Archive for August 2009

The Buell Blast will still be the training bike–but without the “Buell” part

August 25, 2009

Vstromer has news from the SMSA conference that contradicts Eric Buell’s video:

“Contrary to what the Eric Buell video might lead one to believe, the Blast will continue to be manufactured, continue to be used as a training bike in Rider’s Edge classes, and continue to be offered for sale at H-D/Buell dealerships. It will be badged as a Blast, not a Buell, not a Harley, just Blast. This information comes straight from Tim Becker’s mouth at the SMSA business meeting in Madison, WI, on Friday, 8/21/2009. Tim Becker is employed by H-D, and his title is Manager Rider’s Edge.”

Well, Vstromer, that’s interesting. The Blast–when it was a Buell–sold very badly. Over the past four years, the most Buell Blasts were shipped in 2006–but that was only 1,602 motorcycles. Last year, only 1,177 were shipped–26% less than in 2006. I don’t know how many sites Rider’s Edge has now, but I can’t imagine that they will need many bikes every year and I can only imagine the economies at the scale H-D will be operating at supplying only RE sites.

I find it interesting that rather than import a small MV Augusta that would be an ideal training bike, H-D is going to continue to use the Blast…

I also find it alarming that H-D made a conscious and deliberate decision to continue to use a motorcycle associated with so many more injury and fatal crashes than another other single motorcycle out there. I guess TPTB decided the economies of acceptable loss v. profit were worth it.

Deadly Buell Blast is no more

August 24, 2009

The motorcycle associated with more rider training fatalities is no more. Buell is no longer going to produce the Buell Blast.  Check out this tongue-in-cheek video that officially announced what insiders had known for some time:

Prior to the Blast, the smallest motorcycle Buell had ever produced was the RW750 in 1983—and that only for racing and discontinued quickly.

In 1993, the Motor Company bought 49% of Buell, Harley-Davidson Motor Company had purchased Buell shortly after it had decided that the best way to attract younger riders and women riders was to offer a motorcycle training course. To do that, they needed both a curriculum and motorcycle small enough to use for training.

Rather than dilute the Harley Big Manly Bike image, in 1998 the Motor Company bought a further 49% interest in Buell. HD misunderstood and consequently mismanaged the brand over the years and failed to establish it as a serious contender for the rapidly growing sportbike and sport-tourer market. It’s interest in Buell was primarily in providing a conduit to attract  women and young men and funnel them to the motorcycles produced by the parent company.

And controlling Buell provided them a way to own a training motorcycle—it developed the Blast, with a 492cc. engine that came in at 360 lbs. dry. That was still too big for MSF’s rider training motorcycle criteria. However, in 1998, the Motor Company was not an MSF member.

While Harley had been one of the founding members of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) back in the early 70s, it was no longer shortly after it had finagled the the infamous tariff against imported motorcycles in 1983. Whether Harley was kicked out as some say or left of its own accord due to very bad blood, it was no longer a member of MSF (and is still not a member of the Motorcycle Industry Council).

And the Motor Company began negotiations with MSF about joining the trade group. Or rather, according to sources who were present at the meetings, Harley told MSF what it wanted—and MSF complied. The new rider training curriculum MSF was developing had to be more consumer-friendly—this translated to the “student-centered/adult-learning” basis of the Basic RiderCourse (BRC)—and the motorcycle criteria had to change to fit the Blast. Harley came in with the majority market share position—thus paying the most dues—and gained the chairmanship of the board of trustees. The criteria was changed so the Blast was acceptable and Harley began Rider’s Edge using a black-and-orange version of MSF’s curriculum.

Before the Blast began to be used in training, the most expert of rider educators and administrators informed both Harley and MSF that the bike is too heavy for students to handle easily, too tall for its heavier weight, has too “torque-y” and engine for it’s weight, an “on-off” clutch with no friction zone, and while the brakes are excellent, they are not forgiving. The bike doesn’t stall out because it has so much torque and when students pop the clutch and the bike shoots forward, they grab on to the handlebars–and end up rolling on the throttle WFO. They predicted that serious crashes would occur—though they never imagined that training deaths would occur.

