Puzzle piece: motorcycle licensing compliance and fatalities

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.

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10 Comments on “Puzzle piece: motorcycle licensing compliance and fatalities”

  1. Dave B Says:

    To quote from the “Laugh In” show with Rowan & Martin, “Very Interesting”. Maybe instead of spending money on a new motorcycle study that will pretty much duplicate what Harry Hurt discovered, time and money should be spent trying to solve this puzzle.

    From my personal experience from teaching the RSS & the BRC, students of the BRC take the MSF Skills Evaluation on a toy motorcycle (125 cc or 250 cc). Students who take the Rider’s Edge course, take the Skills Evaluation on a 500 cc sport bike. How many of those accidents in the Valid License Group occur soon after a student takes the BRC or upgrades to a bigger motorcyce? No data is kept on this. Are these people buying motorcycles they can’t handle yet or do they need to take some training on the bigger motorcycle they buy?

    If you did away with BRC Exercise 17, less students would pass the course. I see students passing the course who aren’t ready for the road yet. Nice to see some states have lowered the passing score on the BRC Skills Evaluation from 20. It might be filtering out those who aren’t ready for the road yet.

    Again, all guesses and opinions. Would like someone to do a detailed study to see what’s really going on. It may help us lower the increasing accident rate.

  2. wmoon Says:

    Dave, I totally agree with you and had written extensively on the problems with the driver’s license-waiver on the old Journalspace site. I, too, think that it’s problematic (mistress of understatement here) that students take the test on baby bikes. I was all in favor of what SC did under Ross McClellan where students had to take the second half of the course on the bike they would be riding and take the test on it–the results were amazing and the students left the course not only licensed but feeling much more confident in their ability to ride.

    Most instructors say that nearly all new riders–even if they did well on the test–are ready for the road. And that’s a crime (of fraud, I’d say) to give them a driver’s license-waiver on that basis.

    I, too, wish that a study would be done–I think it’s very important to know what really happens to riders after they get their license in hand. But I think we still need a new comprehensive study…speaking of which, I have to write my memorial to Harry still…
    W.

  3. Dave B Says:

    When I first started teaching the BRC, I voiced my concerns to Ray Ochs of the MSF. As I recall, he stated that he originally set up the road-test waiver to be a 2-step process. Students had to take the BRC first, then the ERC on their own bikes to get the waiver. He said many of the states couldn’t do that due to the legislation. I may be wrong in my recollection but something to that effect sticks in my head and it’s something I stress to my students. But statistics indicate that only 10% of BRC graduates come back for more training. I think we’re making it too easy to get a motorcycle license in the States. What’s the famous line in the movie, “Wall Street”? 🙂

    Riding a motorcycle in the States is viewed as a hobby or sport. Things aren’t going to change until it’s viewed as a viable means of transportation. Even road contstruction workers don’t consider motorcycle hazards when doing road construction. Hey, we only represent about 3% of the entire transportation public. We need to police ourselves and the current sheriff in town isn’t Matt Dillon. (I must be in TV/movie mode today).

  4. wmoon Says:

    Um, excuse me–Ray Ochs set up the driver’s license-waiver? According to the 1984 Safe Cycling, the driver’s license-waiver was developed for Florida and the key players were Major Clay Keith of the Division of Driver Licenses, Neil Robar and many others–and MSF, who instigated the idea. Nary a mention of Mr. Ochs–who wasn’t an MSF employee or contractor at the time. So I’m not sure what he was talking about. I’m not sure what he means that states couldn’t do that because of the legislation since many states (and iirc, MSF as well) required students to have something like 1,000-2,000 miles or a year before they took the ERC. That wasn’t a matter of state law.

    As far as stats–10% may come back for more MSF training–but research indicates that a much higher percentage avail themselves of other learning experiences (such as Keith Code or Reg Pridmore or Lee Park’s Total Control or Streetmasters, etc.

    Your observations, I agree with–but I’d like to point out that the “we need to police ourselves” proves what I wrote about that we’ve reduced motorcycle safety to personal responsibility and view it as a puzzle that can be solved–by ourselves. Whether that is actually effective is the issue–when it comes to licensing, it’s not.
    W.

  5. Dave B Says:

    Not what I meant about Ray. He wanted students to get the waiver by first taking the BRC, then the new ERC.

  6. wmoon Says:

    Good to know. Thanks for clarifying.
    W.

  7. irondad Says:

    Admittedly, I am making this comment after reading the post but not fully digesting it. I always thought that getting an endorsement was a sign of rider responsibility. If they took responsbility to stay legal then they would take more responsibility for the decisions they make while riding. If they took responsibility to get training, it was even better.

    I tend to agree that the failure is in the training. Both in content and in successfully establishing the factor of rider responsibility.

