Archive for December 2009

One more puzzle piece on motorcycle licensing

December 29, 2009

I had cited this earlier this year but it’s good to remind ourselves what MSF knew almost 22 years ago about the efficacy of its motorcycling products:

MSF’s then licensing director, Carl Spurgeon, wrote in the Spring 1988 edition, “When testing is administered by a state licensing examiner…only basic skills and abilities are evaluated. To be blunt, these tests screen out the bottom 20 percent or so and send the rest on their way with a license.”

Twenty year drop in standards: licensing as a puzzle piece

December 27, 2009

As I was verifying the information on where the driver’s license-waiver began, I looked through several other old issues of Safe Cycling. In those days MSF published something on licensing in every issue—and I thought there were some things that were pertinent to the discussion about licensing as an effective part of the motorcycle safety puzzle.

An article, “On the Road Again…Licensing Applicants and Examiners Take to the Streets” by Kenard McPherson in the Fall 1987 issue of Safe Cycling begins by stating that (some) states had been issuing motorcycle licenses since the early 1900s but it wasn’t until “research published in 1968 identified motorcycle operator testing and licensing as the most promising means for achieving long-term, cost-effective accident reduction.”  This, then, was the genesis of this piece of the puzzle solution.

That same year Wisconsin began requiring a motorcycle license that required riders to take the “test on a bike similar in size to the one they would actually ride on the street.”[i]

To address that belief, the National Highway Traffic Safety (NHTSA) contracted with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation to develop licensing tests—two of which emerged—the Motorcycle Operator Skill Test (MOST), an off-street examination that was in use in many states by 1987, and the on-street Motorcyclist In Traffic test.

These tests were considerably dumbed down from what NHTSA wanted in the first place—but that’s another entry entirely.

We’ll return to the article on MIT soon, but what struck me was this sentence: “Increasingly, officials are taking a hard look at a pertinent issue: Is a rider who can pass a simple skill test necessarily ready to ride safely in traffic?” It’s a question we’re still asking 22 years later.

What I found most interesting is how articles spread out over several years reveal how we ended up with the kind of testing we have today—and what it could’ve been:

In February 1983 Safe Cycling issue an article, “Licensing Improves Despite Recession”, describes MOST as “and off-street test proven effective in reducing accidents….” MOST tested 8 skills in 8 exercises.

Alternate MOST (Alt-MOST) was developed in 1980 and the article goes on to say it “tests some of the same skills as the MOST but requires less space.”  The large range (125 by 50 feet) was sometimes cited by MSF as a reason why more states didn’t adopt MOST. The Alt-MOST is given on a range that’s 125 feet by 30 feet.

Alt-MOST also didn’t require the timing signals that made MOST so difficult to pass.

For perspective, MSF’s newest licensing test, the Rider Skill Test, requires a range of 75 feet by 30 feet—and it tests three-wheelers as well.

Note the phrase “some of the same”—iow, MSF said not all the skills tested in the MOST were tested in the Alt-MOST.  The February 1984 issue “Launching New Initiatives” states that at least one of the skills that was dropped in the Alt-MOST was the Quick Stop in a Curve and that research done on MOST revealed that “a large percentage of riders don’t have this skill.”

Iow, MSF knew that a large percentage of riders didn’t have a critical skill—and so would fail that part of the test—and dropped it from the test. The explanation MSF gave is that the range was too narrow—and yet today riders practice that skill in the same amount of space during the Basic RiderCourse—but the skill is still not tested in either the end-of-course evaluation or in the Alt-MOST.

It appears, then that a skill that was critical for motorcycle safety was dropped not because of space but dropping it would lead to a higher pass rate for the licensing test.

The article also emphasized that MOST cost about $2,000 for each site while Alt-MOST cost between $30 to $100 for each site.

Even so, according to the article many states were using MOST—the one that included Quick Stop in a Curve—and Alt-MOST was used in Indiana and at three sites in Montana and was being field-tested at two sites in California (which decided not to go with Alt-MOST because the study found that riders who passed Alt-MOST had worse safety records on the road). Today almost all states use Alt-MOST—and Quick Stop in a Curve still isn’t tested.

In the May 1984 issue the “A Look at Licensing” column was entitled, “MOST Versus MIT Which is Better?” and discussed a study that Wisconsin did on the two MSF licensing products in use in the state—MOST and MIT—and it’s own cone test.

Bud Beaverson of the DMV said that there was from one to several “minor” crashes in the MOST test but at that point only one that required medical attention and that crashes were a “problem” in the Quick Stop in the Curve.

He also said that “overall the MOST is favored.” But he went on to say, “What concerns us about this, however, is do the examiners feel it’s best due to less judgment required on their part, or is it easier to say “the timer says you failed?” Interestingly, he said there was “strong examiner opinion that an on-street test is best. Many examiners are recommending adjustments in the MIT scoring system to increase the level of difficulty.”

Three months after the article on Wisconsin’s research, the August 1984 issue printed an article describing Florida’s new licensing program. In it, MSF is portrayed as being heavily involved in what that program would be and the legislation behind it. It also says that “Florida officials consistently expressed their desire to adopt not just a motorcycle operator licensing program, but the finest program available” [emphasis in text] and chose MOST at sites that tested the most riders most often and Alt-MOST at smaller sites.

It also included something that would change motorcycle licensing dramatically: It was in Florida in 1964 that the driver’s license-waiver began. It was part of the deal MSF and the Florida dealer’s association worked out with the licensing authority—though since it had never been tried nor tested there was no evidence the course evaluations and the MOST test were equivalent.

Even so, “Florida’s new program also allows graduates of a quality rider education-program to have the licensing skill test waived….”There’s great optimism that this waiver will create an incentive for new riders to take the Motorcycle Rider Course (MRC).”

