The public vs. private face of the MSF

The last entry examined how the motorcycle manufacturers created the illusion that Motorcycle Safety Foundation was a charity in order to advance their own industry concerns. This entry examines how they perpetrated the illusion so long.

The Motorcycle Safety Foundation described in the last entry—a group of marketing representatives manipulating the issues of safety and education to advance the motorcycle industry’s objectives is not the MSF that people knew and dealt with for all those years.

The MSF that people saw and experienced was comprised of both people and products—the curriculum, the press releases and so forth. But mostly MSF meant people to rider educators and traffic safety experts, government agencies, legislators and motorcycle rights activists and so forth. And, for the motorcyclist, MSF meant the instructors who taught them.

On the national level, people had names, faces, histories and job responsibilities. Names like Peter Fassnaught, Beth Weaver, Carl Spurgeon, Ron Shepard, Bob Reichenberg, Bobbie Carlson, Elisabeth Piper, Ray Ochs and Cathy Rimm, Laurie Longville and so many others. They were the people who did the work—developed curriculum, trained, helped state motorcycle rights activists pass legislation, handled insurance and RERP questions, were the spokespeople and so forth.

This level was the only one visible to the public as the MSF for over 30 years. These were the “good guys” and they are considered to be honest and sincere and all around nice people—and, until recently, had extensive rider education experience, competence and were highly regarded by their peers.

It appeared to the public that they were the ones who set the direction, determined the safety content of the courses and worked to make motorcyclists safe on the roads. And that’s what the employees believed as well. They, who worked there, didn’t know that MSF was a trade group organization. Nor did they realize how much control over policies, issues and curriculum that the trustees had.

And then, of course, there were the presidents over the past decades—Charlie Hartmann, Alan Isley and last but not least, Tim Buche. Each in turn was the officially public face of MSF—appearing on television or beside the Department of Transportation Secretary, speaking at national or international forums. At those events, it’s often hard to tell whether he’s speaking as the president of MSF or MIC—and sometimes, when it would be logical to appear as one, he speaks as the other.

Otoh, he very, very rarely meets with motorcycle rights activists—or even rider educators themselves, which is odd given what his ostensible role is with MSF. Buche, for example, hasn’t even attended the last two State Motorcycle Safety Administrators conferences and doesn’t attend Updates, which is arguably the next largest gatherings of rider educators. While some of that is natural—he’s a busy man, after all, it’s still notable that the man who ostensibly runs a motorcycle safety and education organization only finds time to appear at events that have a high non-rider political dimension—and a high political benefit for the motorcycle manufacturers.

The then-current president was also one of very few who knew the extent to which the manufacturers actually controlled MSF’s work. Another one that knew was Kathy van Kleeck, VP government relations for MIC, MSF and SVIA. These were the ones who always understood what role the MSF was supposed to play and made sure it played it because they were the only ones at MSF who regularly interfaced with the trustees. It was on that shadow governing level where the real decisions were made and then translated into forms the public could accept—the curriculum, and so forth.

The advancement of industry goals through MSF succeeded precisely because of those two levels were kept separate. The public saw the public MSF and believed that the work it did was for the public benefit. Otoh, it was the upper echelon that worked in states often without the knowledge of state administrators to obtain benefits for Harley-Davidson, the MSF member who paid the most dues, or to change legislation to benefit the secret industry agenda. Iow, it was the classic good cop/bad cop paradigm.

But because of the trust and confidence invested in the visible face of MSF, the riding public—and most rider educators—became invested in MSF. It was very difficult for the rank and file to believe that MSF wasn’t the MSF they had experienced no matter what they heard.

This bifurcation between the private work and the public work of MSF reveals it is a front group. Front groups are a public relations strategy called “third party technique” that puts “a premeditated message in the “mouth of the media.””

MSF does avoid one of the most common techniques of front groups—it does reveal who funds the organization. However, it does meet these criteria:

  • Is set up by and/or operated by another organization (MSF was set up by the MIC and is operated by the motorcycle manufacturers).
  • Engages in actions that consistently and conspicuously benefit a third party, such as a company, industry or political candidate (this was the subject of the last entry).
  • Effectively shields a third party from liability/responsibility/culpability. (MSF acts as a liability shield for the manufacturers in product liability suits and has since the 1980s).
  • Re-focuses debate about an issue onto a new…topic… (for example, the rider’s role rather than any possible effect of the machine on the injures).
  • Has a misleading name that disguises its real agenda… [such as] (“Consumers’ Research,” “American Policy Center“), while in fact it consistently turns out opinions, research, surveys, reports, polls and other declarations that benefit the interests of a company, industry or political candidate. (MSF is not, in any sense, a “foundation” for example, nor meets the criteria for a “safety” institute).
  • Has the same address or phone number as a similar group that has since disbanded, or been forced out of business by exposure, lawsuits, etc. (Or, in this case, the Motorcycle Industry Council.)
  • Consists of a group of vocal, “esteemed” academic “experts” who go on national tours, put on media events, give press conferences, seminars, workshops, and give editorial board meetings around the country, etc., who ordinarily would not seem to have the budget or financial means to carry out such events. (this needs no explanation at all).
  • Touts repeatedly in communications that it is “independent,” “esteemed,” “credible” etc. (MSF continually brags that it is internationally recognized, that it’s the expert and the leader in rider training).