Right from the beginning, those experts were proven true: the Blast was associated with injury crashes resulting from riders crashing into obstacles located within 40-feet of the range. However, very few were known by the rider education community.

In fact, serious injuries began to occur before anyone suspected. The first lawsuit known to be associated with Rider’s Edge was the result of a training crash in 2002 at Wild Boar Harley Davidson in Hudsonville, MI (now Grand Rapids Harley). According to the Appeals Court summary, “Plaintiff Susan McCoy purchased two motorcycles from defendant Kelley’s Harley Davidson, Inc., d/b/a Wild Boar Harley Davidson, Inc. (“Kelley’s”) in June 2002. After purchasing the motorcycles, plaintiff enrolled in a motorcycle safety course titled “Rider’s Edge New Riders Course” partially sponsored by Kelley’s and defendant Motorcycle Safety Foundation, Inc. (“MSF”). During the course, plaintiff accidentally drove a motorcycle into a brick wall, injuring her ankle, pelvis, scapula, thumb and wrist.”  Prior to the crash that resulted in multiple injuries, instructors had “reprimanded her for handling the motorcycle improperly.” She claimed that they had failed to make sure she mastered the wrist down position.

Shortly before McCoy ran into the wall in Michigan, Juanita M. Haggerty ran into a wall in Festus, MO during a Rider’s Edge course while riding a Buell Blast. Then, shortly after McCoy’s crash, Janet Rollins ran into a wall in Laconia NH during a Rider’s Edge course.

Rider’s Edge, with its combination of a dangerous bike and dangerous courses, continued it’s injurious progress over the years. Another death occurred in Kenosha,WI at Uke’s Harley-Davidson during a course and near-fatalities were rampant including ones in West Virginia and Florida. For example, in one state where Rider’s Edge courses comprised only 25% of the sites associated with the state program, Rider’s Edge courses were responsible for 52.13% of all accidents and 60% of all injuries and all the broken bones and dislocations. Students, unable to control the clutch and throttle ran off the range into such objects as walls, fences, creeks and trees.

The Buell Blast’s market was, by far, the dealerships that offered Rider’s Edge themselves. Few of the motorcycles were sold even so. That Harley-Davidson has finally stopped producing this deadly training motorcycle is a cause for relief—but what the Motor Company will replace it with is anyone’s guess. It can only be assumed that this deadly little bike will continue to be used in Rider’s Edge until a replacement bike manufactured by the Parent Company or one of its subsidiaries such as MV Agusta is found.

NHTSA releases study on motorcyclist injuries

August 19, 2009

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently released DOT HS 811 149, “Traffic Safety Facts Research Note: Motorcyclists Injured in Motor Vehicle Traffic Crashes”. It examines some very basic crash data from 1998-2007 using crashes that resulted in police-reports.

Since far more motorcyclists are injured than killed and injury is a far better outcome than death, it would be most beneficial to determine the key factors that make one crash outcome injury and another one fatal. So something like this has been long-overdue though this study looks at very few elements.

For the most part, the analysis found that while more riders are injured, the proportions in each element the study looked at are almost identical to what they were back in 1998.  What NHTSA didn’t do in all but two cases is compare those injury percentages to fatality percentages—and when we do that, the answer may be disturbing: the biggest difference between survivable and non-survivable crashes may only be the degree of injury and not different situations.

From 1998-2007:

  • Injuries have increased 110 percent while motorcycle registrations increased 84 percent.
  • About half the injuries continue to occur in single-vehicle and half in multi-vehicle crashes
  • About half (55%) of all injury crashes continue to occur during the week and half (45%) occur on the weekend. (However, weekend crashes occur 1.5 more often since the weekend is a much shorter length of time).
  • About 60% of the crashes continue to happen during daylight hours,
  • and 68% occur from April through September.
  • Ninety-percent of injuries happen to riders and 10 percent to passengers.
  • About 85% of all the injured are male and 15% female.
  • Injuries increased among all age groups—but the age group with the largest number of injuries was in the 20-29 year-old age group.
  • And almost the exact same percentage of riders were injured in alcohol-related crashes in 2007 (9%) as in 1998 (10%).