But there was no proof that the course itself was effective in producing safer riders (and already studies had shown MSF’s curriculum to be ineffective). The Motorcycle Rider Course (MRC), though, did test the student’s ability to shift and stop in a circle in the end-of-course evaluation.

In the May 1986 issue John Bodeker—who was then a Chief Instructor in the Illinois program—presented the results of a survey done on students who either passed or failed the course. The survey found that 81% of those who failed the course took it to “learn to ride” and none of those who failed the course had a motorcycle license previously and 56% of those who failed the course went on to get their motorcycle license at the DMV.[ii],[iii]

Now we return to that compelling question—is a rider who passes a simple skill test ready for traffic—that was asking in the Fall 1987 article devoted to MIT, “On the Road Again…Licensing Applicants and Examiners Take to the Streets”.

The author, Kenard McPherson was manager of research programs for MSF in the first years of the foundation’s work and went on to the National Public Research Institute. He had been deeply involved in the In-Traffic test and was the author of Development of an in-traffic test for motorcyclists, 1978 published by NHTSA. Yet, unlike other articles on licensing Safe Cycling gave no credentials to McPherson in the by-line.

The article describes the test in more detail and points out the many benefits. The In Traffic test offered several advantages over off-street testing. Among those benefits were: “It focuses exclusively on behaviors of critical importance to safe riding” [emphasis in text]…which produces a more accurate and uniform assessment of rider performance….”

MIT, he writes, is a “straightforward test that gives a clear and true reading of the most important aspects of motorcyclist performance…Furthermore, programming the route where riders respond to real traffic situations enables examiners to spot flaws in riding strategies. In this way the test provide a learning experience for riders while serving as an effective evaluation device for licensing officials.”

Additionally, McPherson wrote, “since public streets are used, motorcycle applicants like the test because they feel they are responding to real-world situations. Examiners like the test for the same reason; they also realize it is far more challenging than tests that check only minimum riding skills (how to start, turn and stop).”

Iow, McPherson is recommending that riders do what drivers have to do—take it to the streets under trained observation to prove competency.

At the end of the article is a small box that states, “Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.”  In all the years that Safe Cycling has been published this is the only article I’ve found that has that statement. And this is the only article that states that the content is the author’s opinion rather than fact.

Yet this article was published three years after the only state-run evaluation of MSF licensing products had been done and summarized in Safe Cycling with the finding that MIT was “best” and that it needed to be even harder.

Iow, when the most challenging of all the motorcyclist tests is held up as the most accurate and best test to evaluate motorcycle safety, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation quickly distances itself from its own licensing product.

Instead of MIT or even MOST, MSF pushed Alt-MOST, the easiest of all MSF’s tests. (That is until the new MSF Rider Skill Test Motorcycles & 3-Wheel Vehicles came out last year.)  In a very short span of time, Alt-MOST is now endemic across the country.

As is the driver’s license-waiver granted by successfully passing the training course.

And when the MRC gave way to the MRC: RSS, shifting and stopping in a circle/curve had also disappeared from the end-of course evaluations.

Iow, even though there was a demonstrated drop in fatalities when MOST and MIT were used as the licensing tests, they were replaced by Alt-MOST that was, by MSF’s own admission, less comprehensive and lacked a critical skill that was known to be deficient in riders.

MSF then pushed for the driver’s license-waiver and pushed it for all states afterwards and then dropped a large number of skills from the then-new MRC: RSS including testing the critical skill that they knew was deficient in motorcyclists. And this all occurred before the 1990s.

By the late 1980s, the regular licensing column disappeared from Safe Cycling—that’s because motorcycle licensing (and the spread of MSF licensing tests) were in all but four states by the end of the 1980s. MSF had accomplished its task and was firmly ensconced in DMVs across the country.

Then in the spring 1990 issue, “1990’s: Licensing the Un-Rider” appeared. The by-line tells us that it was written by Terryn O’Reilly, Manager, MSF Licensing Dept.

It begins, “For years this country has had a high number of unskilled, unlicensed, uninsured and unhelmeted cyclists. We hear that these riders feel that licensing tests are scary, a bother, or just not worth the effort. Ditto for rider education. Registration and insurance are a burden. Helmets are a hindrance.”[iv]

In fact, at that time, according to the 1989 version of the Motorcycle Operator Licensing System (MOLS) “more than 40 percent” of fatalities were not properly licensed and  “in some states” up to 80% were not properly licensed. Today that’s fallen to roughly 25 percent.

O’Reilly then says that society was in such a hurry nowadays that the licensing process had to be “streamlined for an impatient public.” Iow, the cantankerous ones that find the process a burden are forcing the entire system to accommodate them.

The article goes on to summarize the discussion to update to the Motorcycle Operator Licensing System (MOLS) such as tightening standards. She implies that the blue-ribbon committee dismisses concerns about bigger bikes as just being a “gut feeling” and then dismisses graduated or tiered licensing claiming that studies don’t support it and that it would make going to the DMV just that much more of a hassle.

Then she presents Provisional Licensing [emphasis in text] as superior to graduated or tiered licensing which was to be “a system to monitor the traffic violation records and crash involvement of newly licensed riders. Restrictions promote safety and provide incentive to attain full privileges. Appropriate licensing sanctions are imposed on first-time licensees if they exceed a pre-determined threshold or violation convictions.”

That system never materialized—and doesn’t even appear in MOLS when it was published.

Instead, MOLS sums up the difference between on-street and off-street testing in a way that’s very reminiscent of McPherson’s article: Off-street testing evaluates vehicle-handling skill while on-street testing “assesses applicant’s traffic sense and their ability to put safe riding principles and procedures into practice on the road.”[v] Iow, it’s that pertinent question McPherson said traffic safety experts were already asking—“Is a rider who can pass a simple skill test necessarily ready to ride safely in traffic?”  Off-street testing cannot evaluate that.

