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MRF Public Comment to NHTSA on the draft of Motorcycle Safety Improvement Plan (MCSIP)

August 8, 2001

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
C/o Docket Management System
U.S. Department of Transportation, PL401
400 Seventh Street, S.W
Washington, D.C. 20590-0001

Ladies and Gentlemen:

The Motorcycle Riders Foundation (MRF) appreciates the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's request for public comments on its draft Motorcycle Safety Improvement Plan (MCSIP) (Docket Number NHTSA-2001-9595).

Formed by motorcyclists in 1988, the Motorcycle Riders Foundation was the first national advocate for motorcyclists' rights and safety to establish a presence in Washington. MRF is proud to count among our members the very founders of the motorcyclists' rights movement in America. To this day, these members --- and member organizations like State Motorcyclists' Rights Organization (SMROs) nationwide --- continue to shape MRF, pursue our joint commitment to education and advance our joint agenda to advance motorcycle safety while safeguarding freedom of the road.

The Motorcycle Riders Foundation is unique among other rider advocacy groups, some of whom we value as long-standing partners, because MRF is the exclusive advocate in Washington for the street rider. Ours is an association with no ties to business, an association of riders who view the motorcycle as their primary means of transport and the core element of an American lifestyle.

For several months now, the MRF-SMRO team has worked with the Bush Administration and the 107th Congress to advance an ambitious rights and safety agenda. To date, SMROs have dispatched, at considerable personal and organizational expense, dozens of citizen-lobbyists to Washington. Together, our team has briefed nearly 20 U.S. Senators and 70 U.S. Representatives on our legislative and administrative goals. MRF also briefed the national policy staff of the White House in company with ABATE of Illinois. More briefings of more officials are ahead.

With respect to our safety agenda in particular, we have found uniform, 100% support by both the Bush White House and by Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.

We see no sign of "motorcycle awareness" of this agenda in the MCSIP.

Accordingly, it is with considerable dismay that we read, prior to the confirmation of a new NHTSA Administrator, this agency's plan for street riders that fails to reflect the safety agenda of this nation's most committed and best organized street riders.

Briefly, we believe NHTSA's MCSIP fails to prescribe sufficient action (and, in some cases, no action at all) on strategies that will save more lives quickly. We further assert that those actions which MRF and the SMROs might be inclined to support are inadequately shaped, untimely or both. Accordingly, we strongly recommend that the draft plan be recalled for reconsideration and re-composition under the leadership of the new administrator who, only days ago, was nominated by the President and confirmed by the United States Senate.

We offer one general comment of broad application throughout the MCSIP or any follow-on rework of the plan: the MCSIP should carry a clear, unequivocal statement that all research, focus groups, studies and attendant underlying data sets will be available for public and peer review.

Specific comments, keyed to major sections of the MCSIP, follow.

1. Introduction (Page 1). "... NHTSA and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) believe that a renewed national effort needs to take place at all levels --- federal, state and community --- in order to reduce the number of motorcycle crashes, fatalities, and injuries." We concur in the need for a renewed national effort to prevent motorcycle crashes.

Continuing, "The United States Department of Transportation's strategic plan for 2000-2005 includes a new goal to reduce motorcycle-related fatalities by 5 percent by 2005."

While we would applaud any reduction in rider fatalities, MRF objects to this goal as bureaucratic, arbitrary and untimely - and one that fails to reflect the partnership in governance arrived at between MRF and the Bush Administration.

First, we believe 5 percent is insufficient and 2005 is too long to wait at the cost of too many lives.

Second, as a framework for national action, the MCSIP is not up to the task of a 5 percent fatality reduction in 4 years. In light of the MCSIP's most salient initiatives --- federal studies, a federal marketing program, and a federal repository of rider skills --- it is far more likely that in the next 4 years, the accidents will be prevented, injuries reduced, and lives saved will be the result of the bold innovations at the state level being pursued and enacted into law now by SMROs. We will discuss some of these initiatives later in this public comment.

2. Safety Overview (beginning on page 2). We object strenuously to the sensationalistic spin placed on injury and fatality data by this federal agency.

