Archive for the ‘Culture’ category

What skydiving can teach us about motorcycle safety

March 29, 2010

What has happened in the sky since 1990 can give motorcyclists a fresh and revealing look at what’s happened on the ground and may point the way to a solution for the motorcycle safety puzzle:

In 1991 there were 30 skydiving deaths in the USA and 14 of them were “no pull-low pull” accidents—or 46.6 percent were killed by their parachutes opening too late or too low to the ground. These are deaths by equipment failure.[i]

Because they were caused by equipment, these kinds of accidents were amendable to an equipment solution. In a similar way, since so many motorcycle crashes are caused by braking errors, better brakes (disc for drum and then dual disc, then ABS and dual disc) brakes would do for motorcycling what AAD did for skydiving.

In contrast, in 1991 only 3 were killed in “Open Canopy” accidents—or when the parachute was open and controllable and yet the sky-diver slammed into the ground at lethal speed. Those accidents occur because the skydiver miscalculated how long they had to perform maneuvers in the air or turned too sharply too low to the ground or began leveling off too late to land successfully.

Open canopy (or landing fatalities), the skydiving community says, are deaths by human error, but they say, these aren’t newbie mistakes. In fact, more expert skydivers die every year than students.[ii]

In one of the fastest and most complete safety turnarounds ever, deaths from no pull-low pull accidents dropped every year after that until, in 1998, there were none. That year alone, however, 12 skydivers who would’ve likely been killed were saved by an automatic activation device (AAD).

USA Year No Pull-Low Pull Fatalities AAD Saves
1998 0 12
1997 2 20
1996 6 12
1995 6 17
1994 11 6
1993 7 1
1992 8 2
1991 14 0
1990

The AADs available prior to 1990 were big, awkward to operate and expensive—and not very effective. CYPRES, which stands for Cybernetic Parachute Release System,  changed all that when it hit the market in 1990. It’s a computerized device about the size of a pack of cigarettes that costs about $1,200 and is extremely effective.  “During free-fall and canopy descent, the CYPRES uses computer-interpreted barometric metering to constantly assess a skydiver’s altitude and rate of descent.  If a skydiver is descending faster than a certain speed, beyond a  pre-set altitude (750 feet AGL), this device will instantly activate the skydiver’s reserve parachute.”[iii]
Skydivers typically wear a visual altimeter and nowadays an audible altimeter is also available. Altimeters aren’t required but their safety advantage is undeniable. The advantage of an AAD isn’t the altimeter, then, but the automatic deployment.[iv]

Like a motorcycle helmet doesn’t prevent a crash, an AAD doesn’t prevent a bad landing—skydivers can still be injured. Yet, CYPRES and its competitors effectively removed the most obvious fatal risk of skydiving and became incredibly popular:

CYPRES sales alone had risen from less than a thousand units in 1991 to almost 22,000 units in 1998.[v] It’s unknown, though, how many skydivers use an AAD device, however, today, “failed to open” crashes are rare—and some of them happen because the skydiver had fiddled with the altitude limit at which the reserve parachute would open.

A tremendous difference in regulation

Unlike motorcycling, skydiving is basically self-policing.  However, skydivers go through training before they are allowed to jump from a plane. The shortest is tandem jumping where they are attached to a trained professional who controls the jump. The most extensive course is the one developed by the U.S. Parachute Association. This association, like the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, developed the standards, curriculum and certification for skydivers in the USA (though with a great deal more transparency–see here: .  Skydiving training is both more intensive and real-world based than motorcycle training to get to the certified stage (which is comparable to a motorcycle endorsement on a driver’s license.

Key to our discussion on motorcycle fatalities is that an AAD is not required  in any state as a motorcycle helmets are in 20 states. Rather, unlike motorcycle helmets, most sky divers immediately saw the obvious benefit of AAD and voluntarily adopted them. As a result, that particular kind of fatal accident has been virtually eliminated.

An AAD, however, isn’t comparable to a helmet. Though it is expensive, once bought it’s basically invisible: it’s simply there like an airbag in a car; nor does it make skydiving more uncomfortable or less enjoyable nor do they remove control over pulling the ripcord from the skydiver. Rather, it does it’s job invisibly and only does it’s job when the skydiver can’t.

Most importantly, AADs were not politicized as motorcycle helmets were nor seen as a lifestyle statement nor as a badge of who is a “real” motorcyclist or not.

It can be argued that usage is high because the danger is extremely obvious and skydivers aren’t stupid—just as they realize a wrist altimeter is necessary, so is an AAD to control risk.

But there is no possible AAD-type solution for motorcyclists that could deal so effectively with the risk of riding.

Skydiving helmet use v. motorcycle helmets

Skydiving helmet use is much more comparable to motorcycling because there are many more similarities. Skydiving helmets offer (some) protection from mid-air or landing collisions with other divers or a fixed obstacle such as the ground, a vehicle or building.

But it is a limited protection due to the nature of skydiving accidents— for example, skydivers can be going 100 mph or more when they collide in mid-air and 60 mph in a hook turn to landing gone wrong. And skydiving helmets, like motorcycle helmets, cannot protect the user from injuries such as coup-contra-coup and axial rotation injuries.