O’Reilly went on to say, “Extravagant education requirements, sluggish licensing systems, citations never issued or tickets not upheld will only slow us down. “  Notice that this MSF employee was lobbying for less-demanding education standards and criticizes the licensing system—something that was created by MSF and supported by MSF until it convinced states to allow the driver’s license-waiver for passing the course.

And now some twenty years later up to 66 percent of riders get their license through taking a MSF curriculum training course and receiving a driver’s license-waiver.

Today, the new MSF license test, the Rider Skills Test is exactly what is advertised—it tests a very few skills at below street speed in an off-street environment. In many ways it’s a dumbed-down version of Alt-MOST that was a dumbed-down version of MOST which was a dumbed-down version of what NHTSA wanted in a motorcycle license test that would “offer the most promising means for achieving long-term, cost-effective accident reduction.”

In the intervening years, as noted, the percentage of not-validly licensed fatalities dropped from over 40 percent to 25% and the percentage of validly-licensed fatalities has grown to 75 percent.

If you read the current MOLS, it worries about the same things and recommends many of the same things as it did in 1989—and I would bet worried about and recommended in the three earlier versions as well. This time, though, it talks about graduated licensing and it’s so enthusiastic about rider education. My guess is that the next update to MOLS will be no different.

As far as the puzzle of motorcycle safety goes, a key piece would seem to be what the minimum standards are—and it may be that the motorcycle licensing tests—both at the DMV and in the course—may have sunk too low to be a meaningful gauge.

It’s no puzzle, then, that so many licensed riders are dying when the tests that are supposed to prove competency are weakened over and over. It’s a mystery, though, why we allow it.


[i] “A Look at Licensing: Leadership, Innovation and Diversity Highlight Wisconsin’s Licensing Program.” Safe Cycling. November 1983.

[ii] Bodeker, John. A View From Illinois, p. 15. Safe Cycling. May 1986.

[iii] However, interestingly enough, those who failed were, by double the percentage of those who passed,  were for mandatory helmet laws.

[iv] O’Reilly, Terry. 1990’s: Licensing the Un-Rider. Spring issue, 1990.

[v] Guidelines for Motor Vehicle Administrators: Motorcycle Operator Licensing System, p. 14. U.S. Department of Transportation, NHTSA, MSF and AAMVA. 1989

<!–[if !mso]> <! st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } –>

In the May 1986 issue John Bodeker—who was then a Chief Instructor in the Illinois program—presented the results of a survey done on students who either passed or failed the course. The survey found that 81% of those who failed the course took it to “learn to ride” and none of those who failed the course had a motorcycle license previously and 56% of those who failed the course went on to get their motorcycle license at the DMV.[i],[ii]


[i] Bodeker, John. A View From Illinois, p. 15. Safe Cycling. May 1986.

[ii] However, interestingly enough, those who failed were, by double the percentage of those who passed,  were for mandatory helmet laws. Twenty year droop in standards: licensing as a puzzle piece

As I was verifying the information on where the driver’s license-waiver began, I looked through several other old issues of Safe Cycling. In those days MSF published something on licensing in every issue—and I thought there were some things that were pertinent to the discussion about licensing as an effective part of the motorcycle safety puzzle.

An article, “On the Road Again…Licensing Applicants and Examiners Take to the Streets” by Kenard McPherson in the Fall 1987 issue of Safe Cycling begins by stating that (some) states had been issuing motorcycle licenses since the early 1900s but it wasn’t until “research published in 1968 identified motorcycle operator testing and licensing as the most promising means for achieving long-term, cost-effective accident reduction.”  This, then, was the genesis of this piece of the puzzle solution.

That same year Wisconsin began requiring a motorcycle license that required riders to take the “test on a bike similar in size to the one they would actually ride on the street.”[ii]

To address that belief, the National Highway Traffic Safety (NHTSA) contracted with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation to develop licensing tests—two of which emerged—the Motorcycle Operator Skill Test (MOST), an off-street examination that was in use in many states by 1987, and the on-street Motorcyclist In Traffic test.

These tests were considerably dumbed down from what NHTSA wanted in the first place—but that’s another entry entirely.

We’ll return to the article on MIT soon, but what struck me was this sentence: “Increasingly, officials are taking a hard look at a pertinent issue: Is a rider who can pass a simple skill test necessarily ready to ride safely in traffic?” It’s a question we’re still asking 22 years later.

What I found most interesting is how articles spread out over several years reveal how we ended up with the kind of testing we have today—and what it could’ve been:

In February 1983 Safe Cycling issue an article, “Licensing Improves Despite Recession”, describes MOST as “and off-street test proven effective in reducing accidents….” MOST tested 8 skills in 8 exercises.

Alternate MOST (Alt-MOST) was developed in 1980 and the article goes on to say it “tests some of the same skills as the MOST but requires less space.”  The large range (125 by 50 feet) was sometimes cited by MSF as a reason why more states didn’t adopt MOST. The Alt-MOST is given on a range that’s 125 feet by 30 feet—or longer and just as wide as a compact range today upon which stopping in a curve is taught.

Alt-MOST also didn’t require the timing signals that made MOST so difficult to pass.

For perspective, MSF’s newest licensing test, the Rider Skill Test, requires a range of 75 feet by 30 feet—and it tests three-wheelers as well.

Note the phrase “some of the same”—iow, MSF said not all the skills tested in the MOST were tested in the Alt-MOST.  The February 1984 issue “Launching New Initiatives” states that at least one of the skills that was dropped in the Alt-MOST was the Quick Stop in a Curve and that research done on MOST revealed that “a large percentage of riders don’t have this skill.”

Iow, MSF knew that a large percentage of riders didn’t have a critical skill—and so would fail that part of the test—and dropped it from the test. The explanation MSF gave is that the range was too narrow—and yet today riders practice that skill in the same amount of space during the Basic RiderCourse—but the skill is still not tested in either the end-of-course evaluation or in the Alt-MOST.