For example, on page 2, NHTSA makes the following statement: The motorcycle "is in fact the most hazardous means of travel in the United States." This is not a fact, but an assertion.

The Surface Transportation Policy Project asserts that "walking is far more dangerous than driving or flying, per mile traveled. The fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled was 1.4 deaths among automobile users, and 0.16 deaths among people aboard airplanes. But almost 50 pedestrians died for every 100 million miles walked in 1997."

The data underlying NHTSA's statements which condemn motorcycles as a mode of transport are, in fact, condemnations of bad practices on the part of some motorcyclists. Absent an operator who is skilled and sober, any vehicle is hazardous, and there is no question that passenger cars and trucks are, in one important sense, more hazardous as size increases --- that is, far more likely than motorcycles to inflict more serious injury to other road users.

No manufacturer or national operator advocate endorses unskilled operation, and all prescribe sober operation. Skill and sobriety are not optional extras. Again, SMROs are pursuing innovative solutions to reduce unlicensed operation and increase sober riding.

The mode of the motorcycle is safer than the U.S. Government is willing to admit. Stripping the 1997-1999 data of fatalities relating to illegal behavior (e.g., those involving alcohol-impaired or unlicensed riders), the motorcycle -- the mode itself -- is found to be on a par with the fatality involvement rate of passenger cars and better than the fatality involvement rate of light trucks. And, if the Surface Transportation Policy Project is to be believed, the mode of the motorcycle is not "the most hazardous means of travel in the United States." Walking is.

In "Recent Trends in Fatal Motorcycle Crashes" (RTFMC) (DOT HS 809 271, June 2001), much is made of the increase in fatalities over the past 3 years. Overall motorcyclist fatalities increased from 1997 to 1998 by 8.4 percent (2116 in 1997 to 2294 in 1998) and again from 1998 to 1999 by 7.8 percent (2472 in 1999). The report also states that the "fatality rate per 100,000 registered motorcycles [went from historic low] 55.3 in 1997 [to] 59.5 in 1999."

There has been a tragic spike in fatalities from 1997 to 1999. Each one is a tragedy that should have been prevented. However, over the decade, fatalities have decreased. Comparing 1990 with 1999, the rate is down across the decade, from 76.16 per 100,000 registered motorcycles in 1990 to 59.53 in 1999.

MRF asked Dr. Linda J. Andes with the Sociology Department at Southern Illinois University Carbondale to review the MCSIP and the National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety with an eye towards the significance of recent trend data. In her view, "the fatality rates have been relatively stable since 1992. Between 1997 and 1998, the change in fatality rate was only 4 per 100,000 registered vehicles. Given the standard deviation of the rate, this is not a statistically significant increase."

Rather than toy with public relations, NHTSA should be enjoined to provide public information and refrain from embellishment, allowing observers to draw their own conclusions and writers to write their own editorials.

At a time when the U.S. government has refused to protect potentially millions of motorcyclists from the denial of health care benefits in case of accident, the tabloid nature of NHTSA "conclusions" and "overviews" is far more than a matter of style. Agency sensationalism results in inaccuracies in media coverage. That, in turn, feeds misjudgments on the part of other agencies of government and key private entities, particularly insurers. The result is more discrimination against motorcyclists who are increasingly paying for health care coverage that is utterly worthless in accidents - accidents they are the least likely of all major road users to cause.

3. The National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety (page 5). MRF has been on record as supporting and being involved in the development of the National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety (NAMS). Upon its release in December 2000, however, MRF was also vocal in raising serious questions about the priorities of various NAMS initiatives. In December, MRF questioned why more federal studies were assigned greater priority than direct efforts to rescue rider safety training and advance Motorist Awareness of Motorcycles. Not surprisingly, NHTSA's MCSIP makes the same mistake: front-loading federal studies while giving short-shrift to training, particularly the hazardous training shortfalls in rider safety education that exist throughout the nation. Indeed, most of the MCSIP initiatives related to training are, in fact, study or research initiatives.