Yet mid-air collisions with other divers (or collisions with the plane on exit) and landing collisions with fixed, solid objects are risks skydivers are well aware of, usage seems to be as much as a place to mount a camera as it is for safety. While there are no statistics on skydiving helmet usage, examination of scores of skydiving videos reveal that usage is not uniform.

Given skydiver’s reluctance to voluntarily wear a helmet and given the history of motorcycle and bicycle helmet regulation, it’s somewhat surprising that skydiving helmet use is not mandated in any state even though the benefits are very similar to motorcycling. Nor are helmets even required by many schools for students. Nor is there a national standard for helmet construction or agreed upon measures for what impact they need to withstand.

So even though head trauma is often cited as the cause of death in skydiving fatalities, it has not undergone the same public intervention as motorcycling has—possibly because it is a relatively invisible sport—relatively few participate and when they do, it’s normally in out-of-the-way locations. Nor does skydiving come under such intense media scrutiny.

Shared attitudes about personal protective gear

Skydivers are also much like motorcyclists when it comes to safety gear. Though protective suits are available, they are even less frequently used than skydiving helmets. And, like motorcyclists, protective gear protects against weather (temperature for skydivers) and minor—not moderate or severe—injuries.

And, like motorcycling, when a participant chooses to wear a protective suit, they also appear to choose to wear a helmet, too. However, just like with motorcycling, the reverse is not true–those who wear helmets don’t necessarily wear gear. Iow, those who are most safety-conscious in either activity seem to share an in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound attitude.

A study that compares helmet and protective gear usage across several high-risk activities to determine similarities and differences in attitudes, use, likelihood of prior injuries/close calls etc. could be very revelatory.

Unlike gear one must choose to buy and wear, AADs usage is higher than either helmets or protective gear. In one way this makes sense—if your canopy doesn’t open, a helmet/gear is less likely to make a life or death difference. Even so, just like in motorcycling, there are more accidents in skydiving that are more likely to end in injury than in death and, statistically, the average rider or skydiver has a much higher chance or being in an injury-producing accident than a fatality. Yet usage lags in the same areas as motorcycling. The operative word here is wear. We’ll return to that in a future entry.

Huge safety margin but no safety gain

Even though the leading cause of skydiving accidents has been virtually eliminated,  about 1 in 100,000 dives end in death today. And that has been the ratio of fatalities to jumps since 1963. Iow, there has been no ultimate safety gain in the sport.

Instead “landing” accidents rose every year from 1989 to 1998 in an ominous symmetry with the drop in no pull-low pull accidents. There was one difference, however: landing fatalities exceeded the classic cause of death we associate with skydiving.

Year No Pull-Low Pull Fatalities Landing Fatalities
1998 0 18
1997 2 11
1996 6 18
1995 6 5
1994 11 6
1993 7 10
1992 8 1
1991 14 3
1990 0

By 2009 70 percent of all skydiving fatalities occurred with fully-opened, properly functioning parachutes—and almost none of them happened to beginners.

Instead, the experts—or intermediates jonesing to be experts—were dying as they did the airborne version of motorcycling stunting.

Specifically, they were doing “hook turns” just before landing.  When done properly, they result in long, dramatic “swoops” to a spectacular landing.

When done improperly, skydivers can be seriously hurt or die.

While there are collisions and other equipment malfunctions (such as toggle brake failures), the greatest increase in fatalities has been in landings bungled by human error.

The safety margin gained by AAD usage, then, was consumed by the increase in more dangerous high performance maneuvers. The risk involved in skydiving, then wasn’t eliminated but was merely translated into a different kind of accident.

Unlike No pull-low pull fatalities, the current configuration—landing errors—is caused by human and not equipment errors—and therefore more difficult to solve.

Particularly because skydivers who perform such maneuvers believe they are skilled enough—and therefore have managed the risk—to perform them correctly and land safely. But they were wrong. If not death, the results are often shattered legs, multi-fractures to the pelvis injuries, and chest and brain trauma.

In that way, they are like motorcyclists who believed they were riding within their limits and found out to their dismay—or death—that they weren’t. And, like skydivers, many motorcyclists are doing all the right things–they’re trained and fully licensed, wearing helmets, riding sober–and operating within their limits.

In this way, skydivers and motorcyclists have a lot in common: both groups believe that they are skilled enough to manage the risks–and all too often, individual participants are wrong.

The question is why did these kind of crashes suddenly begin occurring? The general perception in the skydiving community is that risk compensation occurred: When parachute malfunction was virtually eliminated, skydivers subconsciously or unconsciously took on activities that were more risky. In this case—as a whole group—the safety gain from AAD was more than offset by the safety loss from high performance maneuvers.

But, as Napier et. al. pointed out, correlation is not causation—and other things occurred during the same time frame. For example, sport canopies became smaller—but more difficult to handle. That’s another similarity to motorcycling with the growing popularity of sport bikes.

