Archive for the ‘Instructors’ category

What seat belt usage can teach us about motorcycle safety

February 28, 2010

As we’ve been told again and again, far more drivers wear seat belts than riders wear helmets. The National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS) estimates seat belt use at 83 percent in 2008 while helmet use at 67 percent in 2009. Statistics like that increase the perception motorcyclists don’t care much about personal safety. But seat belt history offers some insight into helmet use—and a different look helmet use history might change our perception about motorcyclists’ choice:

Manufacturers get the first mandate Seat belts were invented in the mid 1890s just as automobiles hit American streets, but it wasn’t until 1949 that Volvo and Nash first put seat belts in cars.[i] Few other manufacturers followed suit though and few people wore them.

State legislators, convinced of seat belt efficacy first demanded manufacturers put them in cars. By 1964 only half the states had the first seat belt laws—but that’s all it took; a year later all car manufacturers offered seat belts as standard equipment in every state. In 1972 the National Highway Safety Foundation (NHTSA) made it a federal requirement. But usage was extremely low—less than 11 percent.

Education fails Before and during this, though, a huge marketing effort (including the famous Buckle Up For Safety commercials) and an enormous public relations/media campaign to tout seat belt use was flooding the nation. And arguments raged about whether seat belts really were safe or more dangerous, which also happened with helmets.

More regulation In 1974 NHTSA required a buzzer/light reminder system or ignition locks to make it harder not to use seat belts. Ignition locks were more effective than the annoying sound/light that is still with us today. One study with a small number of drivers  found that usage rose to 67 percent but decreased over time as many owners disconnected the system or left them belted to circumvent the light/buzzer or lock.[ii] Studies using rental cars found that there was an insignificant difference in use between cars with or without the warning system.

Legislation not education Seat belts in cars and positive publicity was ineffective: usage was in the low teens through the 1970s. Iow, the public responded to seat belts as we’ve been led to believe riders responded to helmets.

It was only when mandatory seat belt laws were passed that use began to rise by 17-26 percent.[iii] California is a prime example: Before the mandatory seat belt law was passed in 1986 use was 26 percent. After the law it rose to 45 percent and crept up to 73 percent by 1993. After a primary enforcement law (meaning law enforcement could stop a driver solely for seat belt use) was passed in 1993 it rose to 83 percent and to 91 percent by 2002.[iv] Even so, by 2002, national usage was only 75 percent (and has since risen to 83 percent).

Negatives drive seat belt use And even recent studies find it’s only that high because of a combination of factors: use is higher in a primary enforcement states than in secondary enforcement state (where they have to have another reason to stop you). Use is higher among those who have a higher fear of getting a ticket than those who don’t think they at risk of a traffic stop. It’s higher when the ticket has a higher financial penalty. And studies have found that family and friends’ seat belt behavior matter and their pressure to buckle up matters and a general public attitude matter in influencing a driver’s behavior.

Otoh, programs educating drivers as to the risk and nature of injuries, offering incentives or raising fear of injuries weren’t very effective and had high recidivism. Once seat belt use becomes habitual, though, it tends to be self-maintaining.

Iow it’s the negative that drives seat belt usage until habit takes over and the decision is mindless. This attitude is so entrenched that the Committee for the Safety Belt Technology Study for the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies state that those who always wear belts, “… simply follow rules they have developed on the basis of experience, rather than continuously comparing risks against benefits in deciding whether to buckle up.”[v]

Part-time belt users gave these reasons for not wearing a belt included: driving a short distance (59 percent), forgetting to buckle up (53 percent); being in a rush (41 percent); and discomfort from the seat belt (33 percent). These are also reasons that some riders give for not wearing a helmet.

Non-users were by far the smallest percentage of the survey and gave some of the same reasons—laziness, short distances, forgetting, low speeds, short distances but also, “Many hard-core nonusers object to being forced to buckle up, believing that belt use should be a matter of personal choice.” This reason is the same argument anti-helmet law activists give for resisting helmet laws.[vi] Iow, we’re not so different than drivers when it comes to not wearing safety gear.

More of the same only tougher However the safety community is convinced that even habit is not enough; the Committee stated, “Strong enforcement is a necessary component of effective seat belt use laws. Motorists must be convinced that violators will be ticketed and nontrivial penalties exacted.”

The Prevention Institute article referred to a report published in 2000, in which  Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead stated, “Unless additional states enact and enforce primary laws, which are the most effective means of increasing seatbelt use, we see no credible basis to forecast increases in excess of the recent trend,” Mead stated in the report.

Iow, when it comes to helmets and belts traffic safety experts reject education as an effective tool when it comes to wearing safety equipment. Ever-tougher legislation is seen as the only way to force compliance.

Riders, though, don’t behave as drivers However for much of the past 30-some years, helmet use has been higher than seat belt use in states that don’t have helmet laws but do have seat belt ones. And helmet use in universal helmet law states has been higher than seat belt use in those same states before seat belt laws were passed.

Once again, we look at California: According to the Highway Loss Data Institute unit of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS), helmet use before the universal law was passed was 50 percent. Iow, it was already 24 percent higher than seat belt use was before the mandatory seat belt law was passed.

Immediately after California instituted a universal helmet law in 1992, use surged to 99 percent.[vii] In comparison, it took 16 years and a harsh primary enforcement law to achieve slightly less when it came to drivers.

While it’s true that helmet compliance is more obvious than shoulder/lap belt use,[viii] voluntary helmet use was already almost twice as high when the law was passed as voluntary seat belt use was before the seat belt law was passed. And driver compliance only achieved rider compliance after a strict primary enforcement law was instituted.

This is a significant and positive safety difference between drivers and riders that has been unobserved and unstudied.

But it is seat belts we’re talking about and they are provided in every car sold and  require little effort or discomfort to use and have overwhelming social approval attached to their use.

Otoh, even the lightest helmet is a distinct weight on the head, it’s hot to wear at times and the snug fit that’s required for effectiveness is uncomfortable for many. It can catch the wind causing neck strain and some feel that it obstructs their vision. And unlike seatbelts, a helmet must be replaced if it comes in violent contact with a hard surface. To top it off,[ix] even cheap ones are expensive and require additional  effort (compared to seatbelts) to obtain.

Riders’ performance actually better Despite all that, nationally, helmet use is still 67 percent even though only 20 states have universal helmet laws while seatbelt use is finally 83 percent 45 years after seatbelts were standard equipment in cars sold in the USA—even though 49 states have a mandatory seatbelt laws. And that’s a profound safety difference between drivers and riders that has been unobserved, unstudied and unappreciated.

While traffic experts bemoan the low rate of helmet use an equally valid case could be made for the high use of helmets in states without mandatory laws and in states prior to the passage of universal helmet laws. Considering the history of seat belt use, it’s rather extraordinary that so many riders choose on their own to purchase expensive, heavy and uncomfortable helmets and wear them when they aren’t required by law or receive any immediate benefit or incentive for doing so.

In fact, it suggests that riders who choose to wear helmets without a mandate are the opposite of extraordinary risk-takers. Instead it suggests that they are more aware of the risks inherent in motorcycling, believe that their odds of crashing are higher and take steps to mitigate harm.

Iow, it suggests that a significant proportion of motorcyclists take more personal responsibility for their own safety than drivers do.

And that’s a very different view of motorcyclists.

[i] Coincidentally, 1949 was the year Smeed published his “law”.

[ii] Buckling Up: Technologies to Increase Seat Belt Use — Special Report 278. Transportation Research Board (TRB). 2004.