4. Improvements in Rider and Motorist Behaviors (Beginning on page 8).

a. Rider Licensing, Training and Crash Avoidance Skills. NHTSA proposes workshops with training specialists, state assessments and a survey of "braking and lane positioning training/capabilities of motorcyclists" through 2004 with the dissemination of "best practices" on training and licensing by the Summer 2005.

As we have discussed with the White House and with Members of Congress, the waiting period for motorcycle safety training ranges upwards of 10 months to one year in most states. Most programs turn away at least as many riders as they train in any given year. Some states lack training bikes, some lack instructors, some lack facilities. The program cries out - and the joint MRF-SMRO team has appealed to Washington -- for a no-strings resource injection so states can put the resources where they are needed the most to eradicate the deadly waiting period for training.

The MCSIP is silent.

Instead, NHTSA pursues a radically different tack. The MCSIP states that NHTSA will study, evaluate, and accumulate "best practices" in training and accident avoidance skills and create in NHTSA a repository for accident avoidance skills by the Summer of 2005.

We question the value - to the individual street rider - of a federal repository of rider skills in 4 years. The repository for accident avoidance skills already exists where it belongs -- in the minds of certified safety instructors. The challenge is to make that instructor available to riders in the quickest possible time and in innovative ways (e.g., Virginia's mobile rider training unit).

The MCSIP must contain, as a primary legislative initiative, a no-strings resource injection to get life-saving safety training to riders.

Finally, TEA-21 prohibits NHTSA from lobbying and thus may prohibit use of "resources to assess state licensing and training practices and then disseminate 'best practices' as models for use by other states." The optimal entity to disseminate best practices is not NHTSA but the National Association of State Motorcycle Safety Administrators (SMSA). SMSA can, in conjunction with rights and safety advocates like MRF, approach the American Legislative Exchange Council, the National Council of State Legislators, the National Governors Association, and other entities with lessons learned and propose, through state legislators as sponsors, "model legislation" for consideration by all the states on training matters.

b. Alcohol and Other Impairment. Referring back to NHTSA's preference for sensationalism, the case can be made for further reductions in alcohol-involved riding without misrepresenting the facts about successes achieved to date.

In the June 2001 RTFMC, NHTSA states, "Alcohol involvement among motorcycle operators has been declining over the last ten years. The percent of fatally injured operators who had been drinking in 1999 was 38 percent compared with 52 percent in 1990." The RTFMC then goes on to note the incidence of high BAC among fatally injured riders.

In contrast, the June 2001 MSCIP states that "NHTSA and its partners" succeeded in "reducing the fatality toll associated with impaired driving by operators of other types of vehicles" but not motorcyclists -- who have "higher alcohol involvement in crashes."

Both statements cannot be correct. Either NHTSA was wrong in the RTFMC or it was wrong in the MCSIP. If we hope to make further progress in cutting alcohol use, progress noted in the RTFMC should not be ignored by the MCSIP but framed as a step forward.

Moreover, while MRF is serious about reducing impaired riding, we are equally serious about civil liberties issues underlying several initiatives. NHTSA reports that it will study "the likelihood of crashes at various BAC levels and to more effectively target those who drink and ride," to be completed by 2004. Targeting a rider for lawful vehicle operation (i.e., with a BAC below the legal limit) is tantamount to targeting a law-abiding citizen for a crime he or she has not committed and has no intention of committing.

NHTSA should approach this issue with care if it expects to make progress without adding to what might be termed the agency's "reputation deficit" with large segments of the motorcycling community. For, in other aspects of the motorcyclists' rights issue, NHTSA initiatives have led to sanctions, not safety, in the states. States with restrictive helmet use laws, for example, have already used those laws to "target" riders believed to be wearing non-approved helmets. Other states demand that riders wear helmets from a state-approved list while refusing to publish a list. Riders are challenging the harassment in court and prevailing. It would be counterproductive to the goal of reducing alcohol-impaired riding if NHTSA studies [and follow-on "innovative techniques for deterring rider impairment (in) 'best practices' guide(s)"] result in more harassment and no reduction in alcohol involvement.

