Archive for the ‘Motorcycle Awareness’ category

Why do we believe what we believe about motorcycle helmets?

April 21, 2010

In the last entry we saw that ordinary people in ordinary circumstances misjudge the actual ability of protective gear to reduce or prevent injury and take on more risk that uses up that safety margin. Motorcyclists are just as likely to fall prey to risk compensation as others. But how do motorcyclists—and non-riders—come to have an exaggerated belief that helmets, specifically, are more effective than they are?


Let’s first take a look at what experts say about helmets. For the sake of conciseness, I’m going to sum up and put longer quotes and links in footnotes:

NHTSA claims that “Motorcycle helmets provide the best protection from head injury for motorcyclists involved in traffic crashes.”[i]

The Michigan State Police claim that “Helmets decrease the severity of injury, the likelihood of death, and the overall cost of medical care…. Just like safety belts in cars, helmets can’t provide total protection against head injury or death, but they do reduce the incidence of both.[ii]

The American College of Emergency Physicians says  “Head injury is the leading cause of death in motorcycle crashes, and helmets provide the best protection from head injuries…”[iii]

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety—long seen as opposing motorcycling in general—says, “Motorcycle helmets have been shown to save the lives of motorcyclists and prevent serious brain injuries.”[iv]

The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) states the exact same thing in the exact same words as the Michigan State Police website so we’ll use a different part of the quote:  In the event of a crash, unhelmeted motorcyclists are three times more likely than helmeted riders to suffer traumatic brain injuries…”[v]

MSF has a .pdf flyer on helmets that states that “Helmet use is not a “cure-all” for motorcycle safety, but in a crash, a helmet can help protect your brain, your face, and your life.

“Combined with other protective gear, rider-education courses, proper licensing and public awareness, the use of helmets and protective gear is one way to reduce injury.”[vi]

MSF’s Basic RiderCourse handbook states, “Helmets work well in accomplishing their intended function to protect the head and brain from injury…helmet effectiveness has been confirmed by research, not just in the laboratory, but by decades of actual crash analysis as well. So, be safe and always wear a helmet while riding…Since head injuries account for the majority of motorcycle injuries, head protection is vital. The best helmet is no guarantee against injury, but statistics indicate that helmet use reduces the risk of brain injury by 67 percent (and gives the NHTSA 2004 “Traffic Safety Facts” report as the source of the statistic).[vii] However, the NHTSA 2004 Traffic Safety Report

does not contain that statistic.

Media articles on motorcycle safety also repeat the same claims.

Media articles typically include whether a rider was wearing a helmet or not—and do so far more often than whether drivers were wearing seatbelts as in this short news item on the death of a rider from The Geneva County Reaper,

“Motorcyclist killed in wreck” A 60-year-old motorcycle rider died on Easter Sunday in a single vehicle wreck on Walton County Road 181.

Ronnie Denza Hughes was headed west when the bike traveled across the eastbound lane and onto the shoulder, striking a tree, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. The bike rotated and came to rest facing south.

The accident took place around 7 p.m. Hughes was not wearing a helmet.”

WEAU 13 NEWS in Eau Claire, WI published an article on April 13 of this year,  “Motorcycle riders and law enforcement warn about motorcycle safety.” It said, in part, “…“We highly recommend people wear helmets they’re not required by law, unless your under 18 or have an instructional permit, but a helmet’s gonna definitely save you from serious injury in case you are involved in a crash,” Sgt. Jerry Voight with the Wisconsin State Patrol says.”[viii]

The Columbus Dispatch, published an article on April 3, “Caution urged in motorcycle season: Deaths a grim reminder for riders, motorists”.

The latter part of the article focuses on the human interest element. After first detailing how one unhelmeted rider died in a crash it goes on to tell about another fatality: “Computer developer Joseph Matello, 40, of Riverstone Drive in Columbus, died after a crash about 11a.m. Thursday on the Far West Side. Police said he crossed the center line on Feder Road and struck a car head-on.

“His wife, Stephani, said Matello was a strong believer in safety, and a helmet saved his life a few years ago when a car driver didn’t see him and struck him.”[ix]

Iow, even though the crash was—for whatever reason—his fault and though a helmet was worn and did not save his life, the article still stresses how important wearing a helmet is—and that it had saved his life years before.

Reasonable to believe helmets are effective

The above is just a fraction of all the repeated direct and implied claims by those who present themselves as experts. The story told by different groups circle around on themselves by citing each other—and most often NHTSA.

The very official status of the sources gives credibility to their claims. That story then is willingly propagated through the media that repeats those claims and adds testimonials from both dealers and riders—or in the last case, the dead rider’s spouse.