[iii] Curtisa, Kevin M. and Scott W. Rodia and Maria Grau Sepulveda. The lack of an adult seat belt law in New Hampshire: Live free and die? Accident Analysis & Prevention, Volume 39, Issue 2, March 2007, Pages 380-383.

[iv] Gantz, Toni and Gretchen Henkle. Seatbelts: Current Issues. Prevention Institute. October 2002. Highway Loss Data Institute, Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. Q&As: Motorcycle helmet use laws. January 2009.

[v] Committee for the Safety Belt Technology Study. Buckling Up: Technologies to Increase Seat Belt Use, Special Report 278. Transportation Research Board. 2004.

[vi] It would be interesting if someone did a study to find out if those who didn’t wear helmets also didn’t wear seat belts.

[vii] Highway Loss Data Institute, Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. Q&As: Motorcycle helmet use laws. January 2009.

[viii] Though whether the helmet is DOT-certified is not as easy to determine.

[ix] All plays on words in the article are intentional.


Motorcycle puzzle piece: training, part III

January 14, 2010

The twenty-third study is a 2008 Centre for Accident Research & Road Safety – Queensland report, “Identifying Programs To Reduce Road Trauma To Act Motorcyclists”[i] While it deals with many issues a significant part of it looks at motorcycle training and licensing programs.

The report is for the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), a tiny little bean-shaped area  surrounded by New South Wales. Canberra, the capital of Australia is in ACT. The population of ACT is roughly the size of Raleigh, NC or Tulsa, OK or Minneapolis, MN.

It has relatively few riders and few deaths since most riders crash in New South Wales. This report outlines the best motorcycle safety program for ACT.

It highlights two ways to reduce crashes: exposure reduction and risk reduction. Exposure reduction limits the number of riders and the miles they ride—something that neither riders nor the motorcycle industry would support. Risk reduction cuts down on the hazards and numbers of them that riders take/are exposed to. The report points out that risk reduction rather than exposure reduction “that can also work to reduce the severity of injury in the event of a crash.”

Training programs, the study points out can result in exposure reduction when people choose not to ride because of the difficulty of taking/passing a course. But it is in risk reduction where training programs would be expected to shine.

The situation in Australia is somewhat different than in the USA. It has a variety of programs—basic and beyond—available in the various states—and has graduated licensing—first a learner’s permit, then a provisional permit and then a full motorcycle license. There are training programs for the first and second level and in some states training for the first level is compulsory. Training programs to obtain the learner’s permit last between 6-16 hours and the second level of training lasts between 6 and 12 hours. Iow, Australian riders can take more than twice the training before being fully-licensed.

Nor is there one specified curriculum in a state as in the USA. In Queensland, for example, the state sets a strict set of standards that “quantify what a learner must do and how well it must be done to enable them to apply to Queensland Transport for the issue of the class of licence they have been trained and assessed for through Q-RIDE.”  But it does not publish a curriculum that every training provider must use.

The report finds that all programs are not created equal: there can be a positive, neutral or even negative effect on motorcycle safety:

“Programs which may possibly have a negative effect on safety are those that aim to, or are likely to increase exposure… [or] which knowingly or unknowingly promote or encourage increased riding,” or “produce over-confidence in riders” if it “lead[s] to riskier riding behaviour.”

The reports says that some training programs are “likely” to be “beneficial” if they are:

  • training programs that are research-based,
  • use risk reduction and/or exposure  measures and
  • reaches a large number of the audience for which it was intended.
  • Motorcycle safety should increase by addressing a combination of road user, vehicle, and environment-based measures as well as
  • a combination of crash prevention measures and the reduction in the severity of injury and treatment improvements.

Many would argue that the USA’s Motorcycle Safety Foundation curriculum does exactly that.

However, the report states, having the elements is not enough. The researchers pointed out that determining what programs could have a beneficial effect is difficult.

“In terms of identifying effective programs, the most serious limitation was the lack of evaluation of program effectiveness.”  The authors remarked it wasn’t surprising on a local level but that “many large statewide programs had only limited (or no) process evaluation available and very few had an outcome evaluation. Thus, very few programs can be said to be “proven beneficial,” although there are quite a few that are “likely beneficial”.”

The report later states, “There is no strong evidence in support of training leading to marked improvements in rider safety (Haworth & Mulvihill, 2005). An international review of motorcycle training concluded that compulsory training through licensing programs produces a weak but consistent reduction in crashes but voluntary motorcycle training programs do not reduce crash risk (TOI, 2003).  On the contrary, these programs seem to increase crash risk.  This may be due, in part, to the increased confidence felt by many riders who have completed training, despite minimal improvements in rider skill.  Such riders may therefore take more risks in situations where they lack the skills to safely avoid a crash.”

In short: while training has the potential to be beneficial, there’s little-to-no proof that it is:  “Many authors have concluded that the apparent lack of success of rider training in reducing accident risk or number of violations may stem from the content of the training programs (Chesham, Rutter & Quine, 1993; Crick & McKenna, 1991; Haworth, Smith & Kowadlo; 1999; Reeder, Chalmers & Langley, 1996; Simpson & Mayhew, 1990).   Rider training programs currently in use focus mainly on the development of vehicle control skills.  This is not necessarily through choice but is often brought about through time constraints and the need to prepare a rider for an end test that is skill-based.”

“In their review of motorcycle licensing and training methods throughout Australia, Haworth and Mulvihill (2005) argued that motorcycle riding requires higher levels of vehicle control and cognitive skills in comparison to car driving and suggested that future motorcycle safety initiatives need to incorporate activities promoting higher level cognitive and control skills.”

Based on years of intense, comprehensive and global research, the experts put forth the best practices in training and licensing:

Table 4.1    Summary of best practice components for motorcycle licensing system

Component Effect on crash risk Effect on crash severity Effect on amount of riding Reason for effect Is this current practice in the ACT?
No exemptions from licensing, training or testing requirements for older applicants Facilitates other measures Facilitates other measures Reduces it Older riders need to develop riding-specific skills.  May make licensing less attractive. NO:  Exemptions are made for older applicants and those who already hold a car licence.
Minimum age for learner and provisional motorcycle licences higher than for car licences Reduces it Reduces it Consistent with graduated licensing principles. Crash risk has been demonstrated to decrease with age among young novices.  Increasing the minimum age would also almost eliminate riding and therefore crashes among riders below this age. YES
Zero BAC for L and P Reduces it Reduces it Reducing drink riding will reduce crash risk.  Zero BAC will also reduce the amount of riding after drinking. NO: 0.02% for L & P
Restrictions on carrying pillion passengers for L and P Reduces it Reduces it Pillions have been shown to increase crash risk and severity. YES: for L, and P in first 12mths
Power-to-weight restrictions for L and P Reduces it(severe crashes) Reduces it Reduces it Crash risk may be reduced if less powerful motorcycles result in less deliberate speeding and risk taking or problems with vehicle control.  Restrictions may dissuade some potential high-risk riders from riding. YES
Minimum periods for L and P Facilitates other measures Facilitates other measures Unknown To ensure that other requirements have sufficient duration. YES

Australia already has a graduated licensing and power-to-weight ratios (that can be offset by training). Already there’s on-road testing in some of the states. Already, then, at least some states in Australia have stricter standards than almost all USA states.

