08-02-2001

01NR24 - NEW NHTSA CHIEF FACES U.S. SENATE TOMORROW – ACT NOW!

NEW NHTSA CHIEF FACES U.S. SENATE TOMORROW – ACT NOW!

Washington, D.C. … Tomorrow, Wednesday, August 1 at 2:30 pm eastern, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will hold a confirmation hearing on Dr. Jeffrey William Runge of North Carolina to be the next Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

It is imperative that motorcyclists who value their freedom and their safety reach their U.S. Senators immediately. Following this action alert is a series of questions you can share with your Senator. The questions will not only reveal how Dr. Runge will lead this agency, but they will also help educate your U.S. Senators on our safety concerns, our achievements and our commitment to effective ways to boost the safety of all road users. Telephone or fax is preferred, e-mail if you must, but reach your U.S. Senators now.

FIRST, WRITE OR CALL YOUR U.S. SENATORS. (Call the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 or go to www.senate.gov to find the fax numbers and e-mail addresses of your Senators.) Share with your Senators one, a few or all the questions you’d like to see posed to Dr. Runge. Feel free to add your own questions to the list you send.

SECOND, REVIEW THIS LIST OF COMMERCE COMMITTEE MEMBERS. Your call is DOUBLY IMPORTANT if your Senator happens to be a member of the Commerce Committee, because Committee members sit in the hearing and get to ask questions directly.

Democratic Committee members are:
Ernest Hollings (South Carolina) (Chairman), Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), John Rockefeller IV (West Virginia), John Kerry (Massachusetts), John Breaux (Louisiana), Byron Dorgan (North Dakota), Ron Wyden (Oregon), Max Cleland (Georgia), Barbara Boxer (California), John Edwards (North Carolina), Jean Carnahan (Missouri).

Republican Committee members are:
John McCain (Arizona) (Ranking), Ted Stevens (Alaska), Conrad Burns (Montana), Trent Lott (Mississippi), Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Sam Brownback (Kansas), Gordon Smith (Oregon), Peter Fitzgerald (Illinois), John Ensign (Nevada), George Allen (Virginia).

THIRD, SHARE THIS MRF RIDERS’ ALERT WITH AT LEAST 3 OTHER RIDERS WHO SHARE YOUR CONCERNS AND WILL TAKE ACTION.

Here are the questions. Choose one, choose a few, choose them all and add a few -- but get them to your U.S. Senators today!

QUESTION SET 1: THE CULTURE OF NHTSA

Question 1a. Epidemiology as Governing Principle at NHTSA.

Are you familiar with “Wrong Turn,” an article by Malcolm Gladwell which appeared in the June 11, 2001, edition of New Yorker Magazine? (If not, I’d like you to read it and share your observations and reactions with the committee.)

The story of NHTSA begins with a man named William Haddon who, Gladwell relates, “changed forever the way Americans think about car accidents. Haddon was, by training, a medical doctor and epidemiologist…convinced that what the field of traffic safety needed was the rigor of epidemiology.” This approach seems dominant in an agency that emphasizes injury and fatality reduction to the exclusion of accident prevention. You might share this philosophy, because you wrote along with other physicians in September 1999, “Traffic crashes are predictable and preventable and therefore are not accidents…We should treat motor vehicle crash injury like any other disease.” Do you share the late Dr. Haddon’s view that epidemiology is the right approach to traffic safety? More specifically, how do you feel about accident prevention?

Question 1b. Passive vs. Active Approaches to Traffic Safety.

Dr. Haddon did not believe in safety measures that depended on changing the behavior of the driver, since Haddon, according to the New Yorker, “considered the driver unreliable, hard to educate, and prone to error. Haddon believed the best safety measures were passive,” meaning airbags and the like.

Will you continue NHTSA’s commitment to passive safety – or is it time to embrace a more balanced approach?

Question 1c. The Cost of Passive Safety.