It’s highly likely that a reasonable person, after reading even a portion of the above would believe that helmets were highly effective in preventing death and reducing injuries. In fact, it would be unreasonable to disbelieve such repeated accounts.

As we’ve seen, ordinary people—which fulfills the legal definition of a reasonable person—take more risks in ordinary ways simply because they believe they are safer because they are wearing some kind of protective gear.

Iow, it’s reasonable that a reasonable person would act upon such repeated safety claims and to take on risks he or she wouldn’t if they weren’t wearing a helmet. For example—the risk of riding a motorcycle at all. We

Iow, we believe that helmets are effective because we’ve been told over and over by credible sources that they are. And we don’t just act upon that belief, we stake our lives on it.

But the thing is—we don’t have to take on anything more than the most ordinary risks of riding to outride the protection a helmet can give in the most ordinary circumstances.

Given the strong chorus of approval and recommendations from safety and transportation interests and experts, it’s exceedingly interesting and illuminating and especially surprising—what helmet manufacturers say about their products. Or rather, what they don’t say.

[i] Helmet Use Laws. NHTSA.

[ii] “They’re designed to cushion and protect riders’ heads from the impact of a crash…. Motorcycle crash statistics show that helmets are about 37 percent effective in preventing crash fatalities. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates an unhelmeted rider is 40 percent more likely to suffer a fatal head injury and 15 percent more likely to incur a nonfatal head injury than a helmeted motorcyclist.”,1607,7-123-1593_3504_22760-13677–,00.html

[iii] “Helmets are estimated to be 37 percent effective in preventing fatal injuries to motorcycle riders. (NHTSA)… Everyone is only one step away from a medical emergency….Helmet use is the single most important factor in people surviving in motorcycle crashes. They reduce the risk of head, brain and facial injury among motorcyclists of all ages and crash severities. Unhelmeted motorists are 40 percent more likely to die from a head injury, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).”


[v] “Helmets decrease the severity of head injuries, the likelihood of death, and the overall cost of medical care. They are designed to cushion and protect riders’ heads from the impact of a crash. Just like safety belts in cars, helmets cannot provide total protection against head injury or death, but they do reduce the incidence of both. NHTSA estimates that motorcycle helmets reduce the likelihood of crash fatality by 37 percent….Helmets are highly effective in preventing brain injuries, which often require extensive treatment and may result in lifelong disability.” This quote appears verbatim on several other websites.

[vi] “Second, a good helmet makes riding a motorcycle more fun, due to the comfort factor: another truth.

“Third, wearing a helmet shows that motorcyclists are responsible people; we take ourselves and motorcycling seriously. Wearing a helmet, no matter what the law says, is a projection of your attitude toward riding. And that attitude is plain to see by other riders and non-riders alike.”


[viii] “State troopers say just wearing a helmet and the proper gear could help save your life People who drive motorcycles say the feel of the wind on your face is a thrilling experience, Wisconsin doesn’t require helmets, but those who sell motorcycles and those who enforce the law, say safety needs to be of utmost importance.

[ix] “She said she has a message for other motorcyclists: “For riders, wear as much protective gear as possible.

“For cars, watch for them. They’re everywhere, and it only takes a second to take somebody’s life.”


Protective gear and risk compensation

April 18, 2010

Risk compensation isn’t limited to high-risk sports like skydiving. In fact, some of the most unlikely people take the most unlikely chances simply because they believe risks have been offset—such as parents:

Parents and children and risk compensation After regulation demanded medicine bottle caps and lighters have child-proof devices  research found that “…that many parents left the caps off bottles, and the net effect that was observed from this safety device introduction was that there was no evidence of a significant beneficial impact.” It also found that up to 10 percent of parents would leave lighters where children could get them as a result raising the risk of setting a fire rather than lowering it.

Other studies[i] have found that parents allowed their children to take more risks if they were wearing protective gear because they assumed that the gear provided complete protection for the children. Children in another study went faster and “behaved more recklessly” when they had gear on.[ii]

Bicyclists, soccer players and in-line skaters British research by Dr. Ian Walker found that people drove closer to bicyclists if the bicyclists wore a helmet and was male.[iii]

And a study on soccer found that when the kicker and goalie wore protective gear the kicker moved closer to the goalie but didn’t when protective gear wasn’t worn. Other studies have shown that rugby headgear can influence players to tackle harder. [iv]

While another study found that serious injuries were more frequent among adult in-line skaters  who wore safety gear about half the time rather than among those who didn’t wear safety gear at all.[v]

As one of the studies on children’s and parents’ behavior stated the “… use of safety gear may result in misperceptions of injury risk and this can produce unwanted effects. Specifically, individuals may assume that safety gear completely protects against all injury, and therefore the need to be cautious no longer exists, resulting in greater risk taking or increased tolerance for risk taking. This phenomenon is known as risk compensation.”[vi]

Boaters Experience—and training—has also been found to have the opposite effect as a study of 10,000 boating accidents over 5 years[vii] found: Older, more experienced boaters were less likely to wear a personal floatation device (PFD)—and  so were their passengers. And if they did wear a PFD, they were more likely to increase their alcohol consumption. PFD use did increase in windy conditions—indicating the operators perceived higher risk—it decreased at night indicating they didn’t see darkness as increasing risk.