The report then summarizes the best practices for motorcycle training:

Table 4.2    Summary of best practice components for motorcycle training

Component Effect on crash risk Effect on crash severity Effect on amount of riding Reason for effect Is this current practice in the ACT?
Compulsory training to obtain L and P Small reduction Unknown Reduces it Ensure a basic level of competency.  May make licensing less attractive. Yes for L, no for P
Comprehensive roadcraft training at both L and P (may require longer training duration and better educational skills of trainers) Reduces it Reduces it Reduces it Improved ability to detect and respond to hazards by novice riders.  Longer and potentially more expensive training may deter some applicants. NO
Off-road training for L, mix of on- and off-road training for P Reduces it Reduces it Reduces it Ensure a basic level of competency gained under situations that are appropriate for current level of competency.  Allow safe practice of responses to hazards.  Longer and potentially more expensive training may deter some applicants.

As we see, many of the components of both training and licensing that would lead to more competent and possibly safer riders on the road are also ones that would likely reduce exposure even if they don’t–or while they do–reduce risk.

The bottom line? The  best experts in motorcycle safety conclude that the best chance of motorcycle safety will have the side effect of reducing the number of riders.

[i] Greig Kristi, Narelle Haworth and Darren Wishart. “Identifying Programs To Reduce Road Trauma To Act Motorcyclists”, The Centre for Accident Research & Road Safety—Queensland. Australia, February 2008.

Motorcycle Safety Puzzle Piece: Training, Part II

January 12, 2010

As I wrote in the previous entry, motorcyclists believe that training is a key part of the motorcycle safety puzzle. Rider educators are particularly committed to the notion–even though they rarely know how their students perform after leaving the course. The  Motorcycle Safety Foundation itself has not claimed for more than a decade that training is effective in reducing crashes. Then again, few motorcyclists are aware that rider training–and, in particular, MSF’s training–has been studied over and over again.

Here’s a list with summary[i] of twenty-three training and/or licensing studies that have been done over the past thirty years. Bibliographic detail is given in footnotes. Quotations are drawn either from the study or abstract itself or from “Evaluation Of Rider Training Curriculum In Victoria”.[ii]

A twenty-third paper, the most recent, will be presented in more detail in the next entry.

1. In 1979, a British medical journal reported, “A University of Salford team tried to assess the effectiveness of training. Overall, 65% of the riders had accidents in their first three years, the untrained group faring slightly better than the trained. But the groups may not have been sufficiently comparable, Raymond pointed out; and intrinsically poor riders who would have given up without training could have affected the results.”[iii]

2. In 1978, Canadian researchers Jonah, et. al, evaluated the Motorcycle Operator Skill Test (MOST).[iv] “It was expected that the greater the riding experience and training, the higher would be the skill scores….skill was greater among the more experienced riders (i.e. miles ridden motorcycle)but unexpectedly it was lower among trainingcourse graduates. Further analyses revealed that course graduates had less skill than untrained riders even when experience differences were controlled.”

3. A Ph.D. dissertation published in 1980 on the South Dakota training program[v] found that, “Survival Rate Analyses indicated that Course riders who did not pass the course were not more likely to have accidents than riders who passed. Course graduates had a higher accident rate for mileage covered before and after the course than the untrained subjects.”

“This result also occurred when subjects were matched on relevant background variables. It was concluded that MSF Rider Course graduates are as likely to become involved in accidents as untrained riders.”

When the MSF course scores were analyzed in conjunction with the Motorcycle Operator Skills Test (MOST), “There were no relationships found between skill test item scores and types of accidents which implied some deficiency in those skills.”

4. Also in 1980, R.S. Satten produced a report for the Illinois Department of Transportation[vi] based on a group of 200 riders. He found MRC riders were less likely to have had crashes or citations but they also tended to be female and had fewer years of experience and rode less per week.

5. Another 1980 study by J.W. Anderson on 40,000 San Diego license-applicants at six months and a year out[vii] and found, “The improved procedures programs had significantly lower motorcycle accident rates after 6 months than the control group and the lowest rate belonged to the group with remedial training (30 minutes classroom and 2.5 hrs. skill training). After one year, riders in the group which included remedial training for those who failed had 14% fewer total fatal and injury accidents than those in the current procedures program. This was still true when controlling for riding exposure.”

6. In 1981, Jonah, et. al.[viii] did a study to determine whether trained riders (MTP) “were less likely to have had an accident or committed a traffic violation while riding a  motorcycle  compared to informally trained (IT) motorcyclists.” However, they found that those who had successfully passed  MOST were 42% more likely to be crash-involved than those who failed.

However, “Multivariate analyses, controlling for the differences in [sex, age, time licensed, distance travelled [sic], education and BAC] revealed that the MTP graduates and IT riders did not differ in accident likelihood but the MTP graduates were significantly less likely to have committed a traffic violation than the IT riders. Although the lower incidence of traffic violations among graduates could be attributed to the training program, it is possible that the graduates sought formal training because they were safety conscious and this attitude also influenced their riding behaviour.”

7. In 1984, in a study involving 516 trained and a control group of untrained riders over three years, Rudolf G.Mortimer found that, ”when controlling for age and years licensed, those who took the course did not have a lower accident rate than the control group; (b) there were no differences in the violation rates between the groups; (c) the cost of damage to the  motorcycles  per million miles was not less for those who took the course; and (d) the estimated cost of medical treatment of injuries per million miles was not significantly less for the group which took the course.”[ix]

8. There was another study done in 1984 for the Illinois Department of Transportation that “compared a group of participants in the training program with a control group of people who had a current valid motorcycle licence. Some members of each group never actually rode. The trained riders rode less often, rode less powerful machines, were less likely to own a motorcycle and were less likely to hold a licence. Not surprisingly, trained riders were less likely to report having been involved in an accident or obtaining a moving violation or infringement notice. They had, however, been involved in fewer accidents per mile ridden.”[x]

9. A study published in 1986 comparing almost 60,000 riders who took either the  California test or Alt-MOST[xi] and either took training (basic or remedial) or not. It  found, “applicants assigned to the MOST II group had more fatal and injury motorcycle accidents and motorcycle convictions than applicants assigned to the Standard Test. When the analysis was restricted to the licensed riders, the MOST II riders had more total motorcycle accidents at the 2-year stage and more motorcycle and total convictions than the riders in the Standard Test group.”

10. Wisconsin produced a report in 1987.[xii] It used three-years of data involving almost 3,000 MRC graduates and about 43,000 untrained riders. When “Z” tests were applied, it  found, “[T]here seem[s] to be no significant differences between the group with MRC training and the group without MRC training. Based upon this analysis, the effectiveness of the MRC program in reducing accidents among motorcyclists has been very small or not significant at all.”

MRC graduates did have a significantly lower ratio of citations—but once again, the authors point out that they weren’t able to control for things that might change that—and they point out that 50 percent of graduates did not go on to get their endorsements.

The study points out that the majority (56.8%) of MRC graduates were female—and that significantly affected the ratios of citations and crashes in a positive way while the control group was overwhelming male (93.4%). Women had much better safety records than males in both groups—but the disparity between men and women in the two groups did make a difference. When just male trained and untrained riders are compared, the accident ratio of all male MRC trained was 0.043 compared to 0.53 for untrained males. Trained women had a 0.10 and untrained women 0.11 ratio for crash-involvement as percentages of the whole.

11. A study on the New York licensing system that compared the state test with MOST[xiii] was published in 1988. While the attrition/failure rates were similar between both groups, it found there was no differences between groups that received shorter or longer training or no training or took one test or the other and got their license. Nor were there differences in crash severity between licensed and unlicensed groups one year later.

“Neither the skill test nor the training course was shown to be any more effective for riders who had previous riding experience compared to novice riders.