In the next entry, we’ll explore risk compensation more closely.


[i] Napier, Vic, Findley, Carolyn Sara and Self, Donald Raymond. Risk Homeostasis: A Case Study Of The Adoption Of A Safety Innovation On The Level Of Perceived Risk. http://74.125.95.132/search?q=cache:Xl7MTrU75oMJ:www.vicnapier.com/Risk/4%2520Risk%2520Homeostasis.doc+skydiving+risk+compsation&cd=4&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=firefox-a. Other kinds of fatal accidents are caused by entanglements and collisions but these are by far the fewest kinds of crashes.

[ii] Luvi. Parachuting Statistics on Accidents. Apr-11-08 11:40am. http://www.zimbio.com/Skydiving/articles/9/Parachuting+Statistics+Accidents.

[iii] Skydiving FAQ About skydiving safety. http://www.fabulousrocketeers.com/Photo_Jolly_Roger.htm.

[iv] Successful deployment of the reserve parachute usually depends on the main canopy being cut completely away, which the skydiver may be unable to accomplish for one reason or another.

[v] Napier, Vic, Findley, Carolyn Sara and Self, Donald Raymond. Risk Homeostasis: A Case Study Of The Adoption Of A Safety Innovation On The Level Of Perceived Risk. http://74.125.95.132/search?q=cache:Xl7MTrU75oMJ:www.vicnapier.com/Risk/4%2520Risk%2520Homeostasis.doc+skydiving+risk+compsation&cd=4&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=firefox-a

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What seatbelt usage can teach us about motorcycle safety, Pt. II

March 18, 2010

After four decades of “Buckle up for safety,” it may surprise you to discover seatbelts aren’t much more effective than a DOT-certified helmet. According to traffic safety expert Leonard Evans who spent years doing research for General Motors, “While theoretical considerations show that the effectiveness of occupant protection devices declines from 100% at very low crash severity to 0% at high severity….” the real effectiveness rate “averaged over all crashes, safety belts reduce driver fatality risk by (42 +/- 4).” [i]

However, people may believe that seat belts are more effective than they are—while they know that since fatalities still occur, they estimate seat belt effectiveness are about 80 percent effective in preventing fatalities—or about twice effective as they really are. But that’s not the story you’ll hear about seat belts nowadays. In fact, seat belts—when mentioned at all—are presented as highly effective.

In comparison, NHTSA estimates the effectiveness of helmets at preventing fatalities at 37 percent. Iow, not so far off from the effectiveness of seat belts. And riders can assume helmets, too, are much more effective than they are.

Whether it’s 42 percent for seat belts or 37 percent for helmets, those are significant benefits—though not nearly as effective as those who use them believe they are. The truth is—neither seat belts nor helmets live up to the expectations of either those who wear them nor those who espouse their benefits:

From 1990-2007, motorcycle registration increased over 67 percent and helmet use remained the same (63 percent).[ii] And, as we’ve examined in the past, roughly the same percent of fatalities were helmeted and unhelmeted with more being helmeted.  During these years, injuries increased 28 percent and fatalities increased 88.5 percent. Otoh, motorcycle crashes only increased by 17 percent—iow, riding a motorcycle became significantly more lethal even though helmet use remained the same.

In comparison, total passenger vehicle registrations increased a miniscule 3.17 percent and seat belt use increased 41.3% (from 58 percent to 82 percent) but fatalities had only decreased by a tiny 6.3 percent and injuries by 22 percent.

Iow, injuries decreased by almost half of what could be expected considering the increase in seat belt use while fatalities hardly decreased at all in comparison. As a  study in Maryland[iii] found that  “Belts appear more effective at preventing fatalities than at preventing injuries.” Furthermore, as those 17 years progressed, more cars on the road had driver air bags and ABS brakes and the passenger airbags, better crush zones, safety-designed bumper heights and then side window air bags.

Despite all this, total vehicle crashes decreased by only 6.9 percent—which is just about as much as fatalities decreased.

Iow, while there were extensive and drastic changes to automobiles and an enormous increase in seat belt use that made crashing safer, crashing itself didn’t significantly decrease.

As we’ve discovered over the past months, the number of trained, licensed, sober and helmeted motorcyclists has significantly increased over the same period of time that fatalities zoomed up.

Both riding and driving, then, should be safer than they are—and yet aren’t. So what’s going on?

Some researchers say at least part of it is that drivers are no different than parents with lighters and medicine bottles or who allow their kids to bicycle or in-line skate, or kids on an obstacle course or young adult in-line skaters, bicyclists—and those who drive by bicyclists—soccer players and trained boaters. [iv] Stay tuned…


[i] Evans L., Safety-belt effectiveness: the influence of crash severity and selective recruitment. Accid Anal Prev.  1996 Jul;28(4):423-33. In fact, air bags alone are only 13 percent effective in preventing fatalities and airbags plus lap-shoulder belts are only 50 percent effective. Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal. TranSafety, Inc..September 2, 1997.  http://www.usroads.com/journals/p/rilj/9709/ri970902.htm

[ii] Bureau of Transportation Statistics Tables 1-11, 1-16, 2-17, 2-22 and 2-30 Transportation System and Traffic Safety Data http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics

[iii] Loeb, Peter D. The effectiveness of seat belt legislation in reducing driver-involved injury rates in Maryland. Transportation Research Part E 37 (2001) 297-310.