Iow, protective gear—including helmets—is associated with risk compensation but with a twist. In some cases, it’s the participants wearing the gear that take increased risk. In other cases it’s someone else who takes greater risks  (other drivers) because someone else is wearing gear or (we’ll get to the role of experience and training in the next entry).

Risk compensation by ordinary people in ordinary activities is normative Iow, in many activities and with a wide range of people who are not associated with risk-taking behaviors (such as parents and recreational boaters) automatically take on more risk (or allow those they are responsible for to do so) because of something that’s worn—and often with a false understanding of what that gear can actually do. Iow, risk perception changes—and not necessarily in conscious ways—by the presence of protective gear.

Which makes sense in a way: because children are wearing gear, they are less likely to be hurt playing soccer, running an obstacle course or bicycling—and so are adults.

When it comes to protective gear, risk compensation is a normative behavior for  ordinary people, ordinary objects and ordinary risks. When people believe they are safer they act in ways that put them more at risk.

The question, then, would seem to be not if protective gear risk compensation occurs in motorcycling but how much.

ATGATT and risk compensation? It would be no surprise, then, if motorcyclists who wear helmets do so as well since even parents who are dedicated to their children’s safety do so. And, as we discovered in the entries on seat belts, motorcyclists are more likely to voluntarily wear helmets than drivers are to wear seat belts. Nationally, even in states without helmet laws, over 50% of riders do wear helmets according to the National Occupant Protection Use Survey. Iow, motorcyclists perceive and believe in the protection helmets offer.

A survey of over 130 riders 40 and older found that 83 percent said they wore a helmet all the time and 80% said they wore gear all the time. Fifty-nine percent of respondents thought helmets were either completely or significantly/very effective at reducing injury and 49 percent thought they were completely or very effective at reducing death.

Yet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) claims that helmets are only 25 percent effective in reducing injury and 37 percent effective in preventing death.

Clearly, motorcyclists, like parents, tend to have an exaggerated and erroneous belief in just how effective helmets are.

Consuming the safety margin But the safety margin that protective gear gives participants is predicated on all else staying exactly the same: they are only safer because of gear if they take no more risks than they had previously or the situation becomes no more dangerous.  Iow, helmets are only 25 percent and 37 percent effective if the situation hasn’t become more dangerous (more difficult roads or poor road surface, heavier traffic, etc.)  and if the rider hasn’t taken on more risk (higher speeds, shorter gaps, late braking, etc.).

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much to consume the safety margin gear and helmets offer—particularly since helmets can only protect against injuries caused by exterior forces. Internal injuries (coup contra coup, axial rotation, etc.) can be far more debilitating but cannot be prevented by helmets. But no one can predict which kind of crash they’ll have and what kind of head injury will result.

Others can consume our safety margin In a related way, just as the study on soccer players and the one on bicyclists wearing helmets others will take on more risk because the participants were wearing protective gear. Iow, even if the one wearing protective gear is minimizing risks, others can consume the safety margin the gear gives by acting in more aggressive ways because they believe the one wearing the gear is better protected than they are in reality. It matters a great deal, then what both participants and outsiders believe about helmet/gear effectiveness.

And that’s the subject of the next entry.

[i] Mok, D., Gore, G., Hagel, B., Mok, E., Magdalinos, H., Pless, B., 2004. Risk compensation in children’s activities: a pilot study. Paediatr. Child Health 9, 327–330.

Morrongiello, B.A., 1997. Children’s perspectives on injury and close-call experiences: sex differences in injury-outcome processes. J. Pediatr. 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. Pediatric Psychology. 23, 33–43.

[ii] Morrongiello, Barbara A. and Beverly Walpole, Jennifer Lasenby Understanding children’s injury-risk behavior: Wearing safety gear can lead to increased risk taking. Accident Analysis and Prevention 39 (2007) 618–623.

[iii] Walker, Ian. Drivers overtaking bicyclists: Objective data on the effects of riding position, helmet use, vehicle type and apparent gender. Accident Analysis & Prevention Volume 39, Issue 2, March 2007, Pages 417-425.

