How much is MSF a trade group, how much a charity?

In the last entry concentrated on the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s actual status as a trade group organization and how it disguised that reality. This entry concentrates on how that false impression has been used to advance industry issues over the past 30+ years.

Because charities are organized exclusively for the public benefit, they are given enormous trust and confidence unless they prove themselves unworthy. What they say, what they produce, what they do is assumed to be true and good—and better for the public because those who work for the charity don’t personally benefit from the work.

Trade groups such as the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC), otoh, aren’t given that automatic trust. Instead, the public realizes they are out for their industry’s benefit. They may do good—but it’s always for the good they can get out of it.

It’s significant—and, as it turns out, of the utmost importance—that the motorcycle manufacturers chose to form a 501 (c) 6 but make it appear to be a 501 (c) 3. The choice of the name, Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF), was not the least of the misleading appearance. It gave the impression that MSF was a 501 (c) 3 organization though, in reality, it didn’t met the criteria for a foundation. Still, it appeared to be solely devoted to motorcycle safety and education. That was well publicized. As was the motorcycle manufacturers completely subsidizing the organization.

But the MIC origin, nor the composition of the board, was known at all. And, as we’ll soon see, neither was how much the MSF was involved in carrying out the industry’s self-protective and self-aggrandizing agenda.

Though MSF appeared to be a safety and education charity, critically involved stakeholders such as traffic safety experts, rider educators, motorcycle rights activists were not allowed to participate even as non-voting members.

Because as a trade association, MSF’s membership was limited solely to motorcycle manufacturers. Only members could sit on the board. Only board members could make decisions about the direction the organization took and what official positions were. And the representatives from the manufacturer members worked in the marketing departments or another department of those motor companies that had nothing to do with safety or education.

As a result, those who were in the best position to inform the direction rider education and safety efforts should take were excluded while those who knew how to sell motorcycles were the only ones allowed to make decisions.

At the same time, motorcycle manufacturers also held a dominant voice in MIC and still hold 50% of the seats on that board. In total, the motorcycle manufacturers owned 150% of the voting influence over how the 3 Safety E’s would be interpreted and carried out in street motorcycling in these two organizations.

When it comes to the Safety E’s, MSF has devoted itself to education through its curricular products and to enforcement through it’s development of the motorcycle licensing tests that are used by almost all states.

However, the way it’s taken education is in sync with the position the manufacturers promulgate through both government relations and communications—it’s not the machine, it’s the rider or other drivers. For example, Tim Buche—President of MSF, MIC and SVIA—is quoted in the Nov, 2005 issue of Freeway Flyer, the Iowa ABATE newsletter; “the increase [in motorcycle fatalities] could not be linked to a single issue, saying it was a combination of impairment and inattentiveness of other drivers as well as motorcycle riders who drive impaired, untrained or without protective gear. The rising gas prices also put a lot more bikers on the road this year to compete with other vehicles.” In other instances, MSF has implicated older riders and returning riders. Iow, it’s everything except the machine that could be at fault for the rising fatality rate.

However, if the manufacturers say that, it’s rather obviously self-serving. If a “safety and educational charity” says it, it must be the truth.

The positions that most benefits the motorcycle industry has been MSF’s “safety messages” for decades.


The “Motorcycle Safety Foundation Five-Year Plan: 1983-1987 reveals that MSF was deliberately and specifically used by industry to achieve their goals.

Meant for the trustees and key officers’ eyes only, it’s the only place that correctly quotes the by-laws—and even underlines the exclusively organized to benefit the industry part of the paragraph as well as the “consistent with public interest” language.

In the section on Motorcycle Safety Foundation Goals Number 5 reads, “To represent the safety interests of the motorcycle industry in governmental activities” [emphasis added]. The riding and non-riding public has always been told that’s MIC’s job. Yet it’s clear that’s one of MSF’s goals.

Conversely, there’s no goal to represent the safety interests of the riders—or the general public in government activities. Which is what we had always been led to believe was MSF’s job. Iow, no one has been doing the job the public had entrusted to MSF for over 30 years. If it happens, it’s an afterthought, a byproduct.

This sole focus on the use of education and safety to promote motorcycle manufacturers’ profitability is made even clearer in the section “Issues Facing the Industry”. The report states, “Of all possible issues which could be identified, three are specifically related to the mission of the Foundation…These issues are presented below as they relate to our mission.

  1. The non-motorcycling public has a negative image of the people who buy the industry’s products.
  2. The general pubic views the industry’s products as inherently unsafe.
  3. The industry promotes its products to a narrow segment of the general public primarily for recreational use.”

· Note how those are phrased—“buy the industry’s products, “views the industry’s products” and “the industry promotes”.

· And note that none of those issues have anything whatsoever to do with either safety or education but everything to do with motorcycle sales.

· There is no separate section for “Issues Facing Motorcyclists” or “Issues Facing Rider Education/Safety”. Once again, this was the job the public had been led to believe MSF was addressing. But it wasn’t.

Much of the report outlines objectives to achieve each of the overarching goals. One section is particularly revelatory because of the activities it describes. In this section:

The first objective was to “ 1. “Assist in the passage of two major state rider education or licensing bills each year beginning in 1983. Target states for activity each year.”

