From Traffic Safety magazine:

 Spinning Wheels: Motorcycle safety leaves experts divided

  by Sherri Deatherage Green

                Reactions to the recent spike in biker fatalities suggest the topic of motorcycle safety is fraught with more hot potatoes and sacred cows than a steakhouse on a Saturday night.

Not everyone seated at the table mixes well. They sometimes attack each other’s statistics, research and core philosophies. The stakeholders include:

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Chief scientist Allan Williams suspects weakened or repealed state helmet laws have a lot to do with fatality increases. The organization’s favorite motorcycle-related statistic? When compared to car drivers, motorcyclists experience 16 to 18 times more fatalities per mile traveled. IIHS also often cites the social costs of caring for injured bikers and questions the value of motorcycle training.

Rider Organizations. These include: the American Motorcyclist Association, or AMA, the Motorcycle Riders Foundation, or MRF, and A Brotherhood Aimed Towards Education, or ABATE. These organizations, and the individual chapters within each, vary from restrained to radical. Some see the insurance industry as the arch enemy that would usurp their right to self-determination on such issues as helmets. They tend to favor training and blame inattentive automobile drivers for many motorcycle deaths. Bikers make up a small but vocal demographic — less than 2 percent of the registered vehicles in the United States are motorcycles, and they account for only 0.4 percent of vehicle miles traveled. Separately or working together, however, these groups have been quite influential in lobbying against helmet laws and advocating other motorcycle-related issues.

Motorcycle Manufacturers and the Training Community. These two groups are closely linked, mainly because most training programs are based on curriculum developed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, or MSF, an industry organization. Manufacturers and MSF spokespeople don’t like to talk about motorcycle safety equipment and features — or the lack thereof. Instead, they focus on the human factor — training — and advocate more federal financing for it.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. As a government agency that must maintain some neutrality in the debate, NHTSA tries to remain above the fray, relying on studies and statistics to direct policy. Recently, NHTSA strove to bring together some of the warring factions by partnering with the MSF to develop the “National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety.” The wide-ranging NAMS , as it is called, recommends 82 across-the-board measures.

The last definitive research on motorcycle safety was published back in 1981. That year marked a steady drop in biker fatalities, a trend that generally continued until 1998, when deaths started rising again.

In June, NHTSA released a technical report titled, “Recent Trends in Motorcycle Crashes.” The study takes a look at fatalities since 1990, when bike wrecks claimed 3,244 lives in the United States . By then, death totals already had declined from 1980’s all-time peak of 5,114.

Firm statistics now show increases in 1998 and 1999, and preliminary figures project another jump for 2000. The spikes were relatively small — 178 additional deaths in 1998 and 128 in 1999. But compared to 1997’s all-time low of 2,116 fatalities, the increases appear more alarming when expressed as percentages — 8.4 percent in 1998 and 7.8 percent in 1999.

 “Everybody has an upswing every once in a while,” said Ron Shepard, motorcycle safety coordinator for the Idaho Department of Education. “You can’t take one or two years and say that’s a trend.”

  Studies Show . . .

NHTSA’s statistical report reveals several differences between the motorcycling world of today and that of a decade ago:

*          More motorcycles are on the road, and they are traveling more miles

*          Newer bikes tend to have larger engines

*          More people older than 40 are riding

*          More bikers are dying on rural roadways, a reversal from previous studies that showed a greater percentage of urban fatalities

*          Speeding, drunken biking, helmet use and improper licensing are perennial factors


Perhaps the report’s most striking revelation: Practically the entire increase is attributable to the over-40 age group.

Motorcycle ownership and fatality statistics illustrate a reversal since 1980. Back then, nearly 25 percent of this country’s motorcycles were owned by people younger than 18, while those older than 40 owned about 15 percent. By 1998, those younger than 18 owned 4.1 percent of the bikes and those older than 40 owned 22.3 percent.

Fatality statistics follow the same curve. Deaths among those younger than 20 made up 15.5 percent of motorcycle fatalities in 1990 compared to 5.5 percent in 1999, while the proportion shifted from 14.4 percent to 29.1 percent for those older than 40. The 20-29 age group still accounts for the largest number of fatalities — about 30 percent — but that has dropped from 44.9 percent 11 years ago.

The numbers obviously reflect demographics. The baby boomers still make up the largest population group, and they aren’t getting any younger.