Helmet use The NHTSA report states, “Among the 103,000 motorcyclists injured in motor vehicle crashes in 2007, 65,000 (63%) were helmeted at the time of the crash, 31,000 (30%) were not helmeted, and helmet use was unknown for 7,000 (7%) of the motorcyclists injured. Helmet use from 1998-2007 among motorcyclists injured in crashes has ranged from a low of 55 percent in 2002 and 2003 to a high of 63 percent in 2007. Of the motorcyclists injured in crashes who were not helmeted, the proportion ranged from a high of 40 percent in 2002 to a low of 30 percent in 2006 and 2007.

Comparing injury crashes v. fatal crashes

NHTSA only compared injury analysis results with what’s known about fatalities in two instances: First, the percentage of operators v. passengers injured is almost identical to the fatality data and secondly, the percentage of male v. female injured is almost the same as the percentage of men to women fatalities. Being a woman, I can’t resist pointing out MIC reports women represent 23% of all who rode (front or back) on motorcycles last year. Iow, it appears women are under-represented as both operators and passengers in both injuries and fatalities—and thus may be safer operators and make male operators safer riders when we’re on the back.

NHTSA didn’t mention there’s other aspects that reveal injury crashes are almost identical to their more lethal counterparts: the days of the week; the time of day; the time of year; the percentage of single-vehicle v. multi-vehicle crashes; age.

Intoxicated riding

One very key—and crucial difference is the percentage of alcohol-involved crashes that result in  injured riders (10%) versus dead riders (28% were at or over the legal limit and another 8% had between a trace and 0.07% BAC in 2007). It is unknown why such an enormous difference would exist—and it could be important how the researchers determined alcohol-involvement in injury crashes. But the data raises the question, in my mind at least, whether a crash after drinking is more likely to end in death than injury.


According to MIC, the ≤30 age group increased about 8%. The existence of mandatory training requirements for young riders suggest of all age groups, more trained riders are likely to be found among these young riders. However, since 1998 but using NHTSA data, injuries in this age group increased 105% and fatalities increased almost 83%. In 2007, these young one-third of the riding population had almost 40% of the injury crashes.  The author of the analysis points out that other age groups are catching up to younger rider injury numbers.

While we are well aware that fatalities among the Baby Boomers have dramatically increased in the past decade, they do represent more than 50% of the riding population and in 2007 had just under 43% of the injuries and just over 49% of the fatalities.

Comparison between injury and death when it comes to helmet use deserves its own entry because of the implications.

There but for the grace…

The bottom line, though, is that NHTSA’s limited injury data analysis reminds of what death by motor vehicle really is—one or more injuries that are so severe that life cannot be sustained. So it’s not surprising that so many of the characteristics are exactly the same between injury and fatal crashes. both occur at the same times of days and in the same seasons to basically the same people.

If we look at only these few characteristics NHTSA chose to highlight, it suggests a “there but for the grace of God” scenario as if it random whether the rider was merely injured or injured so severely they died. And this would be very difficult for riders to accept. A further, more comprehensive analysis—and comparison must be done. Here’s an idea—how about doing the long-delayed accident causation study that the motorcycle industry was forced to finance but doesn’t want to be done?

Otoh, it suggests that most of these issues such as day and hour (with the possible exception of alcohol blood level) aren’t what causes one crash to be fatal and another to be survivable. The answer may lie elsewhere—and now we know where not to look.

More injurious today than a decade ago

This new document is what it is—a research note. It does raise some issues though: While percentages of crash-involved riders stay the same in specific areas the analysis reveals a significant gap in a critical area: registration went up 84% while injuries went up 110%—a gap of 26% and that’s a very significant change. Iow, it can’t be just a matter of more motorcycles=more crashes=more injuries.  Something else is going on—something that this analysis didn’t pop out.

More deadly today than a decade ago

Crashes aren’t just more injurious, they’re more deadly than a decade ago.  While injuries increased 110%, fatalities increased almost 125%. That’s a difference of almost 15%. (It also means that fatalities increased 41% over registrations compared to that 26% disparity between registrations and injuries).

