Scooter vs Motorcycle Safety: What Does the Research Say?

When I was in school I owned a few scooters as my father thought scooters are safer than motorcycles. Many of my friends argued motorcycles are safer, since you can get out of trouble faster. When I left home I got my first motorcycle and have since owned and ridden many bikes and scooters over the years.

So are scooters really safer than motorcycles? I did some digging and here’s what I’ve found:

Studies show that scooters are less likely than motorcycles to be involved in a single-vehicle accident or where the rider is at fault. There is no proof that scooters are safer than bikes, but scooter riders tend to take less risks. While non-riders perceive scooters as being safer, most motorcyclists feel less safe on a scooter.

The question of whether scooters are safer than motorcycles is not an easy one to find a conclusive answer for, but I tried anyway. I’ll start with a table of results from one of very few studies on the matter that was conducted by Blackman et al (2013):

Number of bikes included in the study:956 711
Single vehicle accidents21%34%
Rider at fault (according to the police)45%59%
Gender of the rider is male79%94%
Median age of the rider38.8 years34.6 years
Contributing circumstances:
Drunk driver2%4%
Dangerous driving1%3%
Total from violations above15%23%
Source: Blackman et al (2013)

Let’s chat a bit about the study’s results and what it means for the safety of a scooter compared to a motorcycle, before chatting about the general perceptions of other bikers and myself (as someone who has owned many different bikes and scooters over the years).

Research on Scooter vs Motorcycle Safety

Don’t worry, I won’t go all nerdy with the details of the research. If you want you can read the full study here. Basically, the researchers examined 7 347 two-wheeler accidents over five years in and around Queensland, Australia. They looked at the differences between mopeds, scooters and motorcycles.

What makes this study unique (and more reliable) than previous research is the fact that scooters and motorcycles are often not distinguishable from available data.

I’m ignoring mopeds (50 cc or less) here since no rider training is required to ride a moped in Queensland and you can ride one with a car permit. The study reports a lot of detailed differences in crash results between scooters and motorcycles, including time of the week, conditions of the crash, and possible causes.

The results of the study

The most notable points are that scooters are less likely to crash alone (i.e. no other vehicle involved) than motorcycles. Scooters also prang less frequent as a result of the rider doing something stupid. This, the author suggests, may be as a result of scooter riders being more mature (generally older and proportionally more female riders) and being motivated to ride for different reasons.

Bikers are, on average, more likely to take higher risks. Motorcyclists tend to ride bikes for fun and social acceptance (real mature, right?), whereas scooters are generally used for commuting and to save money on gas. This is reflected in a larger percentage of scooters going down during weekdays compared to bikes that throw off their riders at night and over weekends.

Contributing circumstances

The idea that scooter riders are generally not as reckless as motorcyclists is supported by the fact that speed-related crashes, drunk riding incidents, traffic violations, and dangerous driving accounts for only 15% of scooter accidents compared to 23% for bikes.

The single biggest reason for a crash on a scooter or a motorcycle is inattention, distractions or negligence (17-18%).

Blackman Et al (2013)

While the study says nothing about the relative danger of the same rider riding a scooter versus a motorcycle (i.e. the inherent safety of the vehicle), it seems that motorcycle riders are a bigger problem than the average scooter rider. This flies against conventional wisdom that suggests that an inexperienced rider would go for a scoot.

Mopeds are a different story altogether. In most cases, moped riders are worse than scooter fans, but not as bad as bikers. More traffic violations were recorded on mopeds, though, and it seems that a lack of skills and experience are to blame.

Why Are Scooters More Dangerous Than Motorcycles?

Ask a non-rider and you’ll probably find that they think scooters are safer than motorcycles. That’s what my dad thought and so I was limited to riding scooters until I left the house. It as great fun, but I couldn’t wait to get onto a real bike. It makes sense to think that a scooter is safer than a motorcycle. I mean, bikes are generally more powerful, bigger, faster and heavier. Try persuading a parent that his child will be safer on a 116 hp Yamaha R6 than on a 125 cc automatic scooter! (That is all I tried to do all through high school).

The problem that many motorcycle riders have with scooters is that the riding position feels very awkward. You sit with your feet on a flat deck as you would in an office chair. There’s less connection with the scooter than on a bike where you clasp it between your legs. Scooters have smaller diameter wheels which will be affected more severely by anything (like a rock or a pothole) you hit in the road.

Then there’s the lack of power and gears. If you suddenly need a burst of power to avoid a car, or you need to prevent getting read-ended, twisting the throttle on a scooter will hardly kick you in the pants. It is worth noting that the study above showed that scooters and bikes are equally prone to getting rear-ended (12.6% vs 12.2% respectively).

Why Are Motorcycles More Dangerous Than Scooters?

These are the obvious ones. Most scooters have smaller engines and therefore are less powerful. A beginner rider that has just passed her (or more likely his, according to the research) riding permit or licence can get straight onto a sports bike that is capable of nearly 100 mph in 1st gear and a top speed of over 185 mph! You do get fast scooters, however. I remember riding the 839 cc Gilera GP 800 which was famous for beating a Lamborghini Gallardo off the line in this video:

I’ve also done a 587 mile trip on a Kymco Exciting 500i once, which included some gravel roads, freeway riding and twisting mountain passes. I averaged around 90 mph on that trip with my wife on the back.

Road trip on a Kymco Exciting 500i scooter
587 mile road trip on a Kymco Exciting 500i

Apart from the power and speed, motorcycles tend to be bigger and heavier than scooters. That makes them more difficult to maneuver, especially for shorter riders. To read why motorcycle weight is not the number one concern for beginner riders, read this post.

One thing that is true, is that it is easier to ride a scooter without any experience than it is to ride a motorcycle. On a scooter you only have to worry about the throttle and one brake in each hand (like a bicycle). On a bike, there’s one hand brake (front) and a foot brake (rear), as well as the clutch and gear shift levers that needs to be operated simultaneously. If you don’t know why a motorcycle has separate front and rear brakes, find out here.

Ironically, the more complex controls of a bike makes it arguably safer, since an inexperienced scooter rider is more likely to land up in traffic than an inexperienced bike rider still trying to figure out how to pull away without stalling the engine!

Be Safe on a Scooter or a Bike

For some reason, scooter riders tend to neglect safety gear. Yes, you do see motorcycle riders in their flip flops and sleeveless tops too. Squids, I believe they are called. But every time I see a young girl or some old man on a scooter, with nothing but a t-shirt, shorts and a helmet on, I cringe. Sliding along the tarmac in your summer dress… please don’t!

After a good helmet, at least get a riding jacket and gloves. The hands are high up on the list of injuries, due to the natural reflex to catch yourself when you fall. While I always recommend getting the best gear you can afford, it doesn’t have to be the most expensive.

Below is a list of some good value gear available on Amazon that I recommend:

Helmet: HJC i70 (Street) or HJC DS-X1 (Dual sport)*
Boots: Fly Racing Maverik (yeah, I get that it’s not practical on a scooter, but you are warned!)
Jacket: Alpinestars T-Faster Air
Gloves: Alpinestars SP-8 v2

* To find out whether you should get a full faced street helmet or a dual sport, check out this post.

Final Thoughts

Are scooters really safer than motorcycles? If not, are they really more dangerous? Who knows? In the wrong hands both machines have the potential to be fatal. At least the very limited research that has been carried out on the topic suggests that scooter riders are less likely to be hooligans.

Francois Steyn

I've been riding motorcycles since I was in school and have traveled thousands of miles on various bikes through more than 10 countries. For more info, check out my about page:

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