Harry Hurt, the University of Southern California professor emeritus who authored that much-referenced 1981 study, thinks price also may be keeping some younger people from buying bikes. Sales figures provided by the Motorcycle Industry Council show that large touring bikes favored by cross-country travelers are the most popular models these days, followed by stylish cruisers. “There’s a major economic factor,” Hurt said. “You can’t buy a new motorcycle for less than about $3,000.” In days gone by, a good used bike could be had for $500 or $600, Hurt recalled. With decent used cars costing as much as motorcycles today, Hurt wonders why anyone in the market for basic transportation would choose a bike over an automobile. Others argue that motorcycles are more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly than cars.

Several camps agree that some of the older riders hitting the road may need more training. Bikers returning to the sport after 20-year absences should take refresher or advanced courses to brush up on their skills, according to Albert Thornton, chairman of the National Association of State Motorcycle Safety Administrators.

Those interviewed — most over 40 themselves — shied away from suggesting that physical limitations of aging might sometimes affect an older person’s ability to ride a motorcycle safely. Yet the American Association of Retired Persons offers tips and training for automobile drivers to compensate for the loss of visual acuity and reaction time that often comes with age.

  States’ Rights

  The federal government gives states wide latitude in making their own motorcycle laws. As a result, training, licensing, insurance, equipment and helmet-use requirements vary greatly from state to state. Many states place restrictions on young riders that older people don’t have to meet.

The most high-profile legislative issue — helmet laws — has a somewhat checkered past. Beginning in the 1960s, the U.S. Department of Transportation required states to institute helmet laws to receive full highway funds. Those strings were untied in 1976, and fatalities increased for the next four years. Gradually, more than half the states revised their helmet laws to apply only to young, inexperienced and/or uninsured riders, and three repealed their statutes altogether.

Helmet laws remain the canyon dividing those interested in motorcycle safety. “It’s the most draconian type of legislation that we deal with,” said the California ABATE director who would identify himself only as New York Myke. “It allows the government to tell somebody basically how to dress.”

Some riders oppose the laws so strongly that in defiance they wear bogus helmets that don’t meet federal safety standards, Hurt said.

During a recent trip, Williams of IIHS recalled stopping at a New Hampshire rest area. Massachusetts requires adults to be helmeted while New Hampshire doesn’t, he explained. He watched several motorcyclists who had just crossed the state line from Massachusetts stop and replace their helmets with bandanas. “It was a very visible kind of thing,” Williams said.

The steady drop in fatalities began 20 years ago, and state helmet law repeals occurred five years prior, which might take some wind out of arguments that the recent upswing is caused by less helmet use. Due to the patchwork nature of U.S. motorcycle laws and the lack of recent, well-designed, comprehensive research, nobody can say for sure why fatalities dropped and then started rising again. Experts agree motorcycle engineering has improved, citing antilock and linked braking systems.  Logic would seem to indicate that training makes a difference, but bickering factions wage a battle of research studies that leave question marks.

  The Great Divide

            Philosophically, the crux of the motorcycle safety debate pits two ideas against each other.

One school of thought emphasizes crash avoidance, primarily by changing driver behavior through education. Manufacturers, the MSF and most rider groups strongly advocate this approach. They also favor motorcycle awareness training and public education programs aimed at the general driving public.

On the other hand, much traffic safety regulation during the past 35 years has been rooted in the passive approach that emphasizes building safety features into automobiles aimed at minimizing injuries that result from inevitable crashes. William Haddon, M.D., first voiced this philosophy. Haddon became NHTSA’s first director and later led IIHS. His ideas remain influential at both organizations.

The problem with motorcycles is that seat belts, air bags and other passive safety features commonly built into automobiles are impractical for a two-wheeled vehicle, said Elisabeth Piper, MSF’s director of corporate affairs.

Helmets can fit into both philosophies. A well-designed helmet that meets federal standards is one of the few passive safety features available that helps prevent or minimize head injuries when crashes happen. Training courses, meanwhile, stress the benefits of wearing helmets and other protective clothing, such as heavy leather, which prevents or minimizes abrasions.

Hard-core opponents see the use of helmets — and the decision to ride vehicles that offer no doors, windows, roofs, seat belts or crumple zones for protection — as an issue of personal choice and political freedom. The risks associated with riding rest squarely on the shoulders of the bikers themselves, since drivers of four-wheeled vehicles stand much less chance than motorcyclists of being injured when the two collide.

 “Motorcyclists will argue that, ‘It’s my life, it’s up to me to decide what I want to do,’ ” Williams said. “They don’t kill other people, they kill themselves.” Williams wonders whether the reason that less attention has been paid to motorcycle safety than, say, drunk driving, is that the average motorist doesn’t see bikers as a threat.

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