[iv] Braun, C., Fouts, J., 1998. Behavioral response to the presence of personal protective equipment. Hum. Factors Ergon. Soc. 2, 1058–1063. McIntosh, A S. Risk compensation, motivation, injuries, and biomechanics in competitive sport. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2005;39:2–3. Hagel B, Meeuwisse W. Risk compensation: a ‘‘side effect’’ of sport injury prevention. Clin J Sport Med 2004;14:193–5.

[v] Williams-Avery R.M.; MacKinnon D.P.Injuries and use of protective equipment among college in-line  . Accident Analysis and Prevention, Volume 28, Number 6, November 1996 , pp. 779-784(6).

[vi] Morrongiello, Barbara A. and Beverly Walpole, Jennifer Lasenby Understanding children’s injury-risk behavior: Wearing safety gear can lead to increased risk taking. Accident Analysis and Prevention 39 (2007) 618–623.

[vii] McCarthy, Patrick and Wayne K. Talley. Evidence on risk compensation and safety behaviour. Economics Letters 62 (1999) 91–96.

More motorcycle commercials you’ll never see in the USA

March 10, 2010

Here’s another THINK! commercial–this one aimed at riders “The Day You Went to Work

TAC Shock Motorcycle Oct 2009 which has some critical video responses (check the side bar at the site).

TAC Motorcycle safety video “Put yourself in their shoes”

This next THINK! one might be a little too cerebral for Americans “Give motorcyclists a second thought

And a different version of the naked rider one. And another.

The next one “Sorry, mate, I didn’t see you” clearly isn’t aimed at cagers feeling more friendly and aware of us–rather, it expresses the anger and frustration riders feel–and that’s legitimate though the action isn’t but this is meant to be funny and not serious.

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.

Near Miss Accident Survey

October 21, 2009

A new study was published today—the Near Miss Accident Survey of Riders.

According to the report, “The purpose of the survey was to find out from motorcyclists, whether they had experienced situations in which they believed they could have crashed and/or been injured (but were able to keep control of their motorcycle) as well as the type of situations they had experienced.”

Near-misses are critically important because the rider both believed a crash couldn’t occurred but it didn’t–thus resulting in safer riding. Why near misses occur tells us information about why actual crashes happen–and may yield information in how to avoid crashes in the future.

An internet survey of 257 motorcyclists in Ireland (Northern and Southern) and Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) was conducted by Right To Ride, a Northern Ireland motorcycle rights group.

Profile of the respondent

The average respondent to the survey was a 40-year old male who had completed a basic training course. Basic training is mandatory (Compulsory Basic Training) in Southern Ireland and Great Britain. It is not in Northern Ireland. About 24% had taken an advanced course and another 38.9% had taken an “assessment course” like Bikesafe.

89.5% had taken a practical riding test. Over 99% were licensed with the vast majority having a full license (93.4%). (UK countries have graduated licensing including provisional and restricted and full tiers).

The average rider had ridden a motorcycle between 4,000 to 6,000 miles per year without a break in riding for 10 years. Almost 89% always rode in the summer with spring (70.4%) and autumn (65.8%) following. Almost half always rode in the winter with most of those using their bikes for commuting.

The motorcycle was, on average 7.5 years old and the majority (69.1%) rode adventure/sport/enduro/naked street bikes and were represented proportionally in near miss events. 82.9% of the respondents rode motorcycles with engine sizes between 401cc and 1200cc.

Almost half (45.1%) used their motorcycle for personal leisure and 38.9% for commuting to and from work.

(For USA readers’ background information, helmets are mandatory in all three survey areas.)

Crashing and near missing

Of those 257 riders, 78.2% of the respondents reported such near-miss events, 22.6% had had a non-injury crash in the past 24 months. Of all crashes reported, 49% were single vehicle crashes and 51% were multi-vehicle—which is roughly the USA percentages for types of crashes.

Of riders in injury crashes 62.9% reported that they were in multi-vehicle collisions and 37.1% had experienced a single vehicle crashes (4 did not answer).

Interestingly, there was no statistical difference between those who had taken either the assessment course or advanced training when it came to crashing without injury:

20% of those who taken an assessment course vs. 19.7% who had taken an advanced training course had a non-injury crash within 24 months.

Fewer riders who had taken either the assessment or advanced training had an injury crash: 15% of those who took an assessment course had a crash with injury and 16.4% who had done an advanced training course.

Iow, both means produced about the same results when it came to non-injury or injury crashes and 5% fewer injury crashes v. non-injury crashes.

However, when it came to those who hadn’t taken an assessment or advanced training it gets even more interesting:

Of those who did not take an assessment course, 24.5% had non-injury crashes—or 4.5% more than those who had taken the course. While that’s less than 5%, it still suggests that training or at least evaluation makes a difference.