It appears, then that a skill that was critical for motorcycle safety was dropped not because of space but dropping it would lead to a higher pass rate for the licensing test.

The article also emphasized that MOST cost about $2,000 for each site while Alt-MOST cost between $30 to $100 for each site.

Even so, according to the article many states were using MOST—the one that included Quick Stop in a Curve—and Alt-MOST was used in Indiana and at three sites in Montana and was being field-tested at two sites in California (which decided not to go with Alt-MOST because the study found that riders who passed Alt-MOST had worse safety records on the road). Today almost all states use Alt-MOST—and Quick Stop in a Curve still isn’t tested.

In the May 1984 issue the “A Look at Licensing” column was entitled, “MOST Versus MIT Which is Better?” and discussed a study that Wisconsin did on the two MSF licensing products in use in the state—MOST and MIT—and it’s own cone test.

Bud Beaverson of the DMV said that there was from one to several “minor” crashes in the MOST test but at that point only one that required medical attention and that crashes were a “problem” in the Quick Stop in the Curve.

He also said that “overall the MOST is favored.” But he went on to say, “What concerns us about this, however, is do the examiners feel it’s best due to less judgment required on their part, or is it easier to say “the timer says you failed?” Interestingly, he said there was “strong examiner opinion that an on-street test is best. Many examiners are recommending adjustments in the MIT scoring system to increase the level of difficulty.”

Three months after the article on Wisconsin’s research, the August 1984 issue printed an article describing Florida’s new licensing program. In it, MSF is portrayed as being heavily involved in what that program would be and the legislation behind it. It also says that “Florida officials consistently expressed their desire to adopt not just a motorcycle operator licensing program, but the finest program available” [emphasis in text] and chose MOST at sites that tested the most riders most often and Alt-MOST at smaller sites.

It also included something that would change motorcycle licensing dramatically: It was in Florida in 1964 that the driver’s license-waiver began. It was part of the deal MSF and the Florida dealer’s association worked out with the licensing authority—though since it had never been tried nor tested there was no evidence the course evaluations and the MOST test were equivalent.

Even so, “Florida’s new program also allows graduates of a quality rider education-program to have the licensing skill test waived….”There’s great optimism that this waiver will create an incentive for new riders to take the Motorcycle Rider Course (MRC).”

But there was no proof that the course itself was effective in producing safer riders (and already studies had shown MSF’s curriculum to be ineffective). The Motorcycle Rider Course (MRC), though, did test the student’s ability to shift and stop in a circle in the end-of-course evaluation.

Now we return to that compelling question—is a rider who passes a simple skill test ready for traffic—that was asking in the Fall 1987 article devoted to MIT, “On the Road Again…Licensing Applicants and Examiners Take to the Streets”.

The author, Kenard McPherson was manager of research programs for MSF in the first years of the foundation’s work and went on to the National Public Research Institute. He had been deeply involved in the In-Traffic test and was the author of Development of an in-traffic test for motorcyclists, 1978 published by NHTSA. Yet, unlike other articles on licensing Safe Cycling gave no credentials to McPherson in the by-line.

The article describes the test in more detail and points out the many benefits. The In Traffic test offered several advantages over off-street testing. Among those benefits were: “It focuses exclusively on behaviors of critical importance to safe riding” [emphasis in text]…which produces a more accurate and uniform assessment of rider performance….”

MIT, he writes, is a “straightforward test that gives a clear and true reading of the most important aspects of motorcyclist performance…Furthermore, programming the route where riders respond to real traffic situations enables examiners to spot flaws in riding strategies. In this way the test provide a learning experience for riders while serving as an effective evaluation device for licensing officials.”

Additionally, McPherson wrote, “since public streets are used, motorcycle applicants like the test because they feel they are responding to real-world situations. Examiners like the test for the same reason; they also realize it is far more challenging than tests that check only minimum riding skills (how to start, turn and stop).”

Iow, McPherson is recommending that riders do what drivers have to do—take it to the streets under trained observation to prove competency.

At the end of the article is a small box that states, “Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.”  In all the years that Safe Cycling has been published this is the only article I’ve found that has that statement. And this is the only article that states that the content is the author’s opinion rather than fact.

Yet this article was published three years after the only state-run evaluation of MSF licensing products had been done and summarized in Safe Cycling with the finding that MIT was “best” and that it needed to be even harder.

Iow, when the most challenging of all the motorcyclist tests is held up as the most accurate and best test to evaluate motorcycle safety, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation quickly distances itself from its own licensing product.

Instead of MIT or even MOST, MSF pushed Alt-MOST, the easiest of all MSF’s tests. (That is until the new MSF Rider Skill Test Motorcycles & 3-Wheel Vehicles came out last year.)  In a very short span of time, Alt-MOST is now endemic across the country.

As is the driver’s license-waiver granted by successfully passing the training course.

And when the MRC gave way to the MRC: RSS, shifting and stopping in a circle/curve had also disappeared from the end-of course evaluations.

Iow, even though there was a demonstrated drop in fatalities when MOST and MIT were used as the licensing tests, they were replaced by Alt-MOST that was, by MSF’s own admission, less comprehensive and lacked a critical skill that was known to be deficient in riders.

MSF then pushed for the driver’s license-waiver and pushed it for all states afterwards and then dropped a large number of skills from the then-new MRC: RSS including testing the critical skill that they knew was deficient in motorcyclists. And this all occurred before the 1990s.

By the late 1980s, the regular licensing column disappeared from Safe Cycling—that’s because motorcycle licensing (and the spread of MSF licensing tests) were in all but four states by the end of the 1980s. MSF had accomplished its task and was firmly ensconced in DMVs across the country.

Then in the spring 1990 issue, “1990’s: Licensing the Un-Rider” appeared. The by-line tells us that it was written by Terryn O’Reilly, Manager, MSF Licensing Dept.