According to Sourcewatch, ““For the media and the public, the corporation will be one of the least credible sources of information, on its own product, environmental and safety risks. Both these audiences will turn to other experts … to get an objective viewpoint”, Amanda Little from the Sydney office of PR firm Burson-Marsteller told an advertising conference in 1995.”

For decades, riding and non-riding public thought that MSF was the objective view—and many (if not most) still do. They didn’t realize that whatever the MSF said was controlled by the manufacturers. Nor did they notice that nothing MSF said would be contrary to the industry’s benefit—a key indicator that an organization is not in thrall to powerful interests.

MSF worked very hard to increase that level of public belief that MSF was devoted to the public benefit. And one of the ways they did this was to perpetuate the notion that its curriculum was both safe and effective in reducing crashes and deaths.

The trust and confidence that resulted was exactly what allowed the trade group—and still allows the trade group—to define motorcycle safety, education and enforcement in terms that benefited the manufacturers. But what would seem self-serving if they said it was acceptable because MSF said it—which was the whole point of creating the MSF in the first place.

“Developing third party support and validation for the basic risk messages of the corporation is essential. This support should ideally come from medical authorities, political leaders, union officials, relevant academics, fire and police officials, environmentalists, regulators”, Little said.” Or from motorcycle safety and education “experts”.

Experts and research are foundational third-party technique. The motorcycle manufacturers put together a team of rider education experts, kept them in the dark as to the funder’s motives, and put out a curriculum that purportedly handled the risks of motorcycling in ways that put the responsibility on the rider and drew attention away from any possible risk from the machine itself. And that’s what they are still doing.

They also selectively fund research that either supports the conclusions they want to reach or, if it doesn’t, is buried—unless the researchers break the rules and publish it elsewhere (as the infamous report that found that the renegade Oregon and Idaho motorcycle programs were top in the nation (and then-rebellious Hawaii up in the top programs) while MSF-administrated programs were considerably down in the list.

  • For example, MSF board chair and Harley-Davidson’s Lara Lee’s strategic planning concern about the “lack of “evidence” to validate benefits of active safety.” Soon after that the Discovery Project—which will validate that continued training works—was launched. And, most recently, MSF contracted with research firm PIRE to validate that the BRC evaluations are equal to the Alt-MOST.
  • “Field tests” on the BRC, on lesser curricular changes and ranges are regularly done—though none measure up to anything a scientific or academic not in industry pay would call a field test.
  • The student and RiderCoach surveys on the BRC as well as the expert comparative review between the MRC:RSS and BRC were carried out by a communications firm (spin doctors) that, the website said, specialized in silencing the squeaky wheel. MIC/MSF president Buche was quoted as saying that Albert Hydeman and Associates gave them the results they were looking for. Sherry Williams and then Al Hydeman were hired to work full-time for MSF after those favorable reports.

In all ways, then, the manufacturers managed what the automakers did not—they prevented their products from being subjected to regulations that would make the machines safer and negated the Engineering safety E and they controlled what the public and government thought was the Education and Enforcement Safety E’s. And they did it all in a way that brought massive profits while making significant changes in how the public thought of motorcyclists.

At the dealer show in Indianapolis in 1998, Tim Buche, president of the MIC, MSF and SVIA, bragged about increasing motorcycle sales—an MIC concern—and then is quoted as saying that the MSF truly was the Motorcycle Sales Foundation. It was he who coined the term—a term we see through these hidden documents is all too accurate. MSF truly is the M$F.

This is not to say that the public couldn’t benefit from products created by this trade group. A great many riders dislike that MSF is an industry front group but have believed that at least the curricular and licensing products were safe and effective and did reduce crashes and deaths on the road. So that’s the subject of the next entry: when so much about the MSF has proven to be untrue, is that, at least true?

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

One Comment on “The public vs. private face of the MSF”

  1. Capt Crash Says:

    There’s a ListServe rumor that MSF has ‘taken over’ the NY State program…since I’m not an MSF coach anymore (they don’t love us in Idaho) could you let us know what’s up?

    Thanks,

    Crash


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