“Riders who attempted the MOST II had higher failure rates on their first attempt at a licence than control group riders who attempted the current New York test. Trained riders did not do better on their first attempt at the MOST II than untrained riders. Riders in the twenty-hour training group did worse than those in the three-hour group on their first attempt at the MOST II. The untrained riders performed better than the trained riders on their first attempt at the sub-tests of the MOST II that assessed correct braking procedures and obstacle avoidance.

“Those riders who were assessed by the MOST II as showing higher skill levels were not significantly less likely to be involved in subsequent motorcycle accidents.”

12. In 1988, Mortimer published the results of a further 913 graduates and a control group of 500 untrained riders. Once again he found that graduates of the MRC did not have a lower violation rate, accident rate, total cost of damage to accident-involved motorcycles, a significantly lower mean cost of injury treatment per accident, or a lower total cost of injury treatment. Mortimer’s study found that 30% of those who took the course did not ride afterwards. MRC graduates had more loss-of-traction crashes (gravel/low-friction pavement). Untrained riders had twice as many multi-vehicle crashes as trained riders. [xiv]

13. A dissertation published in 1989 on the Texas program[xv] matched trained and untrained riders and followed 988 of them. At the end of four years it found, “…the trained respondents were not significantly different from the comparison respondents.”

“The trained motorcyclists had 2.4 times the rate of a motorcycle crash compared with untrained motorcyclists,” and that “Most of the excess risk experienced by the trained group occurred within two years of training.”

14. A 1989 study, this time by McDavid, et. al,[xvi] was done on the British Columbia’s Safety Council’s 37-hour training program. It found, “Trained riders tend to have fewer accidents of all kinds (all motor vehicle accidents combined), fewer motorcycle accidents, and less severe motorcycle accidents. Although these differences are not large in a statistical sense, they suggest that when care is taken to carefully match trained and untrained riders, training is associated with a reduction in accidents.

15. In 1990, a paper, “The promotion of motorcycle safety: training, education, and awareness”[xvii] found, “Very little support for the beneficial impact of education/training can be found in the evaluation literature.” And suggested one of the reasons for that is “the need to focus more on rider motivations and attitudes than on skills….”

16. A 1990 evaluation of the Ohio state program with 2,000 trainees and a 6,000 licensed but untrained control group[xviii] found that, “A higher percentage of the trainees who had scored in the highest skill category had been involved in a motorcycle crash than those in all other skill test categories. However, those trainees who obtained scores above 85% on the knowledge test appeared to have a lower motorcycle crash involvement rate in 1989.”

17. In 1991, Billheimer, et. al., published his report on the California program.[xix] Overall, trained students had less crash-involvement six month after they began riding—however, most of that effect came from true novices—those who had not ridden more than 500 miles before training. Those who had more than 500 miles of experience had a slightly higher rate of crash-involvement than untrained riders, but it was not a statistically significant difference.

At one year, comparisons “show no significant differences between the accident rates of trained and untrained riders one year after training.” Nor were there any differences at two years.

18. In a 1994 report to the California state legislature on the MRC:RSS published in 1995 Wilson, et. al,[xx] found that 44% of students failing to complete the course said they no longer rode when interviewed a year after training, compared with 24% of those who passed and of those who no longer rode, 16 percent said taking the RSS influenced their decision. “Preliminary analyses showed that accident rates for untrained riders appeared to be 10% higher than for their trained counterparts in the six months after training.”

19. Though not a study on training or licensing, the European accident causation study, Motorcycle Accident In-Depth Study (MAIDS) found: “”When the accident population and the exposure population are compared, the data indicates that a similar number of riders in both groups have received no PTW training (40.1% of the accident population and 48.4% of the petrol station population). However, it is important to note that the PTW training status for 93 riders was coded as unknown. … The data indicates that 47.2% of those riders without any type of training failed to attempt a collision avoidance manoeuvre. Similarly, the data indicates that 33.2% of those riders who had compulsory training also failed to attempt a collision avoidance manoeuvre. These results are difficult to interpret since there were many cases in which there was insufficient time available for the PTW rider to perform any kind of collision avoidance.”

20. Motorcycle safety researchers at Monash University Accident Research Centre in Melbourne, Australia, produced a review of current licensing and training practices  around the world[xxi] in 2005. Assessing all the evidence in a multitude of countries (as well as their previous literature review published in 2000), the authors conclude, “There is no real evidence of particular programs or components leading to reductions in crash risk….” “Standard motorcycle training courses leading to standard motorcycle tests have not been shown to result in reductions in crash involvement.”

21. Another Monash study published in 2006[xxii] done on older riders found “no significant relationship between involvement in one or more crashes in the past five years and having completed a training course at some time for fully-licensed riders … although there was a trend towards (p<.01) an association between having completed training and involvement in multiple vehicle crashes.” Nor was there any relationship between trained or untrained and crash severity. Nor was there a significant relationship between how recently or distantly one took a course and crashing.

22. In 2007, the Australians did a focus group study on 40 riders that had taken adult-centered training (various curriculum based on Q-ride).[xxiii] Participants felt/believed that training helped them avoid crashes however, in reality, there were several crashes and near misses where training didn’t help. The authors suggested “This suggests either a lack of learning transfer, a decay over time of information learnt, or that other factors not addressed in training (e.g. of an attitudinal or motivational nature) influenced rider behaviour once licensed. Training is therefore arguably not enough to always keep riders safe in the traffic environment unless skills are practised, honed and tempered with self-control.”

It also found that “that the most salient information from training is that which has been subsequently experienced on-road. 1) information from training may decay unless subsequently reinforced by experience; 2) learners may be more able to integrate information from training once they have had some riding experience as opposed to the pre-license stage where there is potential for ‘information overload’ due to the cognitive resources required in initial skill acquisition; and 3) the information may become more personally relevant to novice riders once some experience has been gained.”

23. Also in 2007, a study was done on Indiana riders.[xxiv] The authors found that riders who took “beginning rider training courses are more likely to be accident involved than those that do not – and that those that take the beginning course more than once are much more likely to be accident involved.”

“The Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic Rider Course was found to be significant with three variables in the accident model. For the first variable, those that completed the Basic Rider Course were found to be 44% more likely to be accident involved. This may reflect the ineffectiveness of the course, the fact that the course is attracting an inherently less skilled set of riders and/or the post-course skill set is being used to ride more aggressively….Commenting on the effectiveness of the material taught in the Basic Rider Course is beyond the scope of this paper. In terms of the course attracting inherently less skilled riders, we do control for a wide range of variables in our model. However, it is possible that unobservable variables that are not correlated with those included in the model are still influencing our estimates here.”

The second course-related finding was that those that completed the Basic Rider Course multiple times were an additional 180% more likely to be accident involved. This finding may reflect the fact that people that take the course repeatedly are trying to improve an  inherently diminished skill set (or one that changes over time) that affects their accident likelihoods. Thus, this variable may be capturing one’s inherent ability to master, or the need to refresh, the relatively complex physical and mental skills necessary to operate a motorcycle. Interestingly, there was no significant age difference between people that took the Basic Rider Course once and those that took it multiple times (both roughly 45 years of age). However, those that took the course multiple times had, on average, almost 12 more years of experience. It appears that more experienced riders –perhaps those noting a decline in their skills or those having had recent experiences with near misses – are more likely to take the Basic Riding Course repeatedly.

“People that cited no need for taking the Basic Rider Course were 51% less likely to be accident involved (the average age of these riders was 24.4 years, and 85% of these riders had 5 or more years of experience). This seems to provide some supporting evidence that the people taking the beginner course may be inherently less-skilled riders. It is also interesting to note that 12% of our sample took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Experienced Rider Course (the sequel to the Basic Rider Course) but this did not have a statistically significant effect, positive or negative, on accident probabilities.”