[iv] For this section see: Morrongiello, B.A., 1997. Children’s perspectives on injury and close-call experiences:sex differences in injury-outcome processes. Journal of Pediatrics. Psychol. 22. 499–512. Morrongiello, B.A., Major, K., 2002. Influence of safety gear on parental perceptions of injury risk and tolerance or children’s risk taking. Injury Prevent. 8, 27–31. Morrongiello, B.A., Rennie, H., 1998. Why do boys engage in more risk taking than girls? The role of attributions, beliefs, and risk appraisals. J. Pediatr. Psychol. 23, 33–43.Viscusi,W., 1984. The lulling effect: the impact of child-resistant packaging on aspirin and analgesic ingestions. Am. Econ. Rev. 74, 324–327. Viscusi, W., 1985. Consumer behavior and the safety effects of product safety regulation. J. Law Econ. 28, 527–553. Viscusi, W., Cavallo, G., 1996. Safety behavior and consumer responses to cigarette lighter safety mechanisms. Managerial Dec. Econ. 17, 441–457. Braun, C., Fouts, J., 1998. Behavioral response to the presence of personal

protective equipment. Hum. Factors Ergon. Soc. 2, 1058–1063. Walker, Ian. Drivers overtaking bicyclists: Objective data on the effects of riding position, helmet use, vehicle type and apparent gender. Accident Analysis & Prevention. McCarthy, Patrick and Wayne K. Talley. Evidence on risk compensation and safety behaviour. Economics Letters 62 (1999) 91–96. Derochea, Thomas and Yannick Stephanb, Carole Castaniera, BrittonW. Brewerc, Christine Le Scanff. Social cognitive determinants of the intention to wear safety gear among adult in-line skaters. Accident Analysis and Prevention 41 (2009) 1064–1069.

Volume 39, Issue 2, March 2007, Pages 417-425.

The Ride Sober motorcycle safety piece

January 7, 2010

This entry has been added to since it was posted a little while ago.

Intoxicated motorcycling has long been seen as big a problem–and a related problem–as riding without a helmet. Motorcycle Safety experts, the medical profession and law enforcement all point to riding after drinking as a major culprit. The implication is that if no one rode with an elevated blood alcohol content (BAC)  then fatalities would go down.

So let’s take a look at the past thirty-some years:

The legal limit in all states now is 0.08%—at that point someone can be arrested even for walking drunk let alone operating a bicycle or motorized vehicle in public.  Back in 1982, though, the legal limit was 0.10%, and 40.5% of all motorcycle fatalities had a BAC of ≥0.10.[i]

By 1987, it had dropped slightly to 38.2% and a further 13.1% had a BAC of 0.01-0.09%. And most of those fatalities involved young people in the 21 to 29 year-old range.  Back then, the majority of motorcyclists were under thirty years-old.

In 2001, the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) started figuring the BAC limit at 0.08%.  With this lower limit,  the National Center for Statistics and Analysis (NCSA) reports that in 2007 28% of motorcyclist fatalities had a BAC at or above the legal limit and a further 8% of all motorcycle fatalities had a BAC of .01 to .07%.[ii]

Iow, even with lowering the BAC, there was over a 12 percent drop in intoxicated rider fatalities from 1982 to 2007.  Iow, high BAC dropped more than 12 percent.

And the percentage with BAC .08 g/dL or above was highest for fatally injured motorcycle riders among two age groups, 45–49 (41%) and 40–44 (37%) followed by ages 35–39 (35%).

In percentages, then, here’s a thumbnail of the past 26 years in intoxicated fatalities:

1982 1987 1993 1997 2000 2002 2007 2008
BAC over limit 40.5 38.2 34.2 28.9 28 32 28 30
Less than legal limit N/A 13.1 11.2 11.2 11 8 8 7
Sober fatalities N/A 48.7 54.6 59.9 61 60 64 63
No*Helmet N/A N/A 53 50 41 38 45 46
Helmet* N/A N/A 63 61 61 62 66 66
Age N/A 21-29 35-39 35-39 40-44 40-44 45-49 40-44

* the discrepancy is found in the NHTSA document and may be due to passengers in addition to operators.

Two key things to note: 1) riding at 0.08 is the legal limit–iow, someone riding at 0.08–but not above–is at the legal limit. And it means that anyone with less than that is riding at the legal limit.  We do not know how many of the at-or-above fatalities were at the legal limit–and while it’s stupid and a tragedy to die while riding after drinking, it’s not a crime.

The second fact: since at least 1997, the significant majority have died sober (and helmeted) or really inebriated (and helmeted). By far the smallest number have died slightly under the influence–and that may be very significant. Why is there this huge gap between those who drink a little and those who drink a lot and their fatality rates? Does this mean that there’s a hard core of riders who simply drink a whole lot and another group that doesn’t drink much (if they’re riding)? We don’t know–but there’s a huge gap in the stats and no one has bothered to find out why.