In this section particularly, MCSIP should state that all research, focus groups, studies, and attendant underlying data sets will be available for public and peer review.

As with rider training and Motorist Awareness of Motorcycles, innovations at the state level hold the greatest promise for further increases in sober riding. Some innovations are now being undertaken as demonstration grants, but virtually all stem from the sheer voluntary action by SMROs and their members. For our part, MRF intends to cameo those state innovations for consideration by other state MROs.

c. Enforcement and Adjudication (Beginning page 10). While Motorist Awareness of Motorcycles and standardized bike crash reporting is touched on, the thrust of this section seems inappropriately weighted toward intervention with motorcyclists (riders) and not sufficiently weighted toward motorists (drivers). A page from an advocate of another road user might be instructive:

Finding fault with pedestrians is akin to "blaming the victim," the Surface Transportation Policy Project asserts. "Pedestrians are often considered at fault in crashes, obscuring the real issue… Police reports are often designed to describe vehicle-pedestrian collisions in terms of what the pedestrian did wrong. Seldom do reports of pedestrian fatalities, particularly in the media, record the actions of the driver, describe how fast the car was traveling, or note whether the motorist was paying attention. Yet [while] research has concluded that the fault of pedestrian-vehicle collisions frequently rests with drivers.... many pedestrian safety projects are aimed at pedestrians rather than at drivers."

The same statements can be made about motorcyclists.

With regard to NHTSA actions planned from the Summer 2001 through Winter 2004, MRF and the SMROs would be very interested in receiving all information on licensing and alcohol issues that NHTSA provides to the Law Enforcement Television Network. Inasmuch as state-level motorcycle advisory councils to governors perform the same function, MRF seeks a voice in this process and in the incorporation of "motorcycle awareness and safety issues in updates to judicial and prosecutor training."

We will discuss recent state innovations in motorcycle awareness - one of which directly impacts law enforcement and the judiciary -- later in this public comment.

d. Personal Protective Equipment. (Beginning on page 11). In its MCSIP, NHTSA announces a "five-year protective gear promotion campaign" - including testing potential messages for riders, conducting research, staging pilot tests, etc. Essentially what is being talked about here is a five-year federal marketing and advertising campaign.

We recognize and appreciate the many considered viewpoints among motorcyclists on the interplay between law and protective gear. The issue we raise, however, concerns the proper role of the federal government, the importance of individual choice, and the wisdom of NHTSA's long-standing "passive safety" approach to crashes.

First, any funds expended on this five-year marketing campaign could be better spent on a no-strings resource injection for state-run rider safety training, or the first-ever national program of enhancing Motorist Awareness of Motorcycles (two key elements of the joint MRF-SMRO safety agenda).

Second, protective gear is part of the rider safety curriculum, so any boost to state-run rider training automatically boosts protective gear.

Third, a very ambitious protective gear promotional effort is already underway in the private sector. Popular motorcycle magazines are just one example where readers find makers of helmets and armored riding apparel doing a fine job promoting their products. Readers will also be influenced by editorial support, too, as the gear is encouraged by columnists, covered in "compare" features and highlighted in "new products" stories.) The prominence of popular racers and their replica helmets, leathers and boots attests to the popularity of the gear among riders and the effectiveness of private sector marketing and advertising campaigns.

In short, gear manufacturers have already done and continue to do an extensive and expensive job in marketing their products - testing messages, conducting research staging pilot tests, etc., long before placing costly, full-page ads in national periodicals.

The prominence of a federal marketing program in a motorcycle safety plan raises again the question of NHTSA's approach to crashes. Although we may be the first voice critical of the agency's emphasis of vehicle/device over operator, the Motorcycle Riders Foundation and our member SMROs are hearing new voices critical of the agency's passive approach to safety.