In the next entry, we’ll look at the most recent work and what it has to say about training and licensing.

[i] Usually, the summaries are my own or drawn directly from the studies or abstracts of the studies. On rare occasions, I preferred to use a quote from Narelle Haworth, et. al.’s Evaluation Of Rider Training Curriculum In Victoria. Monash Accident Research Centre. 2000.

[ii] Haworth, Narelle and Rob Smith, Naomi Kowadlo. Evaluation Of Rider Training Curriculum In Victoria. Monash University Accident Research Centre. 2000.

[iii] Motorcycle And Bicycle Accidents Source: The British Medical Journal, Vol. 1, No. 6155 (Jan. 6, 1979), pp. 39-41 Published by: BMJ Publishing Group. The report referred to was, Raymond, S and Tatum, S (1977). An evaluation of the effectiveness of the RAC/ACU motorcycle training scheme. A Final Report. University of Salford, Department of Civil Engineering, Road Safety.

Research Unit. Salford.

[iv] Jonah Brian A. and Nancy E. Dawson. Validation of the motorcycle operator skill test. Road and Motor Vehicle Traffic Safety Branch, Transport Canada. 1978.

[v] Osga, Glenn Arthur. An Investigation Of The Riding Experiences Of Msf Rider Course Participants.  University Of South Dakota.

[vi] Satten, R.S. Analysis and evaluation of the motorcycle rider courses in thirteen Illinios counties. Proceedings of the International Motorcycle Safety Conference, Washington DC, Vol. 1, 145-193. 1980.

[vii] Anderson, J.W. The effects of motorcycling licensing and skills training on the driver records of original applicants. Proceedings of the International Motorcycle Safety

Conference, Washington DC, USA, Vol. 1, 381-401. 1980.

[viii] Jonah, B.A., Dawson, N.E., & Bragg, W.E.. Are formally trained motorcyclists safer?

Accident Analysis and Prevention, 14(4), 247-255. 1982.

[ix] Mortimer, Rudolf G. Evaluation of the motorcycle rider course. Accident Analysis & Prevention, Volume 16, Issue 1. February 1984. Pages 63-71.

[x] As reported in Evaluation Of Rider Training Curriculum In Victoria. Narelle Haworth, et. al. Monash University Accident Research Centre. 2000.  Lakener, E. A survey of motorcycle riders in Illinois. A report submitted to the Traffic Safety Division, Illinios Department of Transportation. 1984.

[xi] Kelsey, S.L., Liddicoat, C., & Ratz, M. Licensing novice motorcyclists: A comparison of California’s standard test and the MOST II (Motorcycle Operator Skill Test) administered at centralised testing offices. Research Report of the California Department of Motor Vehicles, Research and Development Office. 1986.

[xii] Leung, Kam S. and Vernon A. Reding. Evaluation of the Wisconsin Motorcycle Rider Course. Wisconsin Department of Transportation. 1987.

[xiii] Buchanan, L.S. (1988). Motorcycle rider evaluation project. Report prepared for the US

Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,

Washington DC.

[xiv] Henderson, Michael.  Education, Publicity and Training in Road Safety: A Literature Review. Monash University Accident Research Study.. 1991.

[xv] Lloyd, Linda Elizabeth. An evaluation of the Texas motorcycle operator training course. 1989. The University of Texas at Austin.

[xvi] McDavid, James C.; Lohrmann, Barbara A.; and Lohrmann, George. Does Motorcycle Training Reduce Accidents? Evidence for a Longitudinal Quasi-Experimental Study. Journal of Safety Research, Vol. 20, pp. 61-72, 1989.

[xvii] Simpson, . M. and D. R. Mayhew. The promotion of motorcycle safety: training, education, and awareness. Oxford Univ Press. 1990.

[xviii] Rockwell, T.H., Kiger, S.M., & Carnot, M.J. An evaluation of the Ohio motorcyclists enrichment program, Phase II initial assessment report. Prepared for the Ohio Department of Highway Safety. 1990.

[xix] Billheimer, J.W. California Motorcyclists Safety Program; Final evaluation report. Prepared for California Highway Patrol, under contract to Crain and Associates. 1991.

[xx] Wilson, P., Dunphy, D. & Hannigan, M.J. (1995). The California Motorcyclist Safety Program: 1994 Annual Report to the State Legislature.

[xxi] Haworth, N. & Mulvihill, C. Review of motorcycle licensing and training (Report No. 240).  Melbourne: Monash University Accident Research Centre. 2005

[xxii] Haworth, Narelle and Mulvihill, Christine and Rowden, Peter. Teaching old dogs new tricks? Training and older motorcyclists.. In Proceedings Australasian Road Safety Research, Policing and Education Conference, Gold Coast, Queensland.. 2006.

[xxiii] Rowden, Peter J. and Watson, Barry C. and Haworth, Narelle L. What can riders tell us about motorcycle rider training? A view from the other side of the fence. In Proceedings 2007 Australasian Road Safety Research, Policing and Education Conference, Melbourne, Australia. 2007.

[xxiv] Savolainen, Peter and Fred Mannering. Additional evidence on the effectiveness of motorcycle training and motorcyclists’ risk-taking behaviour. TRB 2007 Annual Meeting CD-ROM. 2007.

The MC Safety Puzzle: Motorcycle Helmets

January 5, 2010

Now we turn to helmets. Without a doubt, helmets are the most controversial of all the motorcycle safety puzzle pieces. Because they do have a beneficial safety effect (and even helmet-law opponents agree that at least in some cases helmets save lives), they have been seen as an important part of the safety puzzle. Here in the USA, NHTSA claims that helmets are 37% effective in preventing fatalities and other research found that helmets are 25% effective in preventing lesser head injuries. A few motorcyclists disagree and claim that in a given (minute) number of cases helmets can cause injury or death.

However, how effective helmets are is a separate issue than if they should be mandated by law.

That they are two separate issues is something few in either the motorcycling or motorcycle safety issue communities seem to appreciate, but is critical to this puzzle: as we’ll see, laws affect compliance but laws don’t mean there’s less fatalities.

Since 1997, six states weakened helmet laws until there are only 20 states and the District of Columbia have them. In contrast, 27 states have laws that cover only some users and three states have no helmet law at all. However, just because there is no universal helmet law—or partial one—doesn’t mean that riders don’t wear helmets in that state.

For example, in 2002, NHTSA DOT HS 810 887W cites a survey in Florida that followed the universal helmet law repeal in 2002. It found 47 percent wore “compliant” helmets and 47 percent wore no helmets.[i]

In 2008—six years later—52 percent of the fatalities were helmeted and 46 percent of the fatalities were unhelmeted.

In fact, since 2005, helmeted fatalities have been between 49-52 percent. Iow, even though the helmet law was repealed, helmeted riders appear to be dying in slightly greater proportion to the percentage of helmet use.

Nationally, NHTSA reports that helmet usage was at 63 percent in 1994, rose to 71 percent in 2000 had dropped to 51 percent in 2006 and then rose to 63 percent in 2008.

Iow, helmet usage is now again what it was back in 1994 despite the repeal in universal helmet laws. Helmet usage, though, seems to be rather volatile (though that may or may not be from the rather dubious methodology NOPUS employs in its survey).

But look what happened in helmet vs. unhelmeted fatalities during the past 15 years:

Helmeted fatalities are up 6.2 percent since 2002, which is just within the realm of statistical significance and but unhelmeted fatatlities dropped by 2.5, which isn’t statistically significant—except that both the rise and drop have been a trend for six years now. Helmet usage is up—and motorcycle safety experts would say that’s a good thing. But so are helmet fatalities, which is a bad thing.

