The first receiver hitch racks came to the market about 20 years ago in the mid-1990s. The growth in their use has increased quickly in recent years, and as many as 40% of vehicles now have receiver hitches. While they are convenient, these hitch-mounted racks pose a number of issues. Some dangers are to your gear, but some hit closer to home.
Rear-end accident statistics
By some measures, a rear end collision happens every 8 seconds in the United States. There are approximately 250 million registered vehicles in the U.S., and on average there are roughly 2.5 million rear end collisions reported each year. This means about 1 percent of all vehicles in the U.S. will be involved in a rear end collision in any given year. Most of these happen at intersections, so you’re odds of being involved in one are higher in populated areas.
Even though only about 1/3 of these accidents results in a total loss to the vehicle, you can imagine the effects on your bike would likely be catastrophic in all but the smallest of fender-benders. Your lightweight road or mountain bike is simply not designed to absorb the impact of a 2 ton vehicle.
This can result in serious losses. Even if you have comprehensive insurance, the average deductible in the U.S. is $500. Almost all rear end collisions are the fault of the person running into you, but you’ll have to spend time fighting with that guy’s insurance company to get them to pay for your bike. That means a serious loss of riding time.
Increased accident effect to passengers
You may not be aware of this, but presence of a receiver hitch on your vehicle actually increases your probability of personal injury in the case of a rear end accident. If you’ve ever used a flight simulator, you know how how momentum can have unexpectedly pronounced effects. Your trailer hitch is mounted directly to the frame of your vehicle. If it is hit, it transfers the energy of the collision directly to the frame or body of the car. This results in an immediate acceleration of 2.5 – 3x the speed of the vehicle that hit you. A harmless 5 mph impact can send you sailing forward at 15 mph.
One paradox in this is the vehicle itself usually sustains less damage. Another is that many users of hitch racks are women because it eliminates the need to heft a bike overhead and secure it to the top of a tall vehicle. Unfortunately, the ensuing whiplash from these types of accidents tend to be worse for women.
Hitch racks are convenient, but they increase exposure to your gear and to your own safety. Consider if using a hitch rack is worth the risk to your gear if you live in a populated area where most rear end accidents occur. If you have a hitch rack, it is recommended that you remove it when not in use to lower the overall effect on passengers in the case of an accident.