Who are the slightly-inebriated riders and what age were they? Were the slightly inebriated riding at the same times as the colossally inebriated? Do those who ride slightly inebriated have different attitudes about riding, safety and drinking than those who ride really drunk or is it just chance that they weren’t that drunk that night? While experts have developed a profile of the drunk rider, they have no necessarily asked the right questions–and unless we have the right information, we cannot solve the puzzle.

When we look at the age ranges of who is dying drunk on a bike it may be helpful to refer to generations and the passage of time. The age group that had the most fatalities in 1987 were 41-49 years old in 2007. And that age cohort were still experiencing the most illegal-intoxication fatalities just as they were in the 80s.

In part this is the Boomer effect—there’s simply so many more of that generation riding that more of them die after riding and drinking. But does this indicate that drinking and riding is a generational thing? An attitude towards both drinking and risk assessment? A clue to our puzzle might be found in driver behavior.

In 1993 (first year available), 54 percent of drivers[iii] in fatal BAC-involved crashes had a BAC over the legal limit (0.10) and the age cohort that accounted for the most fatalities were drivers 21-34 years-old. Those in that age cohort would be 36-49 years-old today.

In 2008, 68 percent of drivers in fatal crashes had a BAC ≥ 0.08 and the age groups most highly represented were 21-24 (34%) and 25-34 (31%) followed by 35-44 (25%).

While the cohort that was riding after drinking is still represented (the third highest group), it appears BAC-involvement is an age thing rather than a generational thing when it comes to driving.

Otoh, when it comes to motorcyclists, we see that the majority of those that drink, ride and die are in the age cohort of the majority of riders. It would require further study to see if the Boomers have generational attitudes towards drinking and operating motor vehicles that differ from younger riders or whether the statistics merely represent a function of the numbers. Or it could indicate that younger generations have been influenced by a societal message about drinking and operating a motor vehicle in a way that older generations haven’t.

Research has found that BAC-involved crashes do fit a profile. For example, Ouellet, Hurt and Thom (1987) found that “Motorcycle riders who drank were more prone to operator error, to simply run off the road, to crash at higher speeds and less likely to have worn a helmet, hence more likely to be fatally injured than nondrinking motorcyclists.”[iv]

However, not all research has found that BAC-involved fatalities were more likely to be unhelmeted—and, as we see in the above chart, even though fewer states have universal helmet laws, the majority of BAC-involved rider fatalities were helmeted.

Further research[v] found that drinking riders are more likely to be in single-vehicle crashes and particularly on a curve than non-drinking riders. BAC-involved riders also were far more likely to fall on the road or run off the roadway in absence of threat from any other vehicle than non-drinkers.” Loss of control was strongly associated with BAC riding (32% versus 13%) resulting in running off the roadway or braking errors. Drinking riders were twice as likely to run a red light.

Ninety percent of those who had been unattentive or daydreaming before the crash were BAC-involved. Rider error as the sole causal factor was found in 86% of the drinking-involved crashes while only found in 51% of the non-drinker’s crashes.

The latest published research[vi] found that fewer motorcyclists than drivers were impaired (55% of drivers, 48% of riders) in that study. However, it also found that, unlike drivers, motorcycle operators are more likely to be inebriated than their passengers. What the study doesn’t point out is that, unless the pillion knows how to operate a motorcycle with a (drunk) passenger, the passenger cannot insist on driving home.

Another possibility for the much older age of the inebriated rider is that older drunk drivers are more capable of staying out of fatal crashes than older drunk motorcyclists.

Which there is some evidence to support. Subsequent research has found that motorcyclists with a BAC of as low as 0.04 are as impaired as drivers are at 0.08.[vii] And, for those who are not used to drinking, even a BAC of 0.02 can be too high to safely operate a motorcycle. However, the legal limit for riders and drivers is the same even though there’s a vast difference in the normal safety features of both kinds of vehicles. What might be more effective in driving down intoxicated riding, then, is lowering motorcyclists’ BAC to 0.04–a limit truck drivers have–and applying the same kind of penalties that truck drivers face.

Or it could be that the higher incidence of BAC-involved motorcyclist fatalities has far more to do with the difference between cars and motorcycles. In the past twenty-some years increased passenger vehicle safety features have saved more lives even though crashes have increased. And those safety features do the same job of saving drunk drivers as they do sober ones. In comparison, motorcycles are more vulnerable whether their riders drunk or sober–and more vulnerable still when their operators are intoxicated. Researchers are oblivious that at least part of the difference in BAC-involved fatalities between motorists and riders has just as much to do with increased car safety features than it has to do with those reckless riders who drink and ride. But then that doesn’t fit the story that society–and safety experts–like to tell about motorcyclists.

Many programs have been launched in the past 20 years to try to reduce riding after drinking—and, like with training, little to no evaluation of their effectiveness has been done. Meanwhile, the percentage of fatalities has fallen.