States the Partnership for Safe Driving: "During the past decade alone, more than 400,000 people died on U.S. roads. Millions more were badly injured. Studies indicate that most serious car crashes could be prevented through safe driving. Yet, ironically, most traffic safety dollars currently are being spent on research and education to promote safe crashing (e.g. seatbelts, air bags, vehicle crashworthiness)." Instead of "safe crashing," the Partnership wants to make "crash prevention a priority for the nation" by reeducating motorists on the rules of the road, discouraging dangerous driving and other initiatives aimed at operators, not vehicles.

Transportation Alternatives advocates bicycling. While by no means adverse to helmet use, the organization notes that mandatory use laws reduce bicycling and may divert resources from crash avoidance programs. "[H]elmet-law advocates rarely promote helmet use as part of a comprehensive set of safety, education, and facility-development measures aimed at cyclists and motorists alike."

Noting the unyielding nature of collisions between cars and bicycles in metropolitan areas, the group would probably share MRF's skepticism if a five-year federal campaign to promote personal protective gear were aimed at bicyclists. Transportation Alternatives concludes: "The best way - the only way - to make city streets safer is to start with the drivers of motor vehicles."

If this view has any merit, "the best way - the only way" to make streets safer for motorcycles is "to start with the drivers." Aside from a demonstration project we will comment on later and a brief discussion of judicial action, NHTSA's plan fails to address drivers.

Perhaps the most vulnerable of road users are pedestrians. All advocates appear uniform in calling for driver reeducation, sanctions for dangerous drivers and improved roadway design - identical themes in the joint MRF-SMRO traffic safety agenda. We have come across no pedestrian advocate whose agenda includes a multi-year personal protective gear promotion campaign for walkers. Perhaps the New York State Department of Health stated it best: "Pedestrians Are No Match for Vehicles Weighing More Than 2,000 Pounds."

"Right Of Way," a New York City organization asserting the rights of pedestrians and bicyclists to travel without endangerment from motor vehicles, published "Killed by Automobile: Death in the Streets in New York City 1994-1997." In its study of 1,000 cases of pedestrian fatalities, Right Of Way found that while nearly 90 percent of motorists were culpable to some degree, police issued moving violations in only 16 percent of cases studied. (Notably, the study was critical of NHTSA's emphasis on alcohol involvement over "sober, dangerous driving." Drunk driving was known to be present in "only 4 percent of pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities, making alcohol use by NYC drivers relatively unimportant compared to sober, dangerous driving.")

The remedy seems clear in the voices of advocates of our nation's most vulnerable road users: not a personal protection gear campaign, but better highway design, reeducation of operators, and a crackdown on aggressive and negligent driving. "It is long past time to stop coddling drivers who kill," one advocate states. The MCSIP may not coddle dangerous drivers, but, largely, it ignores them.

We oppose the MCSIP initiative of a marketing and advertising campaign for personal protective gear as inappropriate for the federal agency and duplicative of what manufacturers and safety instructors are already doing. These dollars should be re-channeled to boost state-run rider training and implement a national program of Motorist Awareness of Motorcycles.

e. Helmets (Treated by MCSIP as part of protective gear, but discussed separately here.) The MCSIP 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, conducted an econometric analysis of the effect of motorcycle helmet use laws on motorcyclist fatalities. He states, "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."

Inasmuch as the work of a noted economist figures among the so-called "inaccurate information that permeates the motorcycling community" about helmets, NHTSA should remove these and similar references and assertions. MRF believes it is wholly inappropriate for a federal agency to impugn scholars with whom it disagrees. It is not the role of the U.S. Government to suppress dissent.

The MCSIP 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." Again, the selective science of NHTSA should be replaced by a more balanced view, including dissenting scientific views, such as those espoused by Dr. Goldstein. NHTSA should cease politicizing this issue.

The MCSIP further states that the agency 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."

NHTSA usually reports fatalities as a function of some normative number, say fatalities per 10,000 registrations, but it did not present the data in this way in the Texas and Arkansas studies.

Basically, overall fatalities did go up in both states following liberalization of their mandatory helmet use laws, but so also did motorcycle registrations. In Arkansas, fatalities per 10,000 registrations 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, the agency should have the intellectual honesty to abandon this "study strategy," if not, state its agreement 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."