It begins, “For years this country has had a high number of unskilled, unlicensed, uninsured and unhelmeted cyclists. We hear that these riders feel that licensing tests are scary, a bother, or just not worth the effort. Ditto for rider education. Registration and insurance are a burden. Helmets are a hindrance.”[ii]

In fact, at that time, according to the 1989 version of the Motorcycle Operator Licensing System (MOLS) “more than 40 percent” of fatalities were not properly licensed and  “in some states” up to 80% were not properly licensed. Today that’s fallen to roughly 25 percent.

O’Reilly then says that society was in such a hurry nowadays that the licensing process had to be “streamlined for an impatient public.” Iow, the cantankerous ones that find the process a burden are forcing the entire system to accommodate them.

The article goes on to summarize the discussion to update to the Motorcycle Operator Licensing System (MOLS) such as tightening standards. She implies that the blue-ribbon committee dismisses concerns about bigger bikes as just being a “gut feeling” and then dismisses graduated or tiered licensing claiming that studies don’t support it and that it would make going to the DMV just that much more of a hassle.

Then she presents Provisional Licensing [emphasis in text] as superior to graduated or tiered licensing which was to be “a system to monitor the traffic violation records and crash involvement of newly licensed riders. Restrictions promote safety and provide incentive to attain full privileges. Appropriate licensing sanctions are imposed on first-time licensees if they exceed a pre-determined threshold or violation convictions.”

That system never materialized—and doesn’t even appear in MOLS when it was published.

Instead, MOLS sums up the difference between on-street and off-street testing in a way that’s very reminiscent of McPherson’s article: Off-street testing evaluates vehicle-handling skill while on-street testing “assesses applicant’s traffic sense and their ability to put safe riding principles and procedures into practice on the road.”[ii] Iow, it’s that pertinent question McPherson said traffic safety experts were already asking—“Is a rider who can pass a simple skill test necessarily ready to ride safely in traffic?”  Off-street testing cannot evaluate that.

O’Reilly went on to say, “Extravagant education requirements, sluggish licensing systems, citations never issued or tickets not upheld will only slow us down. “  Notice that this MSF employee was lobbying for less-demanding education standards and criticizes the licensing system—something that was created by MSF and supported by MSF until it convinced states to allow the driver’s license-waiver for passing the course.

And now some twenty years later up to 66 percent of riders get their license through taking a MSF curriculum training course and receiving a driver’s license-waiver.

Today, the new MSF license test, the Rider Skills Test is exactly what is advertised—it tests a very few skills at below street speed in an off-street environment. In many ways it’s a dumbed-down version of Alt-MOST that was a dumbed-down version of MOST which was a dumbed-down version of what NHTSA wanted in a motorcycle license test that would “offer the most promising means for achieving long-term, cost-effective accident reduction.”

In the intervening years, as noted, the percentage of not-validly licensed fatalities dropped from over 40 percent to 25% and the percentage of validly-licensed fatalities has grown to 75 percent.

If you read the current MOLS, it worries about the same things and recommends many of the same things as it did in 1989—and I would bet worried about and recommended in the three earlier versions as well. This time, though, it talks about graduated licensing and it’s so enthusiastic about rider education. My guess is that the next update to MOLS will be no different.

As far as the puzzle of motorcycle safety goes, a key piece would seem to be what the minimum standards are—and it may be that the motorcycle licensing tests—both at the DMV and in the course—may have sunk too low to be a meaningful gauge.

It’s no puzzle, then, that so many licensed riders are dying when the tests that are supposed to prove competency are weakened over and over. It’s a mystery, though, why we allow it.

Puzzle piece: motorcycle licensing compliance and fatalities

December 20, 2009

One of the motorcycle safety puzzle pieces is licensing—licensed riders are believed to be more competent and therefore safer. Besides, it’s the law—we’re supposed to get one. In fact, licensing is believed by rider educators to drive participation in training courses because of the driver-license waiver.

Forgive me for stating the obvious in the following but it assures we’re all understanding the same puzzle piece:

The Motorcycle Safety Foundation publishes both the licensing tests used in almost every state and the curriculum that’s used in all but two states. MSF sold state DMVs and legislators on the driver’s license-waiver by assuring them the end-of-course test and the DMV test were equivalent (and is currently paying for a study to prove that they are indeed equivalent). Iow, whether you passed the course or at the DMV, the same knowledge and skill level are required.

Those without licenses or who are inadequately licensed are believed to be less competent and therefore not-as-safe riders.

So let’s see if the puzzle piece really fits—really makes riders safer using data from  The Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), which has fourteen years of data on motorcyclist fatalities available here.

There’s a breakdown of  fatalities by age and license compliance at the bottom of the page.

FARS separates riders into four categories: no license, no valid motorcycle license, valid motorcycle license and no license needed (and unknown). The no valid license category means they have a license of some kind—iow, they know the rules of the road, have operated a vehicle in traffic and so forth but not the proper form of motorcycle license. It’s unknown if they simply had not gotten a motorcycle license, or had their license revoked or could even be properly licensed in some country/state but not in the state where they were killed[i] or there was another reason—this information is possible to discover though it would be expensive, difficult and time-consuming—so far it fits a puzzle.

The fourth category includes passengers and moped/scooter riders in those states that do not require some/all to be licensed—this is, by far, the smallest category.

Ok, enough of the fundamentals.

Analyzing fourteen years of data some interesting things emerge:

Stubborn patterns

In the following video, 14 years of data broken down by age and license compliance has been put side by side so we can see the flow of data as that gives us a more realistic picture of what been happening.