But the truth is: for several years now, the rate of highly inebriated rider fatalities has stayed stubbornly the same–lower than in the eighties but still far too high. Since it does seem to be a generational thing, is it that this group is simply unteachable, unable to accept that they aren’t as invincible as they think they are? Will this only significantly drop when the majority of Boomers stop riding? Only time will tell.

And the truth is: the ratio of unhelmeted v. helmeted inebriated riders has stayed as consistent as–well, as the ratio of helmeted and unhelmeted fatalities. If drunken riding is a generational thing, is riding without a helmet too? And there is at least anecdotal evidence (since no one has bothered to do the helmet research to find out) that younger riders who eschew the cruiser lifestyle choose to ride helmets. Just as we saw that there was an age core–rather than a generational one–of those who ride and die improperly licensed–is there a drunk core and unhelmeted core associated with a particular generation and will simply by time passing work itself out of the motorcycle safety puzzle?

As a motorcycle safety puzzle piece, then, we see that more riders are dying not only stone-cold sober but helmeted—that, in part, can be explained by more riders dying during the daytime rather than at night (when the majority of all road-user BAC-involved fatalities occur). Even so, it appears that fewer riders are drinking and riding now than in the past.

A review of all the studies done on rider training (to be discussed in the next entries) reveals that some found a slight effect on both helmet-wearing and riding sober among rider training graduates. However, the studies were unable to determine whether these were a result of the course or more safety-minded people take the course and thus adopt other safety-minded behaviors.

Even so, there has been a change—for whatever reason, fewer riders are dying are dying inebriated and fewer are dying inebriated and unhelmeted and fewer are dying unlicensed and unlicensed-unhelmeted-and-drunk.  While that’s good–it just means that more are dying licensed, sober and helmeted–so clearly the story the experts and media love to tell isn’t the full story.

But all that means, unfortunately, is that drunk riding is a problem, but it isn’t the problem—and more riders are dying sober. licensed and helmeted—and that’s still a mystery why.


[i] On the Safe Side, Safe Cycling, summer 1989.

[ii] NHTSA 2007 Traffic Safety Facts (DOT HS 810 990).

[iii] The Traffic Safety Fact reports on alcohol-involvement do not state but imply that all vehicle operators (as well as passengers) are included in the BAC data—meaning motorcyclists are included.

[iv] Ouellet James V., Hugh H. Hurt, Jr and David R. Thom. Alcohol Involvement in Motorcycle Accidents. 1987.

[v] Kasantikula, Vira and James V. Ouelletb, Terry Smithb, Jetn Sirathranontc, Viratt Panichabhongsed. The role of alcohol in Thailand motorcycle crashes. Accident Analysis and Prevention 37 (2005) 357–366.

[vi] Elliott, a,d Simon and Helen Woolacott b,d, Robin Braithwaite c,d. The prevalence of drugs and alcohol found in road traffic fatalities: A comparative study of victims. Science and Justice 49 (2009) 19–23.

[vii] See for example, Sun, Stephen W.,  David M. Kahn and Kenneth G. Swan. Lowering The Legal Blood Alcohol Level For Motorcyclists. Accid. Anal. and Prev., Vol. 30, No. 1, pp. 133-136, 1998.; Colburn, N., Meyer, R. D., Wrigley, M., et al. (1993). Should motorcycles be operated within the legal alcohol limits for automobiles. Journal of Trauma 35, 183- 186.

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.

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.

Harley’s lost generations: Failure to reinvent loses the After Boomers

November 19, 2009

The After Boomers—Gens X and the older Ys grew up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Knight Rider and Star Trek and X-Men on TV and Star Wars and Matrix in theaters. They began by playing Sonic the Hedgehog and ended by playing Grand Theft Auto, Gran Tourismo and Wii Sports. Athletes and Rock Stars were their heroes. While their parents listened to hard rock, they listen to rap. The Boomers had Easy Rider where the (extensively customized) Harley is ridden by the hero. The After Boomers had Biker Boyz where the Harleys are ridden by the villains and The Long Way Round where the heroes rode BMWs.

Same Themes

Rap and hip hop seems a world apart from heavy metal—but Buddy Holly rocked his generation—and Swing rocked that generation.

In current affairs, instead of JFK’s assassination, this group had 9/11. Instead of Vietnam, they have Iraq. Instead of the Cold War, they have terrorism and terrorists give the entertainment media the same class of “bad guys” as the old Soviet regime.

The way motorcycles are used in movies including the two mentioned above are not essentially different than the way their parents and grandparents saw motorcycles in movies: There’s still the lone hero fighting against a world organized against him in which s/he alone had to solve the problems and achieve glory. For example: the Mission Impossible movies (and MI II had that prolonged motorcycle chase/battle); the Matrix trilogy with its use of motorcycles;  and Laura Croft riding a motorcycle through her house fighting the bad guys. And it’s still about freedom and finding yourself and being comfortable being unlike others: Boomers had the ultimate road movie—Easy Rider. But The Long Way Round is a road movie as documentary with two young men taking that search globally with a lot more acceptance and a lot less drama.