NHTSA further states that it will use "the results of Texas and Arkansas studies to publicize the protective value of helmet use," as 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 votes for rider choice, it invites federal interference. 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. In MRF's view, this is another form of lobbying, specifically prohibited by TEA-21 and not in conformance with the commitment, made to MRF by President George W. Bush, that his Administration will be "a staunch defender of all provisions" of TEA-21.

The MCSIP should remove all references to the Texas and Arkansas studies, discontinue its plans to harass other states and sink its resources into crash prevention rather than, as the Partnership for Safe Driving puts it, "safer crashes."

Finally, the MCSIP contains the following sweeping statement. "Wearing a helmet that meets the federal safety requirement will save the lives of motorcycle riders." For reasons stated above, the statement is patently false and should not appear in any plan of this government purporting to advance motorcyclist safety.

f. Understanding Motorcyclists' Behavior (Page 14). NHTSA hopes to study "factors that affect and shape motorcyclists' accidents and behavior and how they affect crash involvement; and ... create programs that reduce dangerous behavior and reinforce safe behavior." Dr. Andes with Southern Illinois University Carbondale indicated to MRF that NHTSA's contemplated research should include incident-free riders for a more comprehensive understanding. "NHTSA should study those who do not crash to understand not only the characteristics of motorcyclists who are more likely to be involved in a crash, but also those who are less likely."

One of the troubling aspects of NHTSA is the way in which it safeguards study methodology and scope, treating them like military secrets until a study is finalized and ready for public release. We refrain from comment on this section until NHTSA provides specific detail to MRF and the SMROs about the envisioned studies, methodologies, resultant programs and costs. We do, however, repeat that the MCSIP is incomplete without action to reeducate motorists and target dangerous drivers, and we repeat the message sounded by other safety advocates: "It is time to stop coddling drivers who kill."

g. Motorist Awareness (Page 14). In fatalities resulting from multiple vehicle accidents, as many as 6 out of 10 are caused by the motorist, not the motorcyclist. While seeing to the training of motorcyclists, we can take the biggest bite out of motorcyclist fatalities by targeting the motorist who is clueless, distracted, reckless, or negligent. The joint MRF-SMRO plan is simple: heed the message of awareness, or feel the muscle of sanctions.

Clearly, the State Motorcyclists' Rights Organizations have led the way in Motorist Awareness of Motorcycles. Consider just two examples from opposite ends of the United States: The Message. Modeled after a similar measure in Virginia advanced by the Virginia Coalition of Motorcyclists and ABATE of Virginia, the Modified Motorcycle Association of Massachusetts is working to pass "Nelly's Bill," in concert with law enforcement. Named after a rider fatally injured by a teenage driver, the law requires that Motorist Awareness of Motorcycles be taught in drivers' education.

The Muscle. Also in concert with law enforcement and other groups, the Washington Road Riders Association passed "Vehicular Assault" earlier this year which toughens penalties and creates two new felonies for reckless and negligent motorists whose misconduct causes injury. Alternately, ABATE of Wisconsin is working with state officials there to send errant motorists through motorcycle safety classes.

The joint MRF-SMRO team continues to lobby this Congress and the White House to appeal not only for a resource injection for state-run rider training, but also for a national program to enhance Motorist Awareness of Motorcycles. The MCSIP falls far short of this mark, by calling for completion of a demonstration project by the Fall of 2002 with training and licensing initiatives completed by Winter 2005. Even if the actions prescribed by NHTSA were sufficient - and they are not -- its timetable alone would postpone fatality reduction until after the 2005 milestone. Choosing 2005 as the completion date for Motorist Awareness is a clear sign that NHTSA has little faith in any campaign to reeducate motorists.

Unfortunately, NHTSA has chosen to conduct its demonstration project in Washington state. It would seem that if NHTSA is testing the effectiveness of an educational or awareness-based campaign, it should re-think its choice of Washington, as motorists there might be reacting not to a message, but to the muscle of a new law.

It is clear that the innovators in Motorist Awareness of Motorcycles are the SMROs - volunteers who have been hard at work helping states hone the message and develop the muscle to sensitize motorists to watch for motorcycles and sanction those who do not.

