What the Motorcycle Safety Foundation is—and is not: Part I: the MIC

To understand the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, one has to understand why the Motorcycle Industry Council exists and what it does.

In short, much of MIC’s (and SVIA’s) governmental relations work has been to prevent or at least control how much Engineering could make motorcycling safer.

Since about 1920, the road safety philosophy has been summed up as the “3 E’s”: Engineering, Education and Enforcement. Until the mid-1960s, though, the accepted public view was that safety was the road user’s responsibility and the onus for crashes were on the those involved. It was a matter of deficient skills or inexperience or incapacitation or poor judgment and those could be and should be solved by a combination of education and enforcement. This is still the prevailing view when it comes to motorcycle crashes.

When motor vehicle deaths increased 30% between 1960 and 1965, however, road safety suddenly became a high-profile issue—particularly after Ralph’s Nader’s 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile. The media quickly jumped on the bandwagon as in this Time article.

A sea change in thinking about safety

Nader popularized an argument the public found compelling: that the automobile design could be deadly, and that manufacturers both knew their vehicles were unsafe and actively resisted efforts—and regulation—that would make autos safer. Automobile makers were against regulation—it not only drove up costs which would affect affordability and thus sales but affected competitiveness within the automotive industry. Until then automakers had been the primary sponsors of auto-safety research and both then and still now supported safety advocates who espoused “appropriate” views. Automakers and their front organizations actively discredited dissenting views to the point that safety critics were marginalized.

Nader’s book, though, broke through that industry blockade and summed up a growing conviction among traffic safety experts. Coupled with popular support, those two ideas were enshrined in the 1966 National Traffic and Highway Safety Act.

Those two ideas have also become part of American consumer thinking: First, vehicles themselves could be to blame—and thus, by extension, manufacturers could be held accountable to produce safer vehicles or . The second was the pursuit of “safer crashing.” And, in terms of the motorcycle industry, which is our main interest here, that thinking in terms of the legislation required regulators to develop federal motor vehicle safety standards.

Within a few years, it also resulted in the creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 1970, which was to carry out the mandates in the Act.

Despite unintended consequences, it cannot be argued that safer crashing has had a huge impact (pun intended) on lowering passenger vehicle fatality rates. But in emphasizing the Safety E of engineering, there’s been a corresponding de-emphasis on the E of driver education as a means of motor vehicle safety.

MIC is founded

The lessons and implications were not lost on the motorcycle manufacturers who had, so far, escaped the high-powered glare of legislative attention due to the focus on passenger cars. They acted in concert to forestall government regulations on their products: the same year that NHTSA was founded, the motorcycle manufacturers incorporated the Motorcycle Industry Council as a 501 (c) 6 trade group.

Although a motorcycling manufacturing group had existed since the early 1900s under a variety of names and with more or less clout, MIC went far beyond those earlier attempts. It was formed to protect the motorcycle industry’s interests through “government relations, statistics, communications, technical, and aftermarket programs”. Harley-Davidson is not a member of MIC yet carries on many similar activities to advance common interests.

MIC—and later SVIA for strictly recreational off-road vehicles—dealt extensively with the first of the Three E’s of safety—Engineering. The manufacturers goal then—and now—is to prevent onerous legislation that could limit profitability and increase accountability while furthering legislation that limits liability and increase dividends. One of its primary goals is to prevent regulations on design and engines through lobbying and public relations and it’s been remarkably—no, amazingly—successful in its efforts.

Somehow, the thinking—vehicles can be made safer—was never and still isn’t expected of motorcycles in the same way it’s been applied to passenger cars, trucks, buses, trains and planes. Since 1966, automakers have had to use safety glass, change the steering columns, pad dashboards, install not just seat belts but shoulder harness ones, use dual braking systems—and that’s just the beginning.

During the span of time, motorcycles have changed a great deal—but not necessarily in safer ways and not because the government required them to be. (And this last suits most riders just fine as they are, generally, conservatives if not libertarians.)

Such lapses in the Safety E of Engineering, however, would never be allowed for passenger vehicles, buses or trucks—or trains or planes. Oth, such lapses are also allowed for recreational vehicles such as snowmobiles, ATVs, jetskis and so forth—which, incidentally, are also made by many of the same manufacturers who belong to MIC—and SVIA.

