Archive for the ‘Motorcycle Industry’ category

3,10, 70 and 62: All you need to predict Harley’s (and BMW and Polaris) ten-year future

November 12, 2010

As we’ve been discussing in the comments the average age of certain motorcycle manufacturers, clubs and associations and rights groups. According to industry sources it’s about 47 give or take a couple years.  Jim, one of my readers, pointed out, “Mid 40′s is close to the sweet spot for luxury manufacturers in general and what is BMW and HD if not luxury brands?”

This is true…In fact, the peak earning years have been from 35-54. But that is the problem:

Harley-Davidson says its median age was 47 in 2008.[i] That lends the impression that half of all Harley owners are older and half are younger than 47.

As Jim points out, Harley, BMW and Polaris have made billions off of those in the sweet spot for more than a decade. So if 47 really is the median age for Harley owners (and somewhere in the ballpark for BMW and Victory (made by Polaris) owners and motorcycling was something like RVs or luxury cars all would be very well. But it’s not–especially because of 3, 10, 70 and 62:

3: For most of the past 100 years, motorcycling has been about 2% of all road vehicles.  But then, beginning in the early 1990s,  76-78 million Boomers came into the sweet spot years–their 40s. This generation was better off financially than any generation before them and it appeared as though a greater than average number of people decided to ride motorcycles–particularly  customs/cruisers and tourers–Harley and Polaris’ stock-in-trade.

As these Boomers moved through the 1990s, motorcycle sales grew every year by at least 10% over the previous year and, at the end 3% of all registered vehicles on the road were motorcycles.

In 2006, motorcycle sales peaked–and the last of the Boomers turned 42–and turned 46 this year–just about Harley’s median age, but also moving towards the end of the sweet spot years.

So let’s go back to Harley’s “median.” The median means half the ages are older and half younger and can appear that there’s equal numbers of people with each age on both sides of the median. But that’s not the way it works–more owners share some ages than others.

Since we know–by H-D’s own account–that it’s had a very difficult time attracting younger riders, it’s very unlikely (as in snowball’s chance) that half of all Harley owners are younger than 47. There’s good reason to suspect less than one-third of Harley owners are under 47:

According to a January, 2008 Reuters article by Emily Kaiser “Economy faces bigger bust without Boomers” pointed out, two-thirds of all Boomers were already 50 and older. The heavy concentration of Boomer Harley owners and the Motor Company’s inability to attract a strong young market suggests that a significant portion of Harley riders may already be closer to age spots than the sweet spot and a great many of them moving out of the sweet spot even without the recession.  In fact, chances are they’re even older than analysts have suspected.

Even if there had not been a recession–nor lingering Recession Fear–sales will fall off quickly as the Hog passes out of the python–in fact, ten years from now perhaps two-thirds of current Harley owners will be over 60 and well out of the sweet spot.

That elevated 3% is merely a bubble and the overall market for motorcycles will shrink as the smaller Gen X and Millenials grow into their generations’ sweet spots. Iow, the motorcycle market will not recover in the next ten years because there’s simply not a big enough general society base to support it–unlike the Boomers.

And, specifically, it won’t recover for the luxury brands unless, of course, Harley, BMW and Polaris find a way to attract large numbers of 35 and under riders. Yet Harley–for one–has spent nothing on R&D and has cut marketing to almost nothing. Selling Buell and MV Augusta also showed a horrendous lack of vision or understanding of the modern motorcycle market.

And that brings us to the next number–

10: Industry research has found the average rider buys a new motorcycle about every ten years.  This is the pattern the recession most affected. Though the effect on motorcycle purchases is unknown,  study done in 2009 found that 59 percent of new car buyers planned to keep their cars more than four years. That number was up from 45 percent just one year previous–a 14% change. Since motorcycles are a discretionary purchase, it’s likely the percentage is much higher.

The question is–how long will the Boomer Harley owners delay to buy? Because they are growing older, after all. In 2010 the first Boomers turned 64, and that brings us to the next and most important number:

70: The age at which most motorcyclists retire or severely limit their riding. And this is what makes motorcycling a special case compared to, say, an automobile. For example, the average (not median) age for a Mercedes-Benz is 63.6 years-old and about 45% of RV owners are over 55. Iow, unlike many other high-ticket items, motorcycling has a shorter shelf life.

62: Industry research has found  riders buy their last new bike around age 62. This fits then both with the perhaps unconscious belief they will quit riding at about 70 years old and with the 10-year rule. Two things about this:

The purchase window is smaller than many might suspect since it has a relatively young 62 year term limit.  If two-thirds of Harley’s market is over 50 and they buy their last bike before they’re 63, there isn’t much time left to sell a lot of bikes.