Ten years of data reveals that crashing out of proportion to the increase in motorcycles on the road—and more of those crashes are ending in injury and more of those injuries are deadly.  That should concern us—and the more so after we look at the helmet issue in the next entry.

Perceiving the problems in rider training

August 12, 2009

MSF’s online “Rider Perception” Test

There’s two tests up: a sign recognition test and “collision traps” test. “The Road Sign tests help you identify common road signs,” the site says. I guess that depends on what you mean by “common” as there are uncommon signs such as roundabouts, a white railroad crossing sign without the words railroad crossing. The signs also appear without any context at all—they are flashed on a blue screen without any of the environmental cues that accompany them in real life.

The sign recognition test flashes a road sign on the screen and gives you three choices of what it can mean. For example, a No Right Turn sign gives you the options of: a. No Right Turn; b. Right Turn Only; and c. No Left Turn. The Telephone sign gives the options: Use of Telephone in Vehicle Allowed; b. Telephone Static Expected; c. Telephone Access. The Side Road intersects main road sign gives the options: a, Side Road Ahead; b. Traffic Signal Ahead; c. Lane Added Ahead.  Iow, it’s written by the same people that produced the BRC classroom test giving a clearly right, clearly wrong and absolutely stupid answer in almost all cases. On occasion though the wording is tricksey—so it’s a good idea to look through the sign glossary to see what MSF calls certain signs. Even so,

You can choose your speed for each test and each attempt—slow, medium and fast which only applies to how fast the sign appears and disappears and not the multiple choices. The difference in speeds is fractional—even the slowest is far less than a second.

The signs also appear in various places on the screen from the right side of the screen to the left.

It isn’t the only road sign test available on the Internet. For example, the US Traffic and Road Sign test: tests 30 signs in just Part 1. Each sign is worth only one point and the signs remain visible. The question I want to ask you all—does the signs appearing and disappearing in milliseconds have a true safety value? Do we really only see signs for such a short time?

The second question I want to get feedback on: why a road sign test? Is it really an issue that people don’t understand them—or that they don’t pull them out of the environmental context—i.e., miss the speed limit sign or the lane closed ahead given all the other competing visual information?

And, finally, in what ways are traffic and road signs different for  motorcyclist rather than a cager? After all, most students have been obeying or not obeying the exact same signs for years. So in what way is a sign recognition test a useful addition to motorcycle safety?

The “Collision Traps” test uses photos taken around SoCal (Something I found distracting because I was trying to figure out where they were taken rather than paying attention to the situation shown, but that’s just homesick me). Having real photos is good as the information is in context unlike the road sign test.

The photo appears for 4 seconds for the “slow option”, 3 seconds for the medium and 2 seconds for the fast. Accident causation studies have found that four seconds is the minimum time for what’s needed to comprehend and respond in time. However, all this requires is seeing and interpreting and not making a decision nor executing.

Unlike reality, the issue you are to address and possible answers only appear after the photo disappears—iow, unlike reality, you’re dealing with what is retained in working memory. Only then are you told what you were supposed to have seen and now have to recall and choices are given.

I have my own thoughts on this test in particular—and I would be very much interested in hearing what readers thought of this second one in particular.

Of apples and barrels and student errors

August 7, 2009

Recently, a dear friend told me about an incident that happened years ago: Every single one of the students got the exact same question wrong—the one about tailgaters. He realized he had made a joke about how to deal with tailgaters and  assumed the students knew it was a joke when the assigned student gave the correct answer. Clearly, they took his word over the handbook. My friend realized it was his fault and made sure they got the right information.

It is in this context that I saw a correlation with the cellphone story and the (understandably) appalled reaction in the media that 25 percent of all crashes are caused by distracted driving. What struck me was the surprise that those in the media seemed to have that the percentage was that high—and that was several years ago before the massive cellphone penetration we have today.

It struck me, of course, because braking and cornering errors in perception, judgment and skill happen at least 25% of the time in the end-of-course evaluations. Worse yet, some instructors claim that they occur up to 90% of the time.