“There is no question,” Gladwell writes in the New Yorker, “that the improvements in auto design which Haddon and his disciples pushed for saved countless lives….What they did not do, however, is make American highways the safest in the world. In fact… the opposite happened. United States auto-fatality rates were the lowest in the world before Haddon came along. But, since the late nineteen-seventies, just as the original set of NHTSA safety standards were having their biggest impact, America’s safety record has fallen to eleventh place. According to calculations by Leonard Evans, a longtime General Motors researcher and one of the world’s leading experts on traffic safety, if American traffic fatalities had declined at the same rate as Canada’s or Australia’s between 1979 and 1997, there would have been somewhere in the vicinity of a hundred and sixty thousand fewer traffic deaths in that span.”

Why has our nation’s safety record fallen during the time NHTSA was most aggressive in pushing its passive approach to safety? Isn’t it time to overhaul NHTSA, totally reexamine our thinking and perhaps challenge some of the very principles which you, as a NHTSA fellow, have embraced?

Question 1d. Rethinking Traffic Safety.

Gladwell’s conclusion should shake NHTSA and the agency’s leadership: "Haddon and Nader and Claybrook told us, after all, that the best way to combat the epidemic on the highways was to shift attention from the driver to the vehicle. No other country pursued the passive strategy as vigorously, and no other country had such high expectations for its success. But America's slipping record on auto safety suggests that somewhere in the logic of that approach there was a mistake. And, if so, it necessarily changes the way we think about car crashes."

Doctor, is Gladwell, former science reporter for the Washington Post, right or wrong? Is it time to change the way we think about car crashes? And, if so, are you prepared to overhaul the culture of this agency – even if it means abandoning epidemiology in favor of a new, balanced approach to traffic safety?

QUESTION SET 2: MOTORCYCLE SAFETY

Question 2a. Deadly Waiting Period for Rider Safety Training.

NHTSA’s draft Motorcycle Safety Improvement Plan hopes to reduce fatalities by 5 percent in 5 years. It hopes to study and accumulate “best practices” in training and serve as a repository for accident avoidance skills by the Summer of 2005.

Doctor, are you aware how long someone must wait, on average, to receive rider safety training?

In almost every state, the waiting period for motorcycle safety training ranges upward of 10 months to one year. Most states will turn away at least as many students seeking training as they train in any given year. Some states lack training bikes, some lack instructors, some lack facilities. It strikes me that the “repository” for accident avoidance skills already exists in the minds of certified safety instructors, and nothing in your plan addresses this need. This Congress and the White House were lobbied extensively by State Motorcyclists’ Rights and Safety Organizations appealing for a no-strings resource injection to eradicate the waiting period for training. Your Motorcycle Safety Improvement Plan fails to solve this fundamental problem. Why? How will a federal “repository” help at all if the more meaningful “repository” – the local instructor – is simply unavailable for upwards of a year?

Question 2b. NHTSA’s Impugning of Dissenting Voices on Helmet Laws.

Your Motorcycle Safety Improvement Plan states, “Mandatory helmet use laws have been shown to be effective in increasing [helmet] use. These laws, however, continue to be very unpopular with some segments of the motorcycling community. This resistance to usage laws is related, at least in part, to inaccurate information that permeates the motorcycling community about the possible dangers associated with helmet usage.” Dr. Jonathan P. Goldstein, an economist with Bowdoin College, developed an econometric analysis of the effect of motorcycle helmet use on motorcyclist fatalities. In his study, he states that, based on analysis, “while helmets reduce the severity of head injuries, past a critical helmet impact speed, estimated to be an…impact of 13 mph, helmets increase the severity of neck injuries…Thus, in the case of cumulative injury induced fatality, the marginal benefits in overall head injury reduction from helmet use can be offset by increases in the severity of neck injuries.”

Doctor, does Dr. Goldstein’s work figure among the so-called “inaccurate information that permeates the motorcycling community” about helmets? Do you think it’s appropriate for a federal agency to impugn scholars with whom it disagrees?

Question 2c. Balancing NHTSA’s Faux Scientific Approach to Helmets.

The Motorcycle Safety Improvement Plan also states, “We will continue to publicize the scientific basis that exists for promoting helmet usage as a means of saving lives and preventing injuries in a crash.” Would that include dissenting scientific views, such as those espoused by Dr. Goldstein? If so, as someone who has testified against helmet law liberalization, as recently as this year in the North Carolina legislature, how will you go about balancing, if not de-politicizing, the agency on this question?

Question 2d. The Wisdom of a Federal Marketing and Advertising Program.