That is if they even get to that last bike purchase. If they have delayed or will delay buying the second-to-last bike because of the recession or Recession Fear too long, they may not buy another new bike when they retire–if they retire after the hit to their investments and home prices. Iow, sales may slump even farther because of the recession and its aftermath.

This suggests that over the next 10 years, Harley may not only lose up to tw0-thirds of its base, it may continue to lose last bike sales if riders 55-57 continue to delay purchasing that 10 year motorcycle now. Short of reinvention and new market appeal, it’s almost certain that sales of customs/cruisers and tourers will continue to plummet regardless of the overall American economy.

Nor does hope rest on the perhaps one-third of Harley owners who are under 47. According to an 11/09/2010  article on AOL’s DailyFinance “Baby Boomers Are No Longer Luxury Retailing’s Future“, “Even as generation X hits the peak earning ages of 35 to 54, the cohort is too small to support the [luxury] market on its own.” According to Unity Marketing president Pam Danzinger. “Gen X-ers are merely a hiccup. . .we have to wait for the millennials,” says Danziger. Those 25- to 34-year-olds have the appetite for luxury, but not the cash — at least not yet.”

As we see in the chart, Gen X is significantly smaller than the Boomers–and the Millenials, which are also smaller than the Boomers.

But not only do Gen X and Millenials prefer sport bikes, they don’t value status symbols or conspicuous consumption as their Harley/Polaris/BMW elders, according to Danzinger.

“Danziger calls the new luxury shopper a “tempered pragmatist,” who gets power from being a smart consumer and focuses on superior quality and performance. That means retailers will have to adjust their value message to give consumers a reason to pay the prices they ask, she says, adding: “We have to stop selling the sizzle and go back to selling the steak.”

Marketing to Gen X and Millenials will require a great deal more than revamping HOG rallies and livening up club meetings. The young already have an extensive, intimate and immediate social network through social media, the internet and informal bike nights, track days and so forth. The new motorcycling is heavily supported through images in both advertising/marketing and entertainment even in peripheral ways.  For example, FedEx co-markets with Ducati in a current commercial and the cable television show, Covert Affairs, features an animation of a rider on a sport-type motorcyclist even though no character rode any bike in the first season.

But it will require more than marketing–it’s just as much style that’s required. BMW has been trying to adapt its line to appeal to Gen X and the Millenials for several years. Only time will tell if they can take the frugality chic lessons the recession offers and continue to rebrand itself. However Polaris and Harley have shown no inkling that they are even aware that motorcycling is moving on without them.

With only about ten years left, there isn’t much time for Harley and Polaris to find a way to reinvent their brands into something that has more steak than sizzle.

P. S. Just to mention the little fry–custom builders better figure out how to make marvels out of sport bikes if they want to survive as well.

The recession has only hastened the sea change in motorcycling; it did not create it. The under 40 rider has a different sensibility and sense of style, different priorities. They are tempered pragmatists that don’t buy into the drink-n-ride sociability, don’t see helmets and gear as social commentary.


Advertisements

How healthy is Harley-Davidson as the end of the 3rd quarter approaches?

September 20, 2010

Many stock market analysts believe motorcycles are a sign of consumer confidence. If that belief is true, then the economy is slightly improving:

Harley’s second quarter shipments were slightly up from first quarter 2010, and, as Harley announced in its 2Q earning report, at the end of the 2Q income was 71.2 million compared to 19.8 million at the same point last year. It seems things are looking up in the Beer and Bike city and thus for the nation.

And, despite all this, more analysts say hold—even sell—than buy. So why aren’t they all woo, woo, go Harley? Let’s look deeper at Harley’s self-proclaimed road to renewing health:

Shipments up but not over 2009

Harley counts a shipment as a sale—that means the motorcycle is sold to the dealer. It doesn’t mean it’s sold to the consumer. It also cut shipments back severely over 2009 and lowered inventory.

Harley’s Stock Price and Shipments at the end of the 2 quarter for each year:

In its second quarter report, Harley announced shipments were down 8.4% from the same quarter in 2009. Of course, that was in the throes of the Great Recession and an abysmal year for the Motor Company. If shipments are still down from that, it’s not

H-D would have to meet their goal of selling 53,000-58,000 motorcycles in the 3Q in order to hit their goal of shipping 201,000–212,000 motorcycles by the end of 2010. That’s still 5%–10% down from 2009, which was significantly lower than 2008.

The growth in shipments over 1Q is good—but distracts from the real picture: shipments are worse than at the height of the Great Recession.