However, it’s a different story when it comes to injury crashes—undoubtedly more serious in effect (though admittedly a non-injury crash may only have avoided injury by random factors).

Of those who hadn’t taken an assessment course 15.2% had an injury crash—which is virtually identical to the 15% of those who had.

And when it came to advanced course participation, only 14.9% who hadn’t taken an advanced course had an injury crash—or 1.5% fewer than who had taken an advanced training course.

Iow, we don’t find the difference we’d expect to find if further training/evaluation did make riders safer on the road. That was not observed by the writer of the report, Dr. Elaine Hardy.

This, however, supports what other researchers have found about training in the USA and Australia—it does not have an observable safety effect in injury crashes.

What the survey found

In brief, what the report finds is what riders would expect it to find:

A 2004 Department of Transport study that examined 1,790 accidents found that  38% involved Right Of Way Violations (ROWVs). “However, less than 20% of these

involve a motorcyclist who rated as either fully or partly to blame for the accident.” This, as the Near-Miss report states, is higher than the Hurt Study found. Other causes garnered far less than 5% each of responses.

In this survey, when it came to the cause of those near misses:

  • 40.6% reported “turning into your path from a side road, private driveway or opposite direction”.
  • 15.2% reported someone changing lanes in front of them “on the motorway”.
  • 13.9% reported on-coming traffic in their lane.
  • 12.5% “reported cutting you off at a junction” (or intersection for us Americans).
  • Road conditions were the other major cause of near-misses:
  • 45.3% cited slippery or loose road surface or loose gravel.
  • 34.7% potholes and grooves.

32.1% road markings or over-banding (as far as I can tell, “over-banding” means the strip of bituminous material to repair joints and cracks resulting in a smooth, often slick surface).

Of those respondents who had near misses (five cited more than one cause):

  • 61.5% considered the other vehicle (mainly car) as the cause of the near miss
  • 9% considered the near miss to be their own fault
  • 7.7% considered the conditions of the road as the cause of the near miss
  • 3.8% considered animals on the road as the cause of the near miss
  • 3.8% considered a pedestrian as the cause of the near miss
  • 2.6% considered another motorcycle(s) as the cause of the near miss
  • 1.3% considered a bicycle as the cause of the near miss
  • 10.3% gave “other” reasons or comments.

Focus Group input

The second part of the study was a focus group that discussed the survey findings. The participants were drawn mainly from the motorcycle safety and training community: a Chief Regional Tester for RoSPA in the Republic of Ireland, a Ballymena Rider Training, Instructor and IAM Observer and a Bikesafe Coordinator; and motorcycle rights officers—a former General Secretary, Road Safety Officers and Senior Training Officer. And a UK/Technical Officer Federation of European Motorcyclists Associations) Northern Ireland.

While they agreed with the need to address road infrastructure (and other road conditions), of note was what they had to say about both public PR campaigns to raise motorist/motorcyclist awareness and the marketing/advertising campaigns by motorcycle manufacturers.

The group was divided between how people reacted to “hard-hitting” commercials. Some felt that people would just avoid it by switching channels and “and that advertising of that nature needed to have a message that is factual, relevant and educational.” Others thought that even if they did turn off dramatic message, the point would still sink in.

But, when it came to how manufacturers advertised motorcycles, the group felt, “All participants indicated that the advertising of performance motorcycles by  manufacturers and magazines had a negative effect on rider attitude and behaviour and that this influence was an underlying cause of motorcycle crashes.”

The experts on training

“The view of the participants was that there is a systemic failure on the part of the authorities in all three countries to provide adequate training and relevant testing for motorcyclists and car drivers.”  This is especially significant since training and testing is far more rigorous in the UK than in the USA and there’s a significant portion of both that’s conducted in traffic.

As one participant observed: “In reality motorcyclists and car drivers need a system in place to fully prepare them to ride or drive on all types of today’s roads in different conditions. The system that we have in place at present does not do that. Over the last 3 years 70% of collisions and just over 70% of road users’ fatalities and serious injuries have happened in a rural environment. In stark contrast 70% – 80% of instruction, guidance and testing are carried out within an urban environment. The current scheme is not reflective of the types of driving that drivers and riders are engaged in post test.”

The focus group thought that more people didn’t take advanced training or assessment courses because it was too expensive and/or people didn’t think it was important. That there was no significant statistical difference between those who had and those who hadn’t when it came to any kind of (survivable) crash may be exactly why more riders don’t think its important—somehow, on a gut level, they may sense that in their own experience—more training doesn’t make a significant difference?

MSF has extended its Discovery Project for another year—but at the halfway point, MSF wasn’t getting the results they wanted—MSF training products weren’t showing further training was effective or that they could easily get people to come back for more. It will be interesting is MSF’s study of its own product (that the taxpayers paid for almost half) comes up with different results that so many other studies—including this last one.