Iow, it’s the old “the more things change, the more they remain the same”. The same kind of influences and forces that make motorcycling naturally attractive to a given percentage of people in each generation are still present today as it was in the past. This suggests that there is a substantial number of After Boomers that are primed to ride at some point in that life cycle discussed in the last entry.

But Different

But what did change changed everything: Instead of The Donna Reed Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Wonder Woman and Supergirl culminating with the television series Charlie’s Angels, this time there was a plethora of women starting with Cagney and Lacey and women like Laura Croft and Xena and Trinity of Matrix fame—and Charlie’s Angels again. The After Boomers grew up with women—as well as men—being the lone hero.  African-Americans had plenty of highly visible role models who were the lone hero in pursuit of personal freedom as well—and some of them like—Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan—rode motorcycles.

And while their parents suffered the loss of production jobs and outsourcing, these generations grew up in a service industry where globalization was the norm and their homes are filled with products with foreign brand names made overseas by multinational companies.

Fast, flexible, speed is valued—and expected: In other more essential ways when it comes to motorcycles, it’s a different—digital, wireless—age. Now communication is instantaneous and global—internet, cell phones, texting, wii—all these things emphasized speed, responsiveness, dexterity and flexibility. And that’s the same theme in both movies and television—and in business and current affairs.

And that underscored what they learned from video games—even ones like Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario Brothers as children: the prize goes to the aggressive, the one who can decide and act with speed and daring and take risks. Iow, the qualities Forbes associated with the Harley had spread to even childhood games.

Risk Perception: At the same time understanding of risk had changed in two polar opposite ways:

This is the bicycle helmet generation: Boomer parents were schooled to believe danger is everywhere and real or perceived risks were to be both avoided and protected against. After Boomers, as a general rule, been sheltered from risk and even discomfort. For example, they’re been strapped into infant seats, youth seats then seat belts from birth.[i] They’ve been  driven to school to avoid taking the bus; few play outside unsupervised and they’ve been taught to look at strangers with fear. And when it comes to educational and other achievements, failure is negated and everything is awarded.

On the other hand, video games teach them to take extraordinary risks to win—but the risks are unreal. They erase failure with a reset button and get ahead by finding shortcuts. And while the “risks” seem to be enormous—extreme violence and speed—there are no real consequences to them; they emerge unscathed no matter what they do.

As a general rule, then, After Boomers have been protected from the consequences of their choices and actions by their parents and the culture while being encouraged to take extraordinary risks that have no real consequences.

Primed to ride—but not Harleys

Iow, the stage is set for a future boom cycle in several essential ways while attitudes towards risk and consequence have changed in negative ways.[ii]

The only problem is that it wasn’t Harleys that were the iron stars in these movies or on television or video games. Instead it’s the sport bike that’s lionized—and it was men and women on sport bikes that these After Boomers saw doing courageous man-of-action things at speed.

Otoh, cruisers and street bikes were ridden by villains—and the one percenter image was still regularly employed. Or they were ridden by middle-aged (staid) (white) men—the most recent example being the oncologist on Brothers and Sisters who’s idea of risk is to date Sally Field’s much older character. Iow, Harley’s entertainment media presence is either the outlaw or the RUB.

Sport bikes, then, are associated with the young, lone hero out to change the world and the cruiser/street bike with the middle-aged, upper-income male—one who is almost always white.

Take a look at the Motorcycle Riding Celebrities list and the sea change in celebrity riding Harleys is overwhelming: Celebrities like Schwarzenegger, Axel Rose, Billy Ray Cyrus and David Hasselhoff do have H-Ds. But more high-profile celebs like George Clooney own an H-D but own one or more other marques.

However, more and more contemporary celebrities don’t own a Harley at all. Like Bono on a Ducati, Jessica Alba on a Kawasaki, Michael Jordan on a BMW, Sheryl Crowe on a KTM. Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Ewan McGregor are like many younger celebrities and are multi-brand owners: M-V Augusta, BMW, Triumph, Honda, Suzuki or Ducati. The range of marques is quite impressive—as is the absence of Harleys for younger owners.

In fact, it’s startling how old most of the H-D celebrity owners on the list are—and it’s also surprising how many Harley celebs are now in the  “Huh, I thought they were dead” list or “People You Expect to See on Dancing With the Stars” list.

Whether H-D didn’t pursue a product placement strategy or whether it did and were turned down, the net result is that Harleys are associated with a kind of bike that the young associate with the old and irrelevant. Nor did Harley get hot young game designers to create an exciting video game. In no way did Harley engage young men—and women—in the ways that they found exciting and fresh.

No dirt bike Since dirt biking as children and teens is one of the ways new riders enter into street riding either as young adults or as middle-aged people, marques that have dirt bikes built brand memory—and perhaps brand loyalty—in Gen X and Y. Harley did not develop a dirt bike and surrendered a rich branding opportunity. Perhaps it was twice-burned, quadruple shy after its lamentable efforts to expand into snowmobiles and lawnmowers, but it was a regrettable marketing mistake.