The astonishing success in negating the Engineering aspect of the 3 E’s has been only slightly off-set by minor losses (comparatively speaking) in regulations for emissions and noise. In those areas, the manufacturers yielded and agreed to some relatively minor regulations. Still noise doesn’t kill riders and pollution would take a very, very long time to have a health effect. But elements that would save lives like ABS brakes, for example, are not required.

Like the automakers prior to the National Traffic and Highway Safety Act, it’s the motorcycle industry that controls almost all of the safety research (much more on this in a future entry). It also supports those who espouse “appropriate” views (or at least keep silent on inappropriate views) and attempts to squelch or discredit safety critics and marginalize them.

Still, that (dubious) achievement is remarkable because the motorcycle is, without a doubt, the most dangerous vehicle on the road per vehicle. And what makes it remarkable is that everyone knew it and knows it—government, general society, riders and the motorcycle industry—and nothing is done because it’s common wisdom that they can’t be made safer. Which is not true—as manufacturers found consumers wanted ABS and linked brake systems, more of them added them. Iow, unless consumers demand motorcycles themselves be safer, there’s no percentage for the motorcycle manufacturers to do it on their own.

One unobserved result of this situation is that motorcycle flaws—design or mechanical—are not dealt with through regulation as with automobiles. Rather things that make motorcycles dangerous—Harley’s Twin Cam issue and Electra Glide’s high-speed front end wobble, for example—are dealt with (if at all) through the courts and limited to models rather than extended to the vehicle class. This is in contradiction to what happens with automobiles.

Iow, however it happened, unlike the automakers, motorcycle manufacturers are virtually in the same position they were prior to the monumental legislation that was supposed to make all road users safer: making the vehicles as a class safer is up to the manufacturer.

And it is beyond a doubt that motorcycle safety in terms of engineering is a classic and textbook case of the “culture of low expectations.” As long as it’s believed that the motorcycle can’t be made safe—or at least safer—the engineering dimension of the 3 Safety E’s is ineffectual. It cannot be dismissed that this view supports the self-interest of the motorcycle industry—and the goals of MIC and Harley-Davidson—since that’s the one that affects their profits and liability.

It’s unknown to the degree that MIC and Harley-Davidson furthered those low expectations and how much is simply a fundamental societal assumption about motorcycles. It is clear where that notion had led: if little can be done to make them safer then anything can be done to make them more dangerous without government regulatory interference.

By whatever means it occurred (or the attitude was maintained), as it stands now if motorcycle safety is possible at all it won’t be found in the machine. And it’s only this E—engineering—that affects the profits and liability of the manufacturer.

As a result, motorcycle safety has been defined along three lines: what riders wear (helmets/gear); riding under the influence; rider training and licensing. In short: motorcycle safety is in what the motorcyclist does or doesn’t do. And riders bought into that along with everyone else. Needless to say, all of these have nothing to do with the motorcycle and everything to do with the motorcyclist.

And that’s the dubious (and some may say diabolical) genius of the motorcycle industry compared to the automotive industry: overwhelmingly, all stakeholders still regard motorcycle crashes exactly as they use to regard all road accidents for over 100 years: it’s the rider’s fault. The rider could’ve or should’ve done something to prevent it or at least mitigate the damage. Iow, the motorcycle safety issue has been framed entirely in terms of the motorcyclist.

Therefore, if motorcyclist safety is possible at all, it has to be found in the other two E’s—education and enforcement. And that’s where the MIC came up with their brainchild and sister organization, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. And that’s what the next entry is about.

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One Comment on “What the Motorcycle Safety Foundation is—and is not: Part I: the MIC”

  1. gymnast Says:

    Wendy,
    The Highway Safety Act and Motor Vehicle Safety act, together, marked the beginning of the 4th “E” in the highway safety philosophy, that E being “Enactment”. The age legislating motor vehicle safety though the enactment of laws in a structured manner on a national level began with the standard areas specified in the above acts.

    Your excellent summary above brings to mind a “Fifth E” that “E”, standing for “Entitlement”, is representative of the self declared “Entitlement” assumed by the the MIC-MSF in it’s dominant role in directing NHTSA’s motorcycle safety and crash prevention agenda for nearly 40 years.


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