Two objectives were directly related to that number one goal: Objective number two states to make sure it was the industry’s legislative language for state program bills that was available to lawmakers. And the 9th goal was to “Develop a group of legislative advocates from American Motorcyclist Association [AMA] members, MSF certified instructors and others to promote quality legislation in their states.”

Other objectives included meeting with “NHTSA people” twice yearly, participating in other groups to represent the industry’s view on safety and education and networking with other lobbyists in related transportation areas. And, tying MSF once again closely to MIC’s goals, Goal number 7 stated, “Monitor and evaluate highway safety activity of the Department of Transportation as it affects MSF activities.”

On the surface those objectives would appear to be solely concerned with advancing the cause for rider training and safety. If that was the case, those goals would seem innocent and for the public benefit. However, that section referred to that Goal Number 5, “To represent the safety interests of the motorcycle industry in governmental activities.”

Iow, it was in the manufacturers’ self-interest to get state programs passed with industry-created legislative language. It was in their self-interest to use motorcyclists and rider educators to get it to happen rather than showing their own involvement. It was in their self-interest to position MSFers as the experts on what constitutes safe motorcycling and education.

Throughout the five-year plan, in other objectives, the goals were to establish MSF as the expert on all things motorcycle safety and training-related in order to benefit and protect the industry.


Internal notes from a 2003 MSF memo on Strategic Planning show that the same focus is paramount.

At that time, MSF had taken over four state programs [MSF had just won the contract to take over the California Motorcycle Safety Program]. Lara Lee, board chair and representative of Harley-Davidson, asked if MSF’s mission statement should be rewritten to “more clearly allow for that option [taking over state programs] as a strategy or tactic….”

Kawasaki’s Roger Hagie asked if “we are also now “enforcing” national standards (ref. CA and OR efforts?” [Note: at that time, Oregon and California were using the MRC:RSS, though California’s was a modified RSS with stricter standards than the MSF version. Oregon was still developing—but not teaching—the TOMS Basic Rider Training course].

MSF asked the trustees these “Strategic Questions”: “What do you think are the most pressing industry-specific, economic, legislative or social issues MSF needs to prepare for within the next five years?” Once again, the issues raised may puzzle those who thought the MSF was all about the student:

She also mentioned “Governmental focus on passive safety & lack of “evidence” to validate benefits of active safety. Passive safety refers to the machine and gear rather than to the rider or driver error. [It’s curious, if not disturbing, that the word “evidence” is in quotes when it comes to validating training.]

Hagie was concerned about the fight for leadership of safety issues. He mentioned the “Conflict with states and a tug-of-war with other organizations (SMSA, MRF, etc.) over leadership” [over motorcycle safety/training]. He also objected to NHTSA’s “lack of positive initiatives (as opposed to derogatory press releases on motorcycle fatality increases.)” [Author’s clarifying note: the late and lamented and then-disparaged Ron Shepherd was chair of SMSA at that time. Note as well what major rights organization wasn’t mentioned by acronym—the same one where the motorcycle industry has a guaranteed 50% board membership.]

Honda’s Dave Edwards cited “Noise”, “Skill levels of older riders, the aging population overall” and “Image of extreme sports.”

When it came to the question of what the Measures of Success [emphasis in text], Lee thought “Should potentially expand [the measures] to consider success in achieving retail-level sales” and Edwards thought that “Achievement of specific targets set by MSF for achievements in state/fed legislation, vehicle regulation, gov. standards, ad promotions, etc.”

Once again, the measures of success Edwards thought were appropriate for MSF were things we had thought was MIC’s job. And many of the issues and measure have little to nothing to do with safety or education or the well-being of riders or the public benefit and a very great deal to do with well-being of the manufacturers.

The distinction is important—and the scope and specificity of the objectives in the five-year plan and in the 2003 memo is just as critical. We had been led to believe it was MIC that was supposed to be dedicated to governmental actions to guard the industry’s efforts. Yet, in 1983, it was MSF that was going to guard those interests through passing—rather than preventing the passage—of regulations.

These documents, then, reveal that the state program system, like the State Motorcycle Safety Administrators (SMSA), was a tool conceived of by the industry to further its goals that they felt was theirs to use and reveals a degree of consternation that rebellion was rising in the ranks that could prevent industry from using safety and education in the ways they wanted to use them.

Safety and education, iow, was perceived in terms of industry interests alone—and still is. Document after document reveals that the trustees look out for the industry’s interests rather than “the rider education and safety communities’ interests” or “motorcyclists” interests. As a trade group, that’s exactly what they are required to do. The problem is that it’s been masquerading as a charity.

MSF’s documents consistently reveal its 501 (c) 6 status wasn’t a mistake at all and that the manufacturers intended this trade group to masquerade as a charity in order to take advantage of the automatic trust and confidence—and lack of questioning—safety and education charities enjoy.

The next entry examines the bi-level structure of MSF and how it was used to promote the industry’s agenda.

Explore posts in the same categories: Motorcycle Industry, Motorcycle Safety Foundation

One Comment on “How much is MSF a trade group, how much a charity?”

  1. gymnast Says:

    The way the NHTSA has catered to MSF needs and contributed millions of taxpayer dollars to further the MSFs various causes and interests, arguably the MSF is NHTSA’s favorite charity.

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