Dr. Goldstein continues that “mandatory helmet use laws may not be effective in eradicating the death of motorcyclists involved in accidents” and suggests, in their place what might be termed accident prevention strategies – regulating alcohol consumption, motorist training, etc.
In its draft “Motorcycle Safety Improvement Plan,” however, your agency announces that it will embark on a “five-year protective gear promotion campaign” – that includes testing potential messages for riders, research, pilot tests, etc. Essentially what you are talking about here is a five-year marketing and advertising campaign.

Leafing through popular motorcycle magazines, it strikes me that the makers of helmets and armored riding apparel are doing a fine job promoting their products. I suspect they’ve already tested messages before placing full-page ads in national periodicals. Why should the federal government spend taxpayer dollars in a five-year promotion effort, when the private sector is doing a fine job? Why, when other strategies – accident prevention strategies – appear more effective? Why, when a strategy as fundamental as helping states furnish rider safety training is all but ignored by the NHTSA plan?

Question 2e. NHTSA’s “Study” of Texas and Arkansas Rider Fatalities.

In the Motorcycle Safety Improvement Plan, your agency states that it will track “motorcycle crash experiences in states which repeal their helmet laws” and “use the results of Texas and Arkansas studies to publicize the protective value of helmet use.” Are you aware of the Texas and Arkansas studies?

NHTSA usually reports fatalities as a function of some normative number, say fatalities per 10,000 registrations. They did not do so in the Texas and Arkansas studies. Why?

Question 2f. NHTSA’s Conclusions and a Dissenter’s View.

Basically, overall fatalities did go up in both states following liberalization of their mandatory helmet use laws, but so did motorcycle registrations. In Arkansas, fatalities per 10,000 were 17.77 before the repeal and 11.33 after the repeal, based upon NHTSA's own numbers. In Texas, the fatalities per 10,000 registrations were 5.12 before the repeal and 4.18 after the repeal
(based on the years 1991-1999).

When the Texas and Arkansas study conclusions are expressed as a function of registrations, don’t you find yourself agreeing with Dr. Goldstein that, “helmet laws, regardless of whether they govern the entire motorcycling community or a subset of that population, have no statistically significant effect on the number of fatalities within a state?”

QUESTION SET 3: STATE PREROGATIVES AND INNOVATIONS

Question 3a. NHTSA: Funding for Federal or State Needs?

When asked by motorcyclists’ rights and safety organizations about traffic safety during the campaign, President Bush said, “I believe that, to the greatest extent possible, federal highway dollars should be returned to the states with as few strings as possible to give states and local communities the freedom to make their own decisions on how to spend the money to meet their unique needs…[including] increasing spending on safety programs.” In your agency’s Motorcycle Safety Improvement Plan, we read of federal studies, federal marketing campaigns and a federal repository of motorcyclist skills. Where do we read of a single action that comports with the President’s philosophy? Where are the resources in the plan that help states meet their own unique needs?

Question 3b: NHTSA Lobbying vs. the President’s Direction and TEA-21.

According to a General Accounting Office audit in 1997, “NHTSA has undertaken a number of activities designed to encourage the enactment of state motorcycle helmet laws or discourage the repeal of exiting laws.” Despite language in TEA-21 that bars NHTSA from lobbying the legislatures of rider-choice states to adopt mandatory helmet laws, NHTSA has continued to pursue an aggressive agenda of promoting helmet laws. We have already discussed your Motorcycle Safety Improvement Plan’s “five-year protective gear promotion campaign.” When asked if he supported NHTSA’s embrace of the Congressional mandate to terminate its state lobbying effort, the President said, “As Governor of Texas, I strongly supported TEA-21, and as President, I will be a staunch defender of all provisions of the law.”

How do you intend to keep the President’s promises and avoid lobbying the states on mandatory helmet laws?

Question 3c. Texas/Arkansas Studies as a Lobbying Tool.