So even though fewer states have universal helmet laws the ratio of helmeted to unhelmeted fatalities has remained basically the same despite the enormous surge in ridership, despite fewer universal helmet laws and despite the greater protection helmets give to crash-involved motorcyclists. That’s at least puzzling—if not mysterious.

Both the higher percentage of usage and fatalities could mean that new riders choose helmets regardless of the law. It could mean that more non-helmet use riders are retiring—so no more people are wearing helmets, it’s that less aren’t.

Or it could mean that those who choose to wear helmets as a safety precaution ascribe too much power to them to protect them in a crash—and there is evidence of this from rider responses.

Or it could mean that riders who do take safety precautions—such as gear/helmet, training and licensing—are over-confident and take risks they do not realize they’re taking.

And that brings me to an article in a 1986 issue of Safe Cycling by John Bodeker—at that time with the Illinois State Program—recounts a survey done in 1986 in Illinois of those who took basic training and passed and those who failed. When it came to helmet use the results were, perhaps, counterintuitive: they found that 34% of graduates that passed were for mandatory helmet use while 69% of those who failed were for it.

“This could indicate that the increased skill and knowledge level obtained by passing students may lessen their perceived need for use of safety equipment, while failing students may become more aware of their shortcomings and vulnerability and perceive a greater need for safety equipment.”[ii]

We’ve seen, then, that the vast majority of fatalities in this bloody decade are licensed and now we see they’re helmeted. Clearly these puzzle pieces are not performing as experts have thought they should.

[i] Since there was no universal helmet law, the meaning of “compliant” helmets is rather…well…meaningless.

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

Is there a bad driving gene—and does it have motorcycling/rider ed implications?

November 2, 2009

According to a University of California, Irvine press release, bad drivers may have their genes to blame.

The press release summarizes a study published recently in the journal Cerebral Cortex led by UCI researchers found people with a certain gene variation performed more than 20% worse on a driving test than those without the gene and then did worse than other participants when they returned four days later to take the test again—and they also retained less of what they had learned.

The study had 29 people learn to navigate “tough-to-navigate curves and turns” on a simulator “track” designed by UCI researchers.Seven of the participants (24%) had the gene variant and 22 didn’t. The test involved driving 15 laps while “[r]esearchers recorded how well they stayed on the course over time.” All participants returned four days later to retake the test.

The study states that about 30% of Americans have the gene.

The study found that with that gene variation did worse learning and then they did worse recalling what they had learned according to the senior author, Dr. Steven Cramer, neurology associate professor at the University of California at Irvine.

“This gene variant limits the availability of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor during activity. BDNF keeps memory strong by supporting communication among brain cells and keeping them functioning optimally. When a person is engaged in a particular task, BDNF is secreted in the brain area connected with that activity to help the body respond.”

Earlier research had found that those with the gene variant “a smaller portion of the brain is stimulated when doing a task than in those with a normal BDNF gene.”[i]

“Behavior derives from dozens and dozens of neurophysiologic events, so it’s somewhat surprising this exercise bore fruit,” Cramer said.

Clearly, it’s early days yet—more studies would have to be done and, as Cramer pointed out, it’s unknown if this translates to crashes or not.

Iow, up to 30% of American drivers may have the “bad driver” gene—a lesser ability to learn at least more complicated driving skills and perform them competently and a lesser ability to retain what they learned.

Though this study was done using car drivers, it could be that the results would translate to learning to operate a motorcycle and riding it in traffic.

For years now, rider educators have complained that student quality has deteriorated. Many claim a larger number of students do not learn as well and/or perform as well.[ii] But it could be that there is a “bad rider gene”—or rather, those who have the bad driver gene also make bad riders but the public perception of riding and the way training was done didn’t keep bad drivers off the roads but kept bad riders off of motorcycles:

In the past—when instructors claimed student quality was higher—riders had a negative public image as well as dangerous. Because of the dangerous reputation, it could be that it attracted those who were more skillful drivers—ones without the gene variation.

But two factors also may have kept those without the gene variant from finishing the course or, if they did, riding on the roads:

In the prior curriculum, students were almost always counseled to drop the course if they fell once whether any injury was sustained or not. Also, in the previous curriculum the course was almost always taught over two weekends or several days (or evenings in some places). Although retention wasn’t directly tested, it was indirectly revealed.

It could be that even though no one knew there really was a bad driver gene those with it revealed themselves by poor performance and retention and were counseled out before they continued on to an injury crash on the range or in real life. It could be then that fewer students with the bad driver gene took the course—and of those who did dropped out before graduating or going on to ride.

This latest boom changed the image of a riders—and the changes in the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s curriculum set out to give the impression learning was both fun and easy. It may be that a greater percentage of those with the bad driver gene took the course.

But Motorcycle Safety Foundation also had changed the course in three important ways:

  • It was now generally taught in 2.5 days—and some places taught it even in less time than that. Needed retention was a matter of hours not days.
  • MSF also strongly encouraged instructors to allow students to continue on no matter how many falls they had until the student counseled themselves out.
  • The curriculum also was dumbed down, according to many rider educators including less repetitions of skills and less difficult corners, lower speeds, etc.

Yet the bad driver gene study showed that poor performance over repeated laps revealed the bad driver gene.

It could be, then, that the percentage of bad students hasn’t changed but that changes in how instructors are instructed to coach and changes in how students are taught allow more of those with the bad rider gene to progress both to the point of serious injury or to graduate and end up in crashes on the road.

Hopefully, more research will be done on drivers—and some research at all be done on riders.

[i] It also noted that people with the variant also don’t recover as well after a stroke However, when it comes to neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and multiple sclerosis, those with the gene variant keep their mental acuity longer.


[ii] Even though the reported deterioration was simultaneous with the change in curriculum to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic RiderCourse and an increasing number of subpar ranges and an increasing number of instructors who were trained using the new instructor’s curricula

Which came first–the Buell Blast or the criteria change?

September 5, 2009

I’ve been having an interesting side conversation with a rider administrator about the Blast. He and I disagree on many things—but his commitment to and belief in training is beyond doubt. Our discussion began when he wrote, “My recollection is that the training bike criteria changed before the Blast rolled out.” He pointed out that H-D used the old Ford Proving Grounds near Yucca, AZ during the 90s and tested the “Thor” in the late 90s that he said “strongly resembled the eventual Blast.”

He also recollected a “poll” conducted by MSF on what criteria should be used for training bikes that found that the cc. and weight limits should be raised.  Because it amuses me I’ll call him Thor.

After relying on memory for the first couple exchanges, I went back to the old MSF listserv on Topica then went to my files and pulled out the relevant documents and then did a little more finding this and that. What I found among all those things might be of interest to my readers:

As I said before, Harley re-joined MSF in 1999.[i]

The rider education community first officially heard about what would become Rider’s Edge, at the 1999 SMSA Annual Meeting in Milwaukee in late August. According to a letter from H-D from Wayne Curtain and Michael Weiss[ii] to “Fellow SMSA Members/State Administrators” dated March 9, 2000.  Harley “presented a very high level outline of Harley-Davidson’s plan to become more involved in rider education” at that conference.

In August the bike that would become the Blast was still being field-tested itself at—as my friend said—the Ford Proving Grounds.  “Thor” was the code-name for the Blast.

By November, 1999, three dealers had received the new model to use in Motorcycle Safety Foundation training programs. According to The SingleCylinder Gazette, “One dealer in the Southwest supposedly got 14, has a “non-disclosure” agreement with Buell, and employees who snuck some photos had them confiscated.”