As we can see, the rough proportions of the three operator groups remain the same across the 14 years[ii]: Roughly one-quarter to one-fifth of motorcyclist fatalities don’t have valid motorcycle licenses and roughly three-fourths of them are validly licensed  year after year after year.[iii]

It’s a stunningly consistent picture—and it raises some questions: We’ve been led to believe that there’s a huge contingent of unlicensed riders—or those who are about to get on a motorcycle and ride without a license—out there that we need to seduce into training by offering the driver’s license-waiver. And maybe there is, but apparently they’re alive and well and happily riding because an exceedingly few of them (2.6% in 2008) are dying on the road. And when I say few I mean exactly 138 unlicensed riders were killed in 2008.

Rather those who were legally licensed are the significant majority of dead riders (roughly 74% of all fatalities or almost 4,000 riders in 2008).

So that’s a little puzzling since states spend millions training and testing riders because the motorcycle manufacturers convinced us there’s this horde of untrained riders who are going to die brutal deaths if they aren’t a) licensed and b) trained and licensed through training.

The miniscule number of unlicensed riders who die raises the question if such a group exist in significant numbers. The other alternative is that this horde does indeed exist and it seems they’re much safer by avoiding training and licensing.

The Not Validly Licensed group is much larger—in 2008 there were 1,109 of them. The assumption is that they are not as skilled as the licensed/trained group—yet no one has tried to verify that this group’s crashes are different than the licensed group. So just because they’re riding illegally doesn’t mean they are riding ineptly.

Motorcycle safety experts may be combining the unlicensed and Not valid License groups to justify the millions spent on training. However, even conflated, they still end up being just over one-fourth of all fatalities while the licensed are the vast majority of fatalities.

So do riders die in proportion to what percentage they are in the riding population? We don’t know because no one has gathered that data either. How many unlicensed and not-validly licensed riders are there really? No one knows—and it’s puzzling that no one has bothered to find out.

Already there are some puzzling questions: why do so many licensed riders die on the roads and relatively few unlicensed and those without valid licenses if licensing is supposed to be an important part of the safety puzzle?

Puzzling decreases and increases

Since 1997 motorcycle fatalities have gone up 150%.

However, validly licensed fatalities rose from almost 61 percent (60.94) in 1994 to almost 75 percent (74.55-74.78) in 2003-2005 and slightly dropped to almost 74 percent (73.82) of all fatalities.

Those without valid motorcycle licenses went from a high of 31.88 percent of the whole in 1994 to a low of 20.84 in 2004 and are now 21.92.

No-license fatalities dropped from 4.8 percent in 1994 to 2.6 percent in 2008.

Iow, since 1994 there’s been about a 45% decrease in the proportion of fatalities among those without valid motorcycle licenses and a 51% decrease among no-license fatalities. At the same time, there’s been almost a 23 percent (22.95) increase in licensed rider fatalities.

When it comes to puzzles, then, the very groups that those in the motorcycle safety business tell us are most at-risk did phenomenally well as a group at a time when the motorcycle death toll was soaring. And more of those who did the right thing—got licensed and may or may not have gotten training. And that’s not puzzling, it’s mysterious.

Strangely, the numbers of no-license fatalities remained basically the same for 10 years and only began to consistently increase in 2004. Even so, the number of no-license fatalities went from 124 in 1994 to 138 in 2008.[iv]

Furthermore, no-valid license fatalities dropped from the 1994 score until 2001 while the number of valid-license fatalities more than doubled from 1,420 to 3,974 in the same period of time.

Iow, the entire increase in the death toll from 1998-2001 was solely among validly licensed riders. And that’s mysterious.

At the very time, then, that more people were choosing to take training and get licensed and less people were choosing to ride illegally, the death toll not only soared but particularly rose in the Valid License group.

Deaths by generation

Here’s another back-to-back presentation of the FARS data—in this one we see age in terms of license compliance and fatalities as a flow of years:

One of the key benefits of doing it this way is that we can watch a generational cohort move through the years, albeit in the grimmest possible way:

One of the interesting things is that both the Validly-Licensed and Not-Valid License groups have normal distributions or Bell curves—and that is not surprising. Strangely  enough, though, the Unlicensed group does not come close to a normal distribution for any age group over the 14 years.

The strange case of the Not Valid License Fatality

Perhaps the most fascinating thing is what happens—or, rather, what doesn’t happen—with the Not-Valid License group. Watching this curve over the 14 years is like watching a snowbank melt.
Note that the peak is solidly fixed in the 25-34 age group throughout the entire 14 years and the number of fatalities in this particular age group rose a whopping 176% in 14 years (from 127 in 1994 to 357 in 2008).

That’s why it’s important to remember that those who were 25 in 1994 were 39 in 2008 and those who were 25 in 2008 were 11 in 1994. This suggests there’s some kind of attitude, belief or circumstance or something else that’s prevalent in this age group whether they were Boomers or now Gen Xers that both influenced how they rode and the decision not to get licensed (and trained). And that’s mysterious. Discovering what that is and addressing it might be an important part of the motorcycle safety puzzle—for that age group at least.

Boomers

Otoh, the peak of the valid-license curve travels from left to right or from the 25-34 year-old group to the 45-54 year-old group. Along the way, it bulges out over the 55-64 year-old group and then falls off sharply. We see, then, the well-publicized increase in 40+ rider deaths.

The 40+ dead rider story, as published in the media, always includes a call for them to get licensed and get training—and yet, as we see, the vast majority of the 40+ dead riders are in the Valid License group and had been for years before the huge upswell in motorcycle sales.

While the data seems to prove the Older Rider story, the last of the Boomers turned forty just before 2000—which puts the youngest Boomers in the 25-34 group in 1994. Iow, the Boomers were already dying in greater numbers when they were younger and have continued to do so—which says more about the number of Boomer motorcyclists than it does about their skill.

Nor do we know who these Boomer riders are—returning riders or new older riders or  continuing riders? Once again this is in puzzle territory—it could be discovered with effort, expense and time. But this we do know: the story is wrong: the 40+ is dying on the roads fully licensed and perhaps trained.