    I think an overlooked factor may be peer pressure. In other words, people will do strange things, even things they know aren’t good for them, to fit in. These groups always seem to sink to the lowest common demoninator.

    Perhaps shaping attitudes is the real key, not just the actual training content.

    My humble opinion, of course.

  8. gymnast Says:

    Irondad, Perhaps the greatest weakness of the MSF curriculum has been a failure to realize that the actual training content does have the potential to have an effect on the affective learning domain as relates to the acceptance of risk taking behavior.

    In addition, the role model provided by each individual instructor is of critical importance to shaping the affective aspects of the course outcomes.

    The relationship between knowledge and attitude appears to be beyond the comprehension of those with executive responsibility at MSF except as relates to making the training a “fun” experience. It is my opinion that the MSF has historically had some attitude problems when it comes to the purposes and effectiveness of programs of motorcycle safety and rider training.

    A couple of cents worth.

  9. Dave B Says:

    Maybe the way to look at rider training is to look at what kind of training works. With the military, police, EMT‘s, firefighters, etc., constant, repetitive and as life-like as possible training seems to work very well.

    There are some motorcycle training programs out there that put you through exercises where you practice stopping quickly and swerving at high speeds. The more you practice a skill, the better you get at it and the more it becomes a habit. I don’t want to beat a dead horse but the BRC shouldn’t be granting a license waiver. It should be one of several courses to take before getting licensed.

    If you look at the accident puzzle from another angle, maybe the unlicensed riders don’t ride as much as licensed riders. Maybe unlicensed riders avoid “heavy” traffic and take turns a lot slower than licensed riders. A lot of variables here.

    We used to pound away at rider responsibility & risk management in the RSS but the powers to be said it was scaring students. Good. Maybe we should be doing more of that. (I used to love to watch the faces of the students during the Gap Selection exercise in the RSS. Ranged from fear to excitement. It was their first taste of traffic. And it was among friends. Another good exercise eliminated. That should be the last exercise of the BRC).

    And, in my opinion, SIPDE/SEE skills are a critical piece of the puzzle. But even that has been watered-down in the BRC and the new ERC. Now the MSF is pushing the SMART Rider. Is that to help sell a product or fill a gap? Maybe someone should develop a SIPDE test as a condition of getting licensed. I believe that’s part of the process in Europe. (One more realistic than the one the MSF just put out).

    Maybe off-topic: Discussions about the gorilla video are on the MSF ListServ. Here’s my beef with that video; If you tell viewers to count how many times the basketball is bounced, many will not see the gorilla walking by. But if you just tell viewers to watch the video and say nothing more, many see the gorilla walking by. So I’m not too sure that this video relates well to motorists & motorcycles. Nobody tells motorists to count how many cars there are in traffic. When motorists get behind the wheel, they are supposed to look for everything. Yes, we are smaller than cars and harder to see. Not sure wearing bright colored clothing is the answer. Maybe headlight modulators and portable rocket launchers mounted on the handlebars. Saw Chuck Norris in the Delta Force movie on a sport bike like that. I’m sure motorists will notice us more when the word of that is out.

    Seems like finding the magic bullet to rider training will be hit and miss. Some states will mandate training, some will lower the passing score of the BRC Skills Evaluation, some will restrict the license if the road test is taken on a scooter at DMV.

    At a State Update a few years ago, I asked Ray Ochs about the rigid and extensive rider training in Europe. He replied that there’s no research that, that is more effective at reducing motorcycle accidents. So where do we go in this tug of war? What are politicians to think (they’re the ones who make the laws), if there’s so much conflicting arguments? Helmet laws, loud pipes, more training, get licensed.

    How many hours of training do you have to go through to get a pilot’s license? That’s not governed by law yet. I assume that people who really cared about air traffic safety developed those guidelines. Maybe we need that kind of panel or agency. We can’t have an agency that’s funded by motorcycle manufacturers and run by someone who sleeps with two women (heads the MSF & MIC)calling all the shots. How about the AMA designing such an agency or does the MSF have them in their back pocket also?

    This is an issue that frustrates me also. If you make the training more rigid and extensive, will less people get licensed? Will less people ride motorcycles? Will less people die? All I know is this – what we currently have ain’t working well.

  10. wmoon Says:

    Dave, I think that some are missing the point of Dr. Simon’s research. The point is what we miss when our attention is directed. Yes, more see the gorilla when their attention isn’t directed–but in traffic our attention IS directed–we’re looking for gaps, for lights turning, for street signs, for all kinds of things all the time. It goes back to Keith Code’s buck of attention and what you’re spending it on. Too much directed, then there’s not enough to see the gorilla in traffic.

    The question, then, is whether the modern traffic environment has too many distractors that are legitimate (let alone the illegitimate ones) for us to see the gorilla–or the gorilla to see us…
    W.


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