Those dealers, according to Harley’s own documentation on the Rider’s Edge field-tests prepared by Jenne Meyer, were Harley-Davidson of Dothan, AL, Harley-Davidson of Baton Rouge, LA and Chick’s of Albuquerque, NM (Chick’s no longer exists and now Thunderbird H-D/Buell does).

By the time H-D was trying to get dealers to sign on as RE providers and convince state programs to accept RE, however, Dothan’s no longer was on the list of current providers.

According to that internal document by Meyer, RE was tested in a total of 9 classes before being rolled out: Dothan and Baton Rouge, LA offered two classes. Three entire and one partial class were offered in Albuquerque. All tolled—and confirmed by Michael Weiss—Rider’s Edge was tested with a total of 58 students between those 9 classes went through the course. Iow, there was an average of 6.4 students in each class. As you can see in these photos, only 5 students participated in this class.

Meanwhile, rumors were flying through the motorcycling world about the new  Buell that now had a name—the Blast. Spy photos were published online and in magazines accompanied by speculations and more rumors.

On February 8,2000, instructor Eric West brought up the Buell Blast, “I am wanting MSF to approve the new Blast for the RSS. What do you think?”

The next day, Feb 09, 2000, Elisabeth Piper who was then, irrc, director of communications (her title changed frequently) wrote:

Re: Buell Blast            Elisabeth Piper

10:06 PST

“The Buell Blast is currently being tested by MSF as a possible training bike for all programs in the New Mexico and Pennsylvania state programs. MSF has already approved use of the Buell Blast for the Harley-Davidson training program [sic] for new riders. This program uses MSF curriculum and the HD sites are RERP sites subject to all the same criteria as sites run under the state program auspices [emphasis mine].

“MSF will be making announcements regarding these two facts in the coming weeks, which will be posted on the website. I will make sure to note that to the listserv so that you’ll know as soon as they are posted.”

During a phone conversation on February 26, 2000—twenty days after Piper’s post—H-D’s Michael Weiss stated that “Tim Buche has told at least one state that the Blasts will be available for general use next year” [emphasis mine]. The statement was so strong it appeared as if it’s already a done deal—the Blast was already approved.

Then, in the H-D letter signed by Curtain and Weiss dated March 9,2000—a month after Piper’s post and a few days after Weiss’ phone call—it stated, “MSF has not approved the Blast for general use in MRC:RSS. However, Harley-Davidson will be providing Buell Blasts motorycles to MSF for additional testing and, if the testing goes well, the Blast could be approved for general MRC:RSS use later this year” [emphasis mine].

H-D officially rolled out the Blast to the riding, business and general media worlds in March, 2000.

A month later, in April, Piper asked what instructors thought of training bike criteria:

“Re: was: Riders edge, now Review of the Blast     Elisabeth Piper

Apr 18, 2000 09:18 PDT

I’ve ridden the Blast too, on the LA Freeways from the westside to the San Gabriel valley, and then up and down Glendora Mountain road a few times. I have to admit that I felt a little puny on the freeway, but the bike had no problem maintain freeway speeds. The mountain roads were fun though.

“If you were going to establish criteria for what a bike must have to be considered good for a training bike, what do you think those points should be? And how important is cc size within that mix of criteria?”

It’s hardly a poll—and doesn’t reference any prior or more official poll by MSF of instructors on acceptable training bike criteria. And only two rider educators responded with their thoughts. 2 out of 5,000 instructors hardly seems to be a representative sample.

In August, Piper announces as a response to another posting:

Re: Legal issues / Buell Blast (LONG!)          Elisabeth Piper

Aug 21, 2000 11:04 PDT

“You might be interested to know that at the end of last week, the MSF Board of Trustees approved the new parameters set for training bikes, parameters for which the Buell Blast qualifies.

I’ll be putting the parameters and a list of bikes that meet them on the website by the end of the month.”

So, in this regard, I was correct and my friend Thor misremembered: there was no real poll of what instructors thought or wanted for training bike criteria and the Blast was not just rolled out but already being used in rider training prior to the Board changing the criteria.

If you were observant, however, you’ll have noticed a few things:

The private-manufacturer owned and dealer-administrated training course and motorcycle that’s associated with more near-fatal and fatal training crashes was

made based on the experience of only 58 students.

And those 58 took the class with less than the full complement of 12 students on the range but with two instructors. As all rider educators know, there’s a huge difference in how a class runs depending on how full it is.

This also means that the RE version of the MSF-designed curriculum and the motorcycle were both being simultaneously field-tested in the same less-than-full classes. That’s very poor research methodology.

Then there’s the issue of MSF approving the motorcycle—it had been approved for H-D but would be tested. It has been tested and will be further tested. If it passes it will be available—but Buche already said it will be available—and therefore it would mean it was already known it would be approved even though the testing hadn’t been done.

However, the plot has only begun to thicken—stay tuned.

[i] Stories vary as to why Harley left but only this friend, Thor, claims that H-D had tried to re-join MSF for years and wasn’t allowed—he gave no proof of that claim and is the only one I’ve heard make it.

[ii] Michael Weiss gives his title as Director of Business Development and Wayne Curtain gave his title as “Manager of Motorcycle Safety Program Relations”. However, Curtain had started at H-D a month before with the title “Manager of Government Affairs” and was Director of Government Affairs for years after this letter. In fact, only when dealing with state program administrators in this one lettere did he call himself “Manager of Motorcycle Safety Program Relations”.

MSF’s many mistakes in its perception test

September 3, 2009

Now that I’ve given readers time to take MSF’s perception tests, there’s a few observations I’d like to make. It’s nice that MSF realized there was a problem with perception and attempted to do something about it—but there’s a few observations to make—so I’ll use a few of the pictures and responses MSF makes to do so:

The Picture: A traffic signals are ahead of the photographer. A car is on the right but it’s not clear if it’s planning to go straight through the intersection or  planning to turn right or left. The traffic signal on the pole to the right has the pedestrian crossing signal with a countdown—the white lit walking figure has already disappeared and the orange hand is visible and below that the countdown shows 11 seconds.

The statement:

The traffic light will remain green at least:

a. 7 more seconds

b. 11 seconds

c. 17 seconds

MSFs answer: b. Is the correct answer.  Lots going on here, but perhaps you caught the countdown sign below the right traffic light.  It’s letting pedestrians know how much time they have left to cross, but it also lets you know that time is remaining before the light changes.


I have used the pedestrian countdown many a time—but only if there’s nothing else going on around me. In this case, I’d be paying far more attention to whether that white car would suddenly turn out in front of me. And the pedestrian countdown is not universal—in some places the orange hand just flashes and some don’t have it at all. So I’m not sure why MSF thought this was so important as to include in what’s called a “Collision Traps” test.

But, apart from that, what MSF says is correct is inaccurate: In fact, a. is also correct: If the light will remain green for 11 seconds it will first remain green for “at least” 7 seconds. In fact, a. is even more correct since the light will remain green more than 7 seconds and thus “at least” but in 11 seconds the light will turn  yellow and be green no longer—and therefore not meeting the definition of “at least”.

Maybe that’s being too picky—but it’s MSF who claims the answers it chooses are “correct” and correct, as MSF uses it means right, accurate, without error. And if there’s a “correct” then there’s an incorrect—that there’s a red “X” next to your choice confirms the idea there’s a right and a wrong and MSF’s answer is the right one (“Correct. Good Job!”—that last is such an MSF cliché.)