Gen X

Gen X is equally interesting—in 1994 they were 16-28 and as they age the Valid Licensing death toll goes up for their cohort just as it did for the Boomers. It doesn’t get as high at any point as the Boomers but then that generation is much smaller than the Boomers.

Unless there’s a huge surge of Gen Z riders in the next few years, the majority of deaths will still be in the 40+ range after the Boomers move into their late 60s-early 70s and retire from riding. By then, of course, people will have forgotten that this was a new phenomena that supposedly said something awful about the riding skills of middle-age Americans and treat this as the par for the course.

Gen Z

As the years progress, the points on the left side of the graph begin to represent Gen Z. Of all generations Gen X and especially Gen Z are the ones who are most likely to have taken rider training since mandatory training usually only applies to those 18 or younger.

When it comes to Valid License fatalities, there was a 52 percent jump from 2002 to 2003 in the number of deaths among 16-20 year-olds and by 2008, deaths in this age group of validly licensed fatalities had risen 97 percent from 1997.

Both of the youngest groups experienced a statistically significant but unexplained surge in deaths within a year of each other. The death toll in the 45-54 group jumped 22 percent and 55-64 age group experienced a 38% jump in 2003.

This may indicate the size of Gen Z—somewhat smaller than the Boomers but bigger than Gen X. Or it may indicate something else. For example, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety would have us believe that the kind of bikes—sport v. cruisers—are to blame. Or it’s possible that it’s related to the increase in motorcycle sales. Or another possible explanation is that states were adopting MSF’s Basic RiderCourse in those years.

The Lucky Few

The right side of the Bell Curve represents the Lucky Few generation. The Lucky Few death toll increases slightly as this group moved into their 50s to early 60s. If there is any truth to the Older Rider story then that surge might show that.
What is most noticeable is that there’s a significant drop-off in fatalities beginning in the 55-64 range and after age 74 almost no riders are killed on the road. The Lucky Few generation was always much smaller than the Boomers—but even so the sharp-drop off in fatalities may be a better indicator of when most riders retire from motorcycling—and that would begin around age 65.

Is licensing an important part of solving the safety puzzle?

If, as the key safety messages imply, being licensed makes a rider safer, it appears that licensing is ineffective—at least as licensing stands now. In the latest iteration of the licensing exam, MSF states that it tests to the minimum standard for operating a motorcycle on the street.

The number and percentage of dead but validly licensed riders suggest that the standards are below the minimum if licensing is to be an effective piece of solving the motorcycle safety puzzle. And since so many riders get their license through training, it may mean the standards for MSF training are too low as well. This is especially of concern since MSF claims the course tests to the same minimum standards.

So if motorcycle safety is a puzzle it doesn’t appear we’re any closer to solving it today than we were 14 years ago.


[i] It would also include any rider who had gotten a driver’s license-waiver from training but had not completed the process at the DMV before their death.

[ii] Actually, it remains the same for all four groups but the number of fatalities among the no license needed group are so small they do not really show up on the graphs.

[iii] The vast majority of car fatalities are also fully licensed—but that’s because 98% of all Americans are validly licensed.

[iv] Though the high was in 2005 with 156 fatalities.

Motorcycle Safety—puzzle or mystery?

December 19, 2009

Two years ago, the director of the RAND Corporation’s Center for Global Risk and Security, Gregory Treverton explained the difference between puzzles and mysteries in the context of foreign policy. “Puzzles can be solved; they have answers,” he wrote.

“But a mystery offers no such comfort. It poses a question that has no definitive answer because the answer is contingent; it depends on a future interaction of many factors, known and unknown. A mystery cannot be answered; it can only be framed, by identifying the critical factors and applying some sense of how they have interacted in the past and might interact in the future. A mystery is an attempt to define ambiguities.”[i]

It makes perfect sense. Take your basic jigsaw—obviously it was one piece before it became 100 or 1,000 pieces. Or your Sodoku or crossword or, as Treverton discusses, where Osama bin Laden is. And, as the man said, puzzles can be solved with enough information. I would add you also need enough time. But you have to have the right pieces to the puzzle, the right information, or the puzzle will never be solved.

And when we do solve a puzzle we experience satisfaction, exhilaration and comfort simultaneously: in its small way it affirms that the world is an orderly place and that we can control what happens to us even if we can’t control what happens around us.

This simple distinction between puzzle and mystery runs throughout our society and it’s embedded in how we think and talk about an enormous amount of things. For example, let’s take the words ‘accident’ and ‘collision’.

Accidents, by definition, happen suddenly by chance and with no apparent cause. Accidents are then mysteries.

A collision, otoh, connotes physical laws, causes and effects with patterns, once discerned, that allow us to sometimes predict them. Collisions, iow, are puzzles that can be solved—at least afterwards and can therefore be prevented in the future.

If you listen to the (American) experts, it seems that motorcycle safety can be summed up in a few short ideas:

  • Get trained and licensed—and keep getting more training
  • Wear all the gear all the time—and most especially wear a helmet
  • Don’t drink or use drugs and ride
  • Ride within your ability

Each one of them requires either learning or doing with the implication that safe riding should be the result. And all of them rest on the notion that both crash prevention and crash mitigation are the rider’s responsibility.

Oh, once in a while someone will give an occasional nod to motorists and weather and infrastructure—but even there, the motorcycling community puts it on the rider: there was something they could’ve done and should’ve done and the crash wouldn’t have occurred.

Iow, no matter what happens, it all comes down to personal responsibility. And we like it that way. Taking personal responsibility is as satisfying and comforting as solving Rubrick’s cube when it comes to motorcycling because we aren’t stupid. We know it’s dangerous. We know it’s high-risk, but we sincerely believe we can solve the puzzle—we can keep ourselves out of crashes and protect ourselves if we can’t.