This single initiative - Motorist Awareness of Motorcycles - cannot be postponed for 4 years, and it cannot be relegated to "training and licensing programs" emerging from a demonstration project. This initiative calls for leadership and commitment. Accordingly, MRF proposes that it assemble a team of experts from its SMRO ranks to work with NHTSA, contractors and other experts as an ad hoc team funded and commissioned to launch an effective Motorist Awareness of Motorcycles campaign beginning in April, 2002.

Motorcyclists cannot and should not be expected to wait. Moreover, an effective Motorist Awareness of Motorcycles campaign will save the lives of more vulnerable road users, because if motorists cannot or will not see a motorcycle, they will not see a bicyclist or a pedestrian.

5. Vehicular Operational Safety (Beginning on Page 15).

a. Motorcycle Braking (Page 15). With respect to braking, NHTSA notes, "motorcycle design characteristics have changed dramatically over the past two decades,"… and asserts that its federal standard may need revision. The agency fails to make the following observations:
(1) Motorcycles with conventional brakes already stop handily as compared to passenger cars, trucks and busses.
(2) Many incident-free riders prefer conventional brakes over "technological advances."
(3) An aftermarket industry offers brake and pad options over OEM parts which further broadens rider options.
(4) Made without government intervention, all new braking system developments have been market-driven and, to some extent, racing-inspired.

These facts raise the question of why NHTSA holds anything beyond passing interest in new braking technology. While NHTSA is free to study linked brakes and anti-lock braking systems, "any major modifications ... to motorcyclist training curriculum to ... adequately train new motorcyclists" should already be in place by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, an industry organization, without prodding by a federal agency but in deference to its customers and in response to its changing product lines.

Our concern lies in NHTSA's continued emphasis of vehicle over operator. The MCSIP states that its use of "additional brake testing ... will be used as a basis for comparing the stringency of FMVSS 122, ECE R 78 and other national motorcycle brake standards for countries such as Japan," adding that it "hopes to use the test data to support its motorcycle brake harmonization proposals."

Motorcycles already out-brake passenger cars. While some riders choose bikes with new systems (e.g., linked brakes), others make informed decisions to buy bikes with what they would argue are more flexible systems. That choice should remain the rider's choice, not the government's choice as influenced by Japan or other nations where road conditions and the motorcycling and motoring cultures are vastly different.

It is the skilled rider who exacts an extra measure of safety by practicing emergency braking maneuvers and applying a street strategy that minimizes the likelihood of those maneuvers. It is a training issue for motorcyclists, but it is a training and enforcement issue for the motorist as well. The infamous left-turning passenger car that cuts abruptly into our path and strikes us down is not a call for a new brake standard for motorcycles, but a call to put the brakes on reckless, negligent, and clueless motorists. It is a call for Motorist Awareness of Motorcycles and the muscle that makes the message stick.

b. Conspicuity. NHTSA cites the National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety (NAMS) as the impetus for "reconsider[ation of] state requirements that prohibit safe conspicuity-enhancing modifications, including safe modification to lighting systems." MRF and the SMROs embrace the practice of customizing motorcycles, and this includes motorcycle lighting. Generally, the process of customization enhances lighting (read: conspicuity), as a bedrock principle of customization is enhanced visibility for eye-catching prominence on the street.

Mindful of its emphasis of vehicles over operators, NHTSA should not to place too much confidence in conspicuity as an accident prevention measure. Nearly 1.9 million crashes of vehicles in motion (or 29.6 percent) involve the rear-ending of a vehicle -- mostly cars, trucks, busses hitting the broad backs of cars, trucks and busses. (Traffic Safety Facts, 1999). All of them are far more conspicuous than even the most conspicuous motorcycle. The safe rider always keeps a weather-eye aft as well as forward, always looking for the clueless motorist and always plotting an escape route, red-light cameras notwithstanding. Again, even on the issue of conspicuity, rider training and motorist awareness are the trump cards.