MSF also makes an implied claim on the main page of its perception tests that taking the tests it provides will make a rider safer on the road precisely by “trying until you consistently earn a perfect score of 20 out of 20 points.”

So what MSF puts on the page—a page that can be accessed globally—matters even when it comes to small inaccuracies such as “at least” because people are told there is a correct answer—and the implication is that they will be safer riders.

So let’s look at a just a couple pictures—and these aren’t the worst by far:

The Picture: A rider  ahead of the photographer is in the middle lane of a three-lane freeway. The photographer is in the right lane. There’s an exit only lane ahead on the right and an entrance lane that has already joined the freeway  on the right . A white van is in the right lane. There is no car visible entering the freeway—not even a shadow of a car.

The Statement:

In a few seconds ahead you will be:

a. Stopping at a red light

b. Merging

c. Changing lanes left.

MSFs answer: b. Is the correct answer.  There is a lane on the right that indicates vehicles may be merging with you ahead.  Be sure to leave a gap both in front and behind you so a driver will be able to choose a safe gap to merge.

There’s many things wrong with this picture:

Merging is what the entering vehicle does—so the photographer wouldn’t be merging at all. If there was a vehicle entering the freeway, the photographer would have to deal with the merging vehicle, which is what, I presume, MSF meant. However, “in a few seconds” you’ll be at least 300 feet down the road and long past any merging point. Is this, once again, just sloppy writing—“merging” and “in a few seconds”? No—there’s more:

In fact, there is nothing in the entrance lane to indicates that “you” will be dealing with an entering vehicle in “a few seconds”—unless, of course, that road sign casting a shadow on the entrance ramp is planning to zoom on the freeway.

While it’s true that merging traffic is a hazard, this picture doesn’t show it. In the absence of any indication of a vehicle entering the freeway, it’s at best, merely cautionary in the abstract.

In fact, the greatest potential hazard in the photographer is the motorcyclist ahead in the next lane. Since there is an exit coming up on the right, the rider could pull over into the photographer’s lane intending to move to the exit. But rather than deal with an actual potential risk, MSF goes for the absent threat and calls that correct.

The Picture: It’s a three-lane major arterial street with red lights ahead, a white SUV is attempting to merge into the middle lane from a left entrance. A white locksmith van has its brake lights on directly ahead of the photographer in the middle lane. Interestingly, another photo shows the same locksmith van doing the same maneuver as the SUV—pulling across more than one lane to force its way into another. There is no traffic in the right lane or beside the photographer.

You are asked:

A good plan to execute here is:

a. Change lanes to the left

b. Increase your following distance.

c. Actuate your brake lights.

MSFs answer: c. Is the correct answer.  The SUV pulling out from the left is causing the van in front of you to slow.  This is a good time to let people behind know there’s a potential conflict ahead.  And if there is traffic directly behind you, be alert for them to change lanes to pass by you.

First of all, MSF teaches the 2 second following rule, however, in most of the pictures, it appears that the photographer is far closer than 2 seconds at the various speeds the kind of roads would indicate—as is the case in previous picture and this one. So, if the photographer was using the 2 second following rule, s/he would’ve traveled between 88 feet (if going 30 mph) to 102 feet (if traveling 35 mph—which is a typical speed limit for that kind of street in the LA area).

Then there’s the red light ahead—and the photographer’s view of traffic in his/her lane is obscured by the locksmith van. For all the we know, traffic is backed up to the van and it’s coming to a complete stop.

So it’s really bizarre that MSF tells you that it’s a good time to let people behind you know by actuating your brake lights? Friend, you better be on those brakes so you don’t rear-end the van. Answer b is by far the safest action.

But even answer a would give you at least one more van length to come to a stop (and the SUV might have finished crossing) rather than risk hitting the van. At any rate, imo, a rider should always avoid having the view forward blocked by a larger vehicle.

And even though the right lane appeared to be clear for many car lengths, it was not a choice MSF gave—even though it could be the absolute safest (as it allows the rider not only an unobscured forward vision but allows an escape route to the shoulder—that is if there’s no one beside the photographer or coming up in that lane.

Full Frontal

But as in the last picture, there’s simply not enough information to know what the best and safest thing to do is because—as in all of the photos, all the viewer can see is what’s in front of the photographer. Essential information is lost because what’s behind the rider is not known and often what’s to both sides of the rider isn’t either.

For example, in one of the photos taken along Vegas’ Strip, a white SUV is pulling out in front of the photographer from what appears to be a parking lot. There’s a great deal of  the sidewalk and area the SUV is pulling out of but none to the immediate left of the rider.

MSF asks what the rider should do and gives the choices as: a. slow. B. Change lanes to the left. C. Use your horn. The “correct” answer, according to MSF is to change lanes to the left: “Slowing is a good idea, but a better choice would be to move to the left lane and avoid other traffic that wants to turn into your lane. Using your horn wouldn’t have much value.”

It’s true that using the horn would be useless, but since we can’t see to the rider’s left, it’s anyone’s guess that the safest thing to do would be to move left. And MSF doesn’t say to check and see if you can move left before you do.

But even if they had—and someone took MSF’s assertion that this is the correct thing to do, consider this: The SUV appears to be less than 90 feet away from the  photographer (and in most of the photos, it doesn’t appear that the photographer is using a 2 second following rule).

According to brain science research it would take about 1.5 seconds to see the SUV, interpret what it’s going to do, decide what you’re going to do and then do a shoulder check, interpret and decide on that information. Only then would the rider be starting to move over. In that time, the rider would be 66 feet closer to the SUV if s/he was going 30 mph—and only then realize they couldn’t move over—just before they smashed into the SUV. Otoh, in the same length of time and distance, s/he could have slowed to a stop if necessary.

Iow, MSF’s advice—since it doesn’t include essential information to the side and rear—could cause a collision rather than save a rider from it. And that’s true for many of the photos. More importantly is that MSF’s repeated ignoring of what’s going on to the sides and rear of the photographer conveys the message that only what’s in front of the motorcyclist is important.

This, then is  a subtle but insidious and dangerous aspects of the Collision Trap Test—while the majority of fatalities are frontal collisions, safe avoidance of those collisions very often depends on what’s directly to the sides of us and behind us.

Other very strange things include a strong focus on what the speed limit is—including one on the freeway (65 mph). If the photographer was going freeway speed, the “Collision Trap” would be the multi-lane brake check ahead that requires immediate action. Yet MSF uses this photo to say, well, the speed limit sign isn’t important here but it’s still good to know what the limit is supposed to be.

In fact, this is a case where, if the rider was going 65 mph, should be getting on the brakes instead of noticing the speed limit.

There’s an enormous amount of errors and foolishness in the commentary beyond these:  in one the commentator says the rider isn’t “quite” in the no-zone. On the contrary, the rider is well inside it. In one case where the photographer is in a straight road heading over a blind crest with a corner beyond, MSF says the correct thing is to stay left for sight lines. Not in this case since the rider could not tell if an on-coming driver was over the double yellow.

I myself haven’t run into anything but the most basic of all kinds of corners—yet going out of control on a bend is one of the most common causes of collisions.

I don’t know who chose the pictures (or told the photo what kind of pictures to take), I don’t know who decided what was the danger or the “correct” action, but the inaccuracies and poor choices that MSF claim are “correct” are truly representative of the inferiority of MSF’s basic rider training curriculum, the Basic Rider Training course.

If this is a sample of the kind of advice instructors are telling students is “correct”, no wonder so many new riders are dying on the roads.

What I want to know is why in hell MSF didn’t beg new AMA Hall of Fame member  David Hough to create this perception test for them…