We can Do Something About It. We are in control—of how much information we have and of what we do. Most of all, if it’s a puzzle, then collisions can be prevented. And we very much want to ride free and uninjured.

The question is: have the concepts so many have preached for so long really solved the puzzle? And that’s what the next few entries will explore.


[i] Treverton Gregory F.,  Risks and Riddles: The Soviet Union was a puzzle. Al Qaeda is a mystery. Why we need to know the difference. Smithsonian magazine, online edition, June 2007.

Of beer, apples, joules and motorcycling

December 11, 2009

We’ve seen it time and time again in the movies or on TV: the villain—and sometimes the hero—is hit over the head with a beer bottle. If it doesn’t knock them out, they are at least dazed and confused. So it’s a little odd that it wasn’t until last year that someone asked to give definitive proof that a beer bottle, used as a weapon, could actually crack a human skull. Isn’t that a…wait for it…no-brainer?

Apparently not—or at least they wanted scientific and not Hollywood proof. According to a paper published by one of Switzerland’s leading forensic pathologists and frequent expert witness, Stephan Bolliger, et. al., determined whether a beer bottle could crack a human skull.

According to The Ninth Annual Year in Ideas, “Other scientists had already calculated how much energy it takes to crack the human skull — between 14 and 70 joules, depending on the location — so all Bolliger needed to do was to take the same measurements on a beer bottle. “If the bottle is more sturdy than the skull,” he says, “then the bottle will win, and the skull will break.” Simple as that.

Which, I have to say, surprised me in a couple ways. First, the range is wide—I guess some people really are more hard-headed than others. Actually, it depends on what part of the skull is hit as some parts are stronger than others.

But 14 joules doesn’t seem like much since, according to Wikipedia’s entry on joules, one joule is “approximately…the energy released when that same apple falls one meter to the ground” or “the kinetic energy of a tennis ball moving at 23 km/h (14 mph).”

Just to put some science behind a couple other things we take for granted an average apple weighs 5 ounces and the mass of a tennis ball is between 56.7–58.5 g. And a meter is 3.28083 feet. Iow, a meter is shorter than your head is above the ground when you’re sitting on most motorcycles.

Would 14 joules be the energy released when 14 apples fall one meter or 14 tennis balls traveling at 14 mph? Probably not—but sure as shooting, your head is heavier than an apple and a tennis ball. In fact, the average human head weighs between 8-12 lbs, which means your head likely weighs as much as 26-38 apples or between 62-64 tennis balls.

But we were talking about whether a beer bottle can break your skull. Speaking of which, your head weighs between 20-30 empty bottles or between 7 and 10 full ones. The next time you’re sitting around drinking a few bruskis you can trot out that little factoid—though I certainly don’t recommend drinking enough full or empty ones to make your point.

Now, really, let’s get back to Bolliger’s research into skull cracking: He and his fellows found that, “Full bottles broke at 30 J impact energy, empty bottles at 40 J. These breaking energies surpass the minimum fracture-threshold of the human neurocranium. Beer bottles may therefore fracture the human skull and therefore serve as dangerous instruments in a physical dispute.”

The NYT’s article on the year in ideas points out that an empty bottle is stronger by a third—and thus more lethal. That’s rather counterintuitive. The article explains it this way: “The beer inside a bottle is carbonated, which means it exerts pressure on the glass, making it more likely to shatter when hitting something. Its propensity to shatter makes it less sturdy — and thus a poorer weapon — than an empty one.”

So there you have it—Hollywood gets it right: empty or full beer bottles can crack your skull open. Doh.  Which seems to be a long way around to say something we figured was incontrovertible in the first place.

Except…my guess is that you sure wouldn’t go running your head into a beer bottle on purpose. And, if you knew you were going to be hit over the head with a beer bottle—full or empty—you’d avoid it. That’s a no-brainer, too.

Motorcyclists’ heads weigh so much more than apples or tennis balls or beer bottles whether they be full or empty and we travel so much faster than 14 mph and sit higher than one meter from the ground. All those things are as obvious as beer bottles can crack skulls. Doh!

I bet the ground—or a vehicle, utility pole, guard rail or tree exerts a lot more than 30-40 joules of force when your head runs into it–especially since it only takes between 14-70 joules to crack your skull. It makes a beer bottle look like a caress from a feather–and that’s another Doh!

Yet so many people who wouldn’t court a bar fight when a bottle of Bud is involved set out on the road with no protection on their skulls. Not to mention those who head out on the road after imbibing the Bud. That’s as smart as picking a bar fight where everyone has a case of beer bottles aimed at your head and you have nothing but your charming smile.

Motorcycle helmets, though, are built to withstand 67.6 to 150 joules (depending on the test).  Iow, it’s like being hit with 1.69 to 3.75 empty beer bottles at once.

Granted, it doesn’t seem like much protection—but tell that to the guy in the bar fight who’s hit with just one empty bottle…

So unless you have an apple or a tennis ball for a head, wear a helmet. It seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? Doh!

First you get them to do it–then you say, “oh, be careful!”

December 7, 2009

There’s a good article on cell phones in the New York Times this morning that talks about how the telecommunications industry encouraged and encourages using cell phones while driving. It’s a fascinating history of how the cell phone was marketed and the rise of cell phone use.

Reminds me a lot of how the motorcycle manufacturers advertise motorcycles.

Goodbye to motorcycling’s greatest champion

December 1, 2009

I just heard that Harry Hurt died yesterday–Sunday–from what seems to be a heart attack. Harry had recently undergone  major back surgery.

Dr. Hurt was the originator of the first comprehensive motorcycle accident causation study–we know it by his name–the Hurt Study.

Harry was, in many ways, the original champion of motorcycle safety–and we owe far more to him than we think we do. I will be writing something longer–but wanted to let my readers know. My thoughts and prayers are with him and his family.