A recent study by the institute found that riders on motorcycles with ABS were 37 percent less likely to be in a fatal accident than those without.
As in a car, ABS helps a motorcycle rider keep control by automatically pumping the brakes to keep them from locking.
A separate study on a track in Germany found ABS generally provides shorter stopping distances. In addition, the system can reduce a rider's stress, as measured by a lower heart rate.
These findings are interesting, said Ron Medford, deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. If there is enough data to make a safety advantage clear, the agency could consider requiring ABS on cycles, he said, but it's not close to that yet. Besides, there's little proof ABS reduces accidents in cars.
Still, the institute's report says the potential for ABS is greater on cycles, which are inherently less stable than cars, with braking that's far trickier. .
Other electronic help is available too. Some motorcycles have sophisticated traction-control systems, similar to those that are proven lifesavers on cars.
In addition, motorcycle handling has improved greatly in the last few decades, making them safer to ride, said Jeff Cobb, editor of the Web site Motorcycle Safety News.
This has allowed focus to shift to drivers of cars and trucks, generally the ones at fault in car-cycle crashes.
"We are not trained to see the motorcycles," said Randa Radwan Samaha, director of advanced research at the National Crash Analysis Center at George Washington University.
That has led to research into "conspicuity," seeking not only to make motorcycles more easy to see but also to give car drivers a better sense of how quickly the cycle is approaching.
Traditionally, cyclists have worn brightly colored clothing and kept their headlights on to be more visible. But Honda is working on something different. With its researchers saying the human brain "exhibits a strong response to facial patterns, especially to the eyes and mouth," Honda is experimenting with making the front of a motorcycle look more like a human face.
Spokesman Jon Seidel said FACE "may be used at some point in the future" but declined to speculate on when.
While preventing accidents is the goal, the other challenge is protecting the rider in a crash, said Samaha, particularly crashes that happen in phases. One example would be the rider slamming into the motorcycle, followed by sliding, perhaps into something.
Honda has tried to address the former by offering an air bag on its large Gold Wing touring bike. It was introduced in 2006 after about 15 years of research. The bag, however, is a $5,100 option, a hefty amount on a cycle that starts around $23,000. Seidel also declined to say how many air bags have been sold or deployed.
Crash tests conducted by the German automobile club show that the bag's effectiveness depends on the kind of crash, in particular the angle at which the cycle hits another object. Crash videos are at youtube.com/watch?v=dDjMfrllxhI.
Samaha said the idea of an air bag seems worthwhile, but it is too soon to know whether it saves lives.
"There are so few of them, and I don't even know of a motorcycle crash in which it deployed in the real world," she said.
And they are not yet practical across the board because of how big they are, which makes it difficult to package on smaller motorcycles. "They need space," she said.
Once the rider clears the motorcycle, safety becomes a bring-your-own-protection event, making a helmet incredibly important, Samaha said.
To protect the rest of the rider, clothing has been improved. Leather has been joined by tough, high-tech synthetics and padding. Some garments have what amount to built-in air bags. But, again, there's not enough data to determine their effectiveness.
The most recent crash figures available from the federal government, from 2008, show 5,290 motorcyclists were killed. That was up about 2 percent from 2007. About 96,000 riders and passengers suffered an injury.