Harley is the motorcycle Oldsmobile A few years ago Oldsmobile found itself in the same position as H-D: the young avoided the make like the plague. In an attempt to counter that, Oldsmobile ran a series of commercials that bluntly said it “wasn’t your father’s car” anymore. And that’s the problem with Harleys: a great many After Boomers identify the marque with their parents. In urban areas, at least, it just ain’t cool for someone under 30 to ride a Harley.

Fashion forward rather than fashion backward Nor does the classic cruiser/street/custom style of motorcycle appeal to most After Boomers. Harley specializes in motorcycles that do not look significantly different than those of decades ago. Otoh, sport bikes are much closer stylistically to what’s contemporary in electronics. Harleys, otoh, are so last decade and of a piece with a camera that uses actual film, or phones with a corded handset, desktop computers and land lines.

The After Boomers’ image of Harley is neatly summed up in the South Park episode “The F Word”.

Where the word “fag” is redefined to stand for Harley riders: “Fag. n. 1. An extremely annoying, inconsiderate person most commonly associated with Harley riders. 2. A person who owns or frequently rides a Harley.”

And that’s really bad news for Harley’s short and long-term prospects. As I wrote about in a prior entry, brands have life cycles and unless brand managers can reinvent it for a new age, it suffers.[iii]

Harley thought the V-Rod and then the Street Rod was reinventing the brand—but the styling was still too much like Old Harley. Harley completely missed why even middle-aged women want to ride and how to attract them let alone offer a compelling image to younger women. And it failed to offer a way for other minorities to feel comfortable in what appeared to be a very white—and very exclusive—world of fellowship.

Research also indicates that brands do have generational baggage.[iv] As a Seeking Alpha entry said, “…in the U.S. the number of consumers will continue to grow until at least 2025 thanks to Generation Y…. We believe this supports our view that the U.S. economy is not ending, but changing. Companies that became fat and happy catering to Boomer demand from 1980 to 2000 need to understand that in many cases this demand is no longer there. Why? Because the generational landscape has changed and will continue to change between now and 2025.”

The writer went on to say, “We strongly suspect that those companies that are aware of this shift in demand, and are catering to it, will become the next “Stock Market Darlings.” As opposed to those whose executives are scratching their heads and wondering where their customers (the Boomers) have gone. Currently, for example, “Value” teenage retailers are enjoying the increasing demand of the price-conscious Generation Y, who are flocking to their stores, while car manufactures keep trying to design, or in most cases re-design, the perfect car for the disappearing Boomer.”

Substitute Harley for “car manufacturers” and perfect motorcycle for “perfect car” and that describes Harley for the past decade and in the future. And Seeking Alpha agreed:  “And among those which seem to be unaware of any generational shifting in the U.S. consumer base would have to include: General Motors Inc.,Harley Davidson Motorcycles Inc. (HOG), Wal Mart (WMT) and Wendys/Arby’s Group Inc. (WEN).”

Whether it was fear of losing the base or being unimaginative, Harley-Davidson has failed the challenge for the past decade by delivering basically the same bikes year after year while ignoring what was exciting and attracting After Boomers. It did not reinvent the brand—and unless it finds a way to do so, it has doomed itself to an increasingly shrinking market until someone in Milwaukee figures out how to do so—or years down the road, consumers find a way to reinvent this particular style of motorcycle.

Otoh, it did have Buell—while it had the negative of being “half a Harley” with its engine, it had innovative and cutting edge technology and styling. It is a sport bike and it had the right kind of styling—and as reported before—it was growing even as Harley shipments were shrinking. So Harley’s best chance of capturing After Boomers has been “discontinued” in one of the most blundering, short-sighted and idiotic management decisions in USA corporation history.

It is doubtful, then, given all the reasons above, that Harley will bounce back once the recession is over. While the Motor Company was already facing the difficulty of producing too expensive motorcycles when the majority of new riders would be in their cheap bike stage, the definitive H-D styling is unappealing as is the lifestyle of the H-D rider. In every way, then, the next 20 years of riders will not find Harley’s a natural choice in their natural riding life cycle. Unless Harley finds a way to reinvent itself and make the iconic brand speak in fresh exciting ways to these digital, wireless, social networking generations.


[i] And since they grew up with car seats, seat belts and bicycle helmets, motorcycle helmets don’t have the same meaning it does to the 40+ cruiser rider. It is likely that the future boom riders, like the current crop of sport/sport-tourer/adventure riders, will wear helmets. Which is not to say the death toll will rise any less precipitously nor as high next boom cycle.

 

[ii] Except Gen X and Yers, having been strapped in since birth and used to wearing helmets may be more likely to choose to wear motorcycle helmets.

[iii] Holt, Douglas B. How Brands Become Icons. Harvard Business School Press. Boston, MA. 2004.

[iv] “The Future of U.S. Consumer Spending: It’s a Generational Thing”, Seeking Alpha. Posted, October 22, 2009. http://seekingalpha.com/article/168342-the-future-of-u-s-consumer-spending-it-s-a-generational-thing?source=yahoo.