MRF supports a study of crash data to determine if adding daytime running lights to passenger cars has had any effect on motorcycle safety.

6. Crash and Injury Data and Analysis (Beginning Page 16). MRF believes that the stakes are high in NHTSA-managed injury data and analysis. We also believe that study of the crash-involved rider as compared to the incident-free rider may contain valuable lessons to be learned. Accordingly, MRF wants to propose assembling a team of advisors from the riding community -- including social scientists -- who can participate in study formulation and methodology, including development of standardized accident reporting. In short, street riders want to be involved at the onset of any study, not briefed in the final moments before its release.

With respect to "Research in Motorcycle Crashes" (Page 17), specifically "research on potential impairment at lower BAC levels; evaluating a campaign for helmet use; studying advances in motorcycle braking; studying emerging technology" and evaluating potential conspicuity enhancements," we repeat our request that all research, focus groups, studies, and attendant underlying data sets be available for public and peer review.

7. Roadway Infrastructure Safety (Page 18). We appreciate the interest of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in making roadway infrastructure more motorcycle-friendly. Lacing virtually every major thoroughfare and interstate in the United States are crash barriers designed to control a crash by a car, prevent cross-over, slow momentum, minimize damage and lessen injury. Unfortunately, virtually every crash barrier in America is dangerous to motorcyclists. Their very design, placement and construction - with exposed, sharp-edged metal posts, the height, profile, design and composition of guard rails, proximity to the roadway and even, in some cases, use of steel cable as the arresting medium -- could not be more damaging to a motorcyclist even if they had been designed with that grim purpose in mind.

Highway maintenance practices in the United States are just as hazardous as crash barriers. Some asphalt patching results in the creation of "tar snakes" - black ice to the motorcyclist. Some crews fail to mix non-skid with roadway paint, creating another slippery surface.

President Bush has told the MRF that he believes that "all innovative technologies employed on highways to increase safety should be designed to benefit everyone who travels on our highways, including motorcyclists."

The Motorcycle Riders Foundation has recommended to the Bush Administration that it establish a Motorcycle Advisory Council - staffed by advocates and experts in both rider rights and safety and highway design and maintenance. Meeting periodically and working with experts in DOT and the Federal Highway Administration, we believe the Motorcycle Advisory Council can assist FHWA in achieving our shared goals of advancing motorcycle safety.

MRF looks forward to working with the new Administrator of FHWA to establish this council to work through the issues of concern to all road users.

8. Emergency Response System (Page 19). MRF heartily supports not only EMT but bystander care awareness, and our member organizations have included first-responder training in seminars nationwide. MRF recommends that, as part of a revised MCSIP, that NHTSA launch a brief, low-cost survey of emergency care providers to determine, by objective testing, the current level of competence nationwide in removing a full-face helmet from a motorcyclist accident victim and general knowledge among practitioners of the dangers of further trauma by improper removal. We believe this survey would underscore the need for EMT training.

9. Conclusion. The Motorcycle Riders Foundation finds NHTSA's Motorcycle Safety Improvement Plan lacking in focus, timeliness, and approach. NHTSA's approach - its obsession with the vehicle over the operator - is termed "passive safety" by Malcolm Gladwell in "Wrong Turn" (June 11, 2001, New Yorker Magazine), an essay we comment to the agency's attention. The article is now available on line at

The former science reporter for the Washington Post, Mr. Gladwell writes that, over the years, NHTSA's policies and approach "did not...make American highways the safest in the world. In fact,...the opposite happened....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....[NHTSA leaders] 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."

MRF asserts that there has been a mistake - a grave mistake - in the federal government's approach to motorcycle safety. Perhaps the recent tragic increases in motorcyclist fatalities mark the grim limits of the capability of NHTSA's "passive approach" to motorcycle safety as well. To rephrase Mr. Gladwell's question, has NHTSA changed the way it thinks about motorcycle crashes? In view of the draft Motorcycle Safety Improvement Plan, the answer is: not yet.


Thomas C. Wyld
Vice President, Government Relations
Motorcycle Riders Foundation

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