It troubles me that instructors reported such high percentages were occurring but instructors hadn’t seemed to noticed until they were asked. Nor did any MSF curriculum rider education administer or independent owner I talked to know what the actual percentages were. Worse—to me—they, like the instructors, hadn’t realized they didn’t know. Iow—no one knows what is really going on in the skills evaluation other than how many pass and how many fail. And they aren’t even aware of how many of their students were just one point from failing or if that had changed from one iteration to another.

As someone who has taught for years whether on the university level ( Introduction to Scripture and Freshman Composition) in adult education (screenwriting) and downhill skiing and as a professional evaluator as a first and second round judge for the world’s premier screenwriting contest, that’s alarming. Especially since they are teaching skills that make the difference between life and death.  Because to me and other educators I know, if there’s patterns in student errors those can be evaluative tools we use to improve our performance and the course we’re teaching.

I found it curious that all the instructors presented it as if this was solely due to the students’ ability. Over the past five years many instructors have suggested—some half-joking and other’s deadly serious—that the supply of good students is drying up:

  • Many more complain that the character and personality of the students have changed—and that affects how they do. Iow, characteristics such as being contentious or demanding are related to their innate ability to handle a motorcycle.
  • Or they claim that students are more fearful and nervous as if it’s an enduring characteristic rather than something elicited by the course even though it was specifically designed to be relaxed and fun and low-pressure.
  • And they claim that more students are generally less able to catch on and perform the exercises. A very few postulate that fewer students have experience with any kind of clutch/throttle type machine.

The increasing number of crashes, injuries and lower scores on evaluations, would then be explained away by this alleged increase in inferior students: they didn’t have what it takes; or didn’t learn it; or were too nervous in the evaluation. Iow, it’s caused by a flaw in the student; they are the bad apples in the barrel of rider trainng.

Of course, there’s no hard evidence that the quality of students has diminished and diminished so rapidly. Nor do instructors and administrators think it’s even important to determine if the quality of students has in fact gone done or what should be done about it if it has.

No instructor or rider administrator appeared to consider that the poor performance both in life-critical errors and overall scores was due to the instructor’s ability—or inability—to teach (or coach if you prefer) effectively. This approach would make the instructors the bad apples. And some administrators say that the quality of instructors has gone down because demand has been so high that poorer instructors are passed whereas in the past they would’ve failed.

Of course—and who can blame instructors—they don’t want to consider they aren’t very good at teaching safe motorcycle operations.

Or perhaps the bad apple is the way instructors are trained coupled with the failure of programs to evaluate all instructors regularly (or ever) to ensure they are capable and effective in delivering the course content and at evaluating student progress during the course.

Another alternative is that it’s the curriculum that fails to convey the procedures, processes and so forth effectively and to allow enough time for students to obtain enough competence so that life-critical errors are uncommon. And if instructors are right and a lot more inept people are trying to learn to ride—then an attuned, well-designed curriculum would address the lower level of ability in order to bring them to a basic competency that isn’t one point away from an “F”.

If it’s either the instructor curriculum or the student curriculum that’s implicated, that’s a situational or system error—the barrel itself is producing bad apples. And who wants to look at that—it’s far easier to attribute poor performance to the student apples.

However, I would suggest that instructor and curriculum are almost certainly part of the students’ poor performance since those percentages and errors are found over a number of classes and thousands of students. After all, student quality varies class by class but the instructor and the curriculum remains the same. Consistent errors then are far more likely to be due to what remains consistently the same than what varies.

So let’s say that the instructors are correct and the quality of the students is going down. It’s very possible that fewer students have experience with any machine/vehicle that uses a manual clutch or some kind of power differential system—and a bicycle with gears isn’t even comparable. What if this was true? And it is true that almost all the deaths and critical injuries in rider ed involved misuse of the clutch.

Responsible, ethical and moral rider educators would address this by adjusting the curriculum to address that by increasing the time or exercises—or providing pre-bike exercises to become both familiar and comfortable with a clutch and throttle. They’d fix the barrel to help the apples.

And if it’s instructors in either training or quality, responsible, ethical and moral administrators would work hard to make the instructor apples better.