At some point, rider educators are going to have to accept that study after study cannot be wrong and that there’s something wrong with the curricular products currently available. Or they may have to think outside the box and figure out why training doesn’t make riders safer and what kind of training would.

Unfortunately, while the report gives us information about the causes of near-misses, it doesn’t explore why the crash didn’t occur–how the rider avoided the crash successfully–and that’s the critical issue when it comes to increasing rider safety. It is to be hoped that Right to Ride will continue to explore near-misses along those lines in the future.

Perceiving the problems in rider training

August 12, 2009

MSF’s online “Rider Perception” Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Distracted/cellphone-using driver risk isn’t the only thing NHTSA has covered up

July 23, 2009

According to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, “Driven to Distraction:  U.S. Withheld Data Showing Risks of Distracted Driving” NHTSA researchers in 2003 estimated that 6% of all daylight hours on USA roads were spent talking on the phone. Today, the Transportation Department estimates that figure has nearly doubled.

Cellphone use has been found by extensive research to be equivalent to driving drunk and have a 4x greater chance of crashing. Iow, up to 12% of all daylight hours on US roads are filled with drunk drivers.

The researchers estimated that 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents in 2002 were cellphone-involved, and the  talking points memo said that NHTSA estimates 25% of crashes are caused by distracted driving.

The article quotes, Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, “We’re looking at a problem that could be as bad as drunk driving, and the government has covered it up.”

Otoh, how likely is it unlikely that 12 percent of all daylight drivers are over the legal blood alcohol limit? The problem may be far worse then than drunk driving.

Since more motorcyclists are killed in multi-vehicle crashes and distracted driving means drivers aren’t paying attention and visibility is one of the main reasons drivers cite for causing crashes with motorcyclists, this should be—but isn’t—a major issue with motorcycle rights activists with the notable exception of Bruce Arnold.

But it’s what else the article claims—that NHTSA deliberately withheld how dangerous cellphone use was from the American public—that led me to see a correlation with the languishing motorcycle accident causation study:

The  NHTSA researchers who investigated and reported on distracted driving prepared that talking points memo at the end of  a 266 page report that laid out all the research and evidence of the growing and lethal problem. That report and the memo was not released until six years later—and only because of the Freedom of Information Act request by the Center for Auto Safety.

As most if not all my readers know, the federal government set aside money for a new comprehensive motorcycle accident causation study to update the famous Hurt Study—and yet years later it’s dogged with delays and only recently has the tiny pilot study been launched that will look at less than 100 accidents.

So it was ironic, in a way, to discover that the NHTSA researchers “proposed a long-term study of 10,000 drivers to assess the safety risk posed by cellphone use behind the wheel. They sought the study based on evidence that such multitasking was a serious and growing threat on America’s roadways.”

Instead, NHTSA, under Dr. Jeffrey Runge, “rather than commissioning a study with 10,000 drivers, handled one involving 100 cars,” It’s starting to sound awfully familiar, isn’t it?

NHTSA did the same to motorcyclists

Actually, NHTSA went farther when it came to a danger to motorcyclists and other road users. In 1997, NHTSA produced a report, DOT HS 808 570 “Relationships between vehicle Size and Fatality Risk in Model Year 1985-93 Passenger Cars and Light Trucks”.
”[A] draft of the report was peer-reviewed by a panel of experts under the auspices of the Transportation Research Boardof the National Academy of Sciences” and then “revised in response to the panel’s recommendations.” Iow, the researchers knew the results were controversial and were making sure readers knew it had been vetted by the best of the best.  If you’re looking for the hot link to that report–keep on reading as it’s exactly the point.

NHTSA researchers studied the effects on just a 100 lb. decrease in weight for SUVs, pickups and other light trucks and found that in 1993—long before SUV sales took off and so did the motorcyclist death toll—that out of the 2,217 motorcyclists, pedestrians and bicyclists hit by light trucks in 1993, the fatality rate would’ve dropped by 2.03% or a net fatality change of -45 percent. In contrast, a similar reduction in the weight of passenger cars would’ve resulted in a change of – 0.46 percent or a net change of -19 percent.

They stated, “…downsizing of light trucks would significantly reduce harm to pedestrians, motorcyclists and, above all, passenger car occupants,” with a minimal effect on increasing rollovers. It went on to say, “The benefits of truck downsizing for pedestrians and car occupants could more than offset the fatality increase for light truck occupants.” And concluded, “Continued growth in the number and weight of light trucks is likely to increase the hazard in collisions between the trucks and smaller road users (cars, motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians), while a reduction in the weight of the trucks is likely to reduce harm in such collisions.”