The Motorcycle Safety Improvement Plan states that “as NHTSA tracks motorcycle crash experiences in states which repeal their helmet laws” and uses “the results of Texas and Arkansas studies to publicize the protective value of helmet use,” this will “position NHTSA to implement similar studies in Kentucky, Louisiana, Florida, and other states that may repeal mandatory helmet use laws.” Stated another way, if a state chooses rider choice, it invites NHTSA scrutiny. As we’ve seen in normalizing NHTSA Texas and Arkansas fatality studies to 10,000 registrations, it’s a scrutiny that bears no fruit and fails to make NHTSA’s case, all at taxpayer expense. Isn’t this, in all honesty, just another form of lobbying? How does this effort comport with the President’s charge that his Administration will be “a staunch defender of all provisions” of TEA-21?

Question 3d. NHTSA’s Motorist Awareness of Motorcycles “Demonstration Project”

This Congress and the White House were lobbied extensively by State Motorcyclists’ Rights and Safety Organizations appealing not only for a resource injection for state-run rider training, but also for a national program to enhance Motorist Awareness of Motorcycles. Your Motorcycle Safety Improvement Plan calls for completion of a demonstration project by the Fall of 2002. Are you aware in which state this demonstration project is underway? [Answer: Washington state.]

The Washington Road Riders Association, a state motorcyclists’ rights and safety organization, in partnership with law enforcement and other groups, succeeded in passing a new law this year that toughens penalties for reckless and negligent motorists whose misconduct results in an injury – a law that establishes two new felony offenses. It would seem that if NHTSA is testing a strictly educational or awareness-based campaign, it should pick another state, as motorists there might be reacting not to a message, but to the muscle of a new law. Doesn’t that strike you as hapless, picking what appears to be the wrong state to test an awareness message?

Question 3e. NHTSA and Innovations by State Motorcyclists’ Rights Organizations.

Washington state now has what it terms, I think appropriately, “Vehicular Assault.” Massachusetts is getting “Nelly’s Bill,” named after a fatally injured motorcyclist struck down by a young driver, that puts a module of Motorist Awareness of Motorcycles into the driver’s education curriculum. Minnesota has an innovative share-a-ride program to cut down on alcohol-impaired riding. All these programs were launched by state motorcyclists’ rights and safety organizations who seem far ahead of NHTSA in terms of motorcycle safety innovation. How do you plan to reorient your agency’s attention on following the lead of these organizations and their state-level innovations?

Question 3f. Reducing Fatalities by 2005: Too Long to Wait, Too Many Lives to Lose.

Finally, the Motorcycle Safety Improvement Plan hopes to reduce rider fatalities by 5 percent by 2005. Yet, there is no resource injection to kill the waiting period for rider training in every state. There is no Motorist Awareness of Motorcycles effort, save for a demonstration project – possibly in the wrong state – with the resultant training not forthcoming until Winter 2005. Doesn’t it seem likely that if rider fatalities are reduced by 2005, that it will be attributable to state action rather than NHTSA’s plan? State motorcyclists’ rights and safety organizations are lobbying this Congress and this President to prevent accidents and thereby reduce fatalities, but they want it done by the next riding season – next summer – not four years from now. Will you withdraw this plan for a major overhaul to include the state training and national awareness initiatives that the innovators themselves are calling for?

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- MRF: My Ride is Freedom -

The first motorcyclists' rights organization to establish a full-time legislative advocacy presence in Washington. The Motorcycle Riders Foundation is the only Washington voice devoted exclusively to the street rider. MRF established MRFPAC in the early 1990s to advocate the election of candidates who would champion the cause of rider safety and rider freedom. MRF proudly claims state motorcyclists' rights organizations and the very founders of the American rider rights movement among its leading members. Motorcyclists worldwide can thumb-start their search for rider rights and safety on the web at www.mrf.org.

All information contained in this release is copyrighted. Reproduction permitted with attribution. The Motorcycle Riders Foundation, incorporated in 1987, is an independent, membership-based national motorcyclists' rights organization headquartered in Washington D.C. which operates in co-partnership with State Motorcyclists' Rights Organizations nationwide. The MRF is involved in federal and state legislation and regulation, motorcycling safety education, training, licensing and public awareness. The MRF provides individual and SMRO member-volunteers with guidance, support and information to protect motorcyclists' rights and advance motorcycling and its associated lifestyle. The MRF sponsors annual regional and national educational seminars for motorcyclists' rights activists and publishes a bi-monthly newsletter, THE MRF REPORTS.

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