Iow, 12 years ago NHTSA found light truck vehicles (LTVs) are extremely dangerous to other road users and were so sure of it that they didn’t recommend a larger study but a reduction in weight of a mere 100 lbs. NHTSA did nothing about this.

Further research confirmed this finding. A 2002 Dynamic Research, Inc. study, “An Assessment Of The Effects Of Vehicle Weight On Fatality Risk In Model Year 1985-98 Passenger Cars And 1985-97 Light Trucks Volume I: Executive Summary DRI-TR-02-02” examined 1999 fatality statistics and confirmed the 1997 NHTSA document.

A year later, in 2003, Dr. Michelle J. White, professor of economics at the University of San Diego, published the paper, “The Arms Race” on American Roads: The Effect of SUV’s and Pickup Trucks on Traffic Safety”. In it she concluded, “For each one million light trucks that replace cars, between 34 and 93 additional car occupants, pedestrians, bicyclists or motorcyclists are killed per year and the value of the lives lost is between $242 and 652 million per year.”  She went on to say that for each fatal crash the occupants of light truck vehicles themselves avoid, “at least 4.3 additional fatal crashes involving other occur. Iow, the drivers of SUVs make others pay for their selfish self-interest at an unconsciously high price.

Her study found that if a light truck hits a motorcyclist, specifically, the probability of dying rose by 56 percent but the probability of only being seriously injured rose to 26%. While pedestrians/bicyclists’ probabilities also rose (45% fatality, 11% serious injury), motorcyclists, then, are particularly at risk from LTVs.

But just as NHTSA had ignored its own study, it continued to ignore further studies. And, rather than weight decreasing, the weight of  SUVs, at least, increased: For example, in 1993 Ford Explorer’s curb weight was 3, 679 lbs. In 2009, the Expedition weighs 5,578 lbs—a weight increase of 52%.

And NHTSA ignored easily accessible information such as the survey by Roy Morgan Research one of over 24,000 SUV drivers. While “[L]arge 4WD” owners were determined survey to be such things that don’t necessarily affect driving such as male SUV drivers are  more likely to be overweight and  more likely to prefer beer and femial SUV drivers are more materialistic and more likely to say, “I was born to shop.”

It also found that they were: more aggressive; less tolerant; more likely to suffer road rage; less charitable; more likely to use force to get their way—and much more importantly—more likely to be involved in accidents that kill or maim people in other vehicles.

It also ignored research, such as this study that found that “Evidence suggests that because [SUV owners] sit higher, drivers of SUVs (and vans and pickups) are less able to judge speed accurately.”

While SUVs bloated like a fat lady with PMS—with a huge financial boon to the American auto industry, the motorcyclist death toll soared—and particularly in terms of LTV collisions.

In 1994 (the earliest date available), FARS reports 376 fatal LTV/motorcycle crashes. In 2006, FARS reported 1,083 fatal LTV/motorcycle crashes—a 188% increase. Meanwhile, passenger car/motorcycle fatalities went from 595 to 943—a 58% increase.

And, in another parallel to the Distracted Driver research, the original NHTSA document disappeared from the Internet: In 2004 (when I found it on line and printed it out) this document could be easily found on the Internet, today, a Google search leads one to Summaries of Published Evaluation Reports–and it’s one of a handful of NHTSA documents that are not accessible through a hot link. Curiously, it’s the only one without a hot link that does not include the information it has been superceded by a later report. The url that worked in 2004 no longer works. It is, though, cited in numerous other papers. However, you can find the summary of the peer review—which criticizes the report before­ it was changed in response to the review—here

Van and SUV drivers more likely to be on the cell phone than other drivers

Not only that—and to tie it back into the NYT’s articles, NHTSA’s 2001 DOT HS 809 293 reveals it also knew that Van and SUV drivers were more likely (4.8) to use cell phones while driving than passenger car drivers (2.6). Interestingly, it also found that particularly female rather than male and rural rather than urban Van and SUV drivers were more likely to use their cellphones while driving than female or urban passenger car drivers. Equally interesting–it found pickup drivers were less likely to use cellphones (1.9).

Iow, NHTSA hasn’t just ignored the cellphone issue that literally impacts so many motorcyclists’ lives—it’s the LTV issue as well–and the LTV owner talking on his or her cellphone issue. So why would NHTSA ignore so much research in various ways that have lethal consequences to the most vulnerable of road users—motorcyclists, pedestrians and bicyclists?

Fear of fiscal retaliation

According to the NYT, NHTSA deep-sixed the report because of fears that stakeholders would be upset at the findings—and any subsequent laws against cellphone use that may result—and that would result in loss of appropriations.

“Those stakeholders, Dr. Runge said, were the House Appropriations Committee and groups that might influence it, notably voters who multitask while driving and, to a much smaller degree, the cellphone industry.”

The article went on to say, “Mr. Monk and Mike Goodman, a division head at the safety agency who led the research project, theorize that the agency might have felt pressure from the cellphone industry. Mr. Goodman said the industry frequently checked in with him about the project and his progress. (He said the industry knew about the research because he had worked with it to gather some data).”

“Can you hear me now?” Money talks–but we get the dead zone

That wouldn’t surprise us; powerful interests are powerful and there is nowhere in America that money speaks louder than in Washington. And the telecommunications sure knows how to talk Washingtonian: AT&T tops’s All-Time Donors List. It’s spent over $43 million in lobbying from 1989-2008. The Communications Workers of America is no. 12 and Verizon comes in at 32—just behind the AFL-CIO and beating out such heavy-hitters as FedEx, Lockheed Martin, General Electric and the NRA. The Cellular Telecom & Internet Association—which is the wireless/Internet industry’s MIC—spent $1,790,000 million last year alone on lobbying and spent an additional $395,000 on several other lobbying firms.

And then there’s the campaign contributions—AT&T donated almost $4.5 million, Verizon $2.5 million,  the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn $1.5 million, Qwest just over $1 million—and that’s just some of them and that’s just the contributions to federal Congressional candidates and doesn’t count Presidential elections (overall, the industry gave Obama almost a million, Clinton over half a million and poor John McCain just over a third of a million—but then Democratic candidates for Congress get, by far, much more money than Republican ones).

In a similar way, LTVs were already becoming a juggernaut in the economy back in 1997: LTV registration had doubled from 1985-1997, passenger car population had remained relatively stable but LTV registration had doubled. For example, in 1994 passenger cars were 67% and LTVs were 18%. of all registered vehicles.

In 2006, passenger car registration had dropped to 55% (-27%) and LTVs had become 31% of all vehicles registered (+73%). SUV registration, alone, had gone up 400% since 1994.

Meanwhile, the automobile industry was spending up to $71 million a year in lobbying alone and giving up to $21 million to candidates (in ’04—in ’08 it dropped to about $18 million).

Even if MRF and AMA were lobbying on these issues, there’s no way they could even come close in spending for political influence.

Vox populi are the ones doing the talking—and voting

But, as Runge said, there’s an awful lot of voters with cellphones in their hands. According to CTIA, 82.4% of Americans have some kind of cellphone plan. And it’s the voice of the people who are talking on the phones while driving.

And, of course, there’s those 74,797,241 LTV owners.  And that alone is a powerful voting block.  Put the two together–the chatty Van and SUV owners–who also tend to be married, adults 25-54 48% male and 52% female, college educated, professional/managerial and affluent (HHI $40k+). Iow, the kind of people who tend to give campaign donations.

It’s very believable, then, that pressure was exerted and fears were created and NHTSA succumbed.

The motorcycle industry has acted similarly when it comes to NHTSA research

That the motorcycle industry, in particular, influences NHTSA in a similar way is no stretch at all:

As we know, Tim Buche said that the new accident causation study would be done “over his dead body”. We also know the motorcycle manufacturers have put up most of the money for the new accident causation study—but that money came with stipulations and it’s unknown if we now what all of them are. But one of those stipulations we do know is that that no conclusions nor recommendations be drawn at the end of the study by those that do it.

Plausible deniability

The NYT’s article points out, “…[Goodman] could offer no proof of the industry’s influence. Mr. Flaherty said he was not contacted or influenced by the industry.”

Nor can anyone prove that the automobile industry pressured NHTSA nor can riders  prove that the motorcycle industry is preventing the accident causation study from moving forward and influencing the design of the study to protect its self-interest over our well-being.

But the facts remain: NHTSA has long known that more motorcyclists and other vulnerable road users would die if LTVs even remained at their 1993 weights let alone got heavier. And it knew that more people would die if cellphones were used while driving. And it knew that SUV and van drivers talking on the phone weren’t just equivalent to the ordinary drunk–they were extremely care-less and careless drivers driving every day at all hours as if they were four sheets to the wind drunk.  Iow, NHTSA has time and time again valued the lives of LTV owners over the lives of riders.

And why? So their appropriations are safe, which means their jobs are safe while riders suffer and die.

And for what? So they can do a little good? Well, it seems like they’re doing precious little good. But there are always those who don’t care what damage they do as long as their self-interest is served. That shouldn’t surprise us either. Then again, it doesn’t mean we should continue to let those more concerned with their jobs than our lives continue to ignore what raises our risk.

NHTSA responded by dedicating itself to safety—not the safety of vulnerable road users—and specifically motorcyclists—but the safety of those who spend the most lobbying and give the most to campaigns.