Dealer sales are down A report commissioned by analysts show that 66% of the dealers surveyed at the end of the second quarter said their sales fell by 20% in the 2Q.

If product is choking showroom floors and dealers are choking on the interest payments from that unsold stock, third quarter orders are likely to be lower especially since there’s nothing particularly new or exciting in the 2011 models to driver consumers to buy. This makes it harder for Harley to make their shipment goal.

According to Matt Andrejczak in a July 30, 2010 MarketWatch article, “How short-selling sleuths spot accounting gimmicks on financial reports”,“Typically, inventories should rise at about the same pace as sales. If a company’s inventories are growing faster than sales or expected sales growth, it’s a clue that products aren’t moving. In that case, gross margins could get squeezed.”

Harley is aware of that—and set what TPTB thought were modest shipment goals. Dealers, clearly, thought they could sell what they bought but were wrong and inventories have grown, in many cases faster than sales.

Needless to say, paring shipments further is likely to end in more layoffs, which doesn’t help the nation’s recovery (or the workers, obviously).

But high unemployment is a major reason why dealer sales are down—H-D’s core demographic has been hit hard by both job loss and uncertainty that their savings and investments are secure. And Harleys are high-end discretionary products.

Until Harley’s base is securely employed, sales will continue to lag. But the slower the recovery goes, the slower sales and the slower Harley recovers. Hello, vicious circle. And this is true of a great many companies and entities in the USA that are busy cutting benefits and wages: they feed into the very process that undermines their future profitability.

Dealers have unhappy choices to deal with their inventory: They can—and would—cut orders for new product, which exacerbates the problems H-D already faces. They can cut prices, which also cuts into gross margin profits. It could also damage the brand—it’s no longer a prestige product if it’s on the sale rack.

Market saturation Harley’s problems are exacerbated by market saturation (both here and in Canada). More and more analysts are realizing the Motor Company’s inability to attract women, minorities and younger men and caution that it will affect the corporation’s recovery. Nor is Harley making significant inroads in other countries.

These domestic and international failures are the result of the same branding that made the company such a success. It’s an image that’s dated, narrow and even a joke among the very people the company needs to attract. Moreso, the essential elements of motorcycling—individuality, daring, independence—have been successfully incorporated by Harley’s competitors in their sport, tourer, adventure models in ways that appeal to the very groups Harley has been unable to attract.

Bottom line: when times were good, the leadership failed to find a creative way to translate the brand for a new generation and new concerns. It dwelt in the past even as it aggressively pursued questionable business practices (such as the subprime loan fiasco). Unless a marketing miracle occurs, Harley’s market share will continue to shrink.

This suggests that, unless something dramatically positive happens in the economy in the next few weeks, both sales to consumers and shipments to dealers will be down in the 3Q. And that would mean that Harley may not make its already depressed and modest shipment goal this year. And that does not bode well for the Motor Company.

Both sluggish sales and market saturation affects the other two main streams of revenues: Motorclothes/accessories and Harley-Davidson Financial Services. How it affects the first, the Motorclothes division, is obvious—the second deserves a bit of explanation.

Harley-Davidson Financial Services At the height of the recession almost 30% of Harley’s Financial Services loans were subprime and the Financial Services subsidiary lost about 60 million. This is where the 600 million dollar loan from Buffet and Davis Selected Advisers, L.P. went. A change in the subprime loan policy, the restructuring and infusion of cash has made the subsidiary profitable in the 2Q. For now. And, of course, since Harley loans the dealers money to buy its motorcycles Harley makes money from the interest on shipments dealers paid for but can’t sell.

The bottom line is: Demand for loans is contingent on demand for bikes and it’s going to be years before Harley gets back to even 2007 shipments.  HDFS’ recovery looks good on paper but under the surface lurks the hefty 15% interest on that 600 million loan that and the debt itself that is due in just three years.

Ultimately though, a motorcycle manufacturer has to sell motorcycles to be successful or even to stay in business. It’s still behind

As “Harley-Davidson: Easy Riding on Less Bad Results” published on July 20, 2010, stated,  “At Ockham, we would not recommend buying Harley’s stock following today’s earnings report because “less bad” just is not good enough.”

In the next entry we’ll look at some troubling signs some analysts have found when they looked behind the numbers of the 2Q report. And what they worried about in July is likely to be even more true as the end of the 3Q approaches.

Harley-Davidson plays hardball in Wisconsin: capitulate or we leave

September 13, 2010

No matter what marque a motorcyclist rides if they hear “Milwaukee, Wisconsin”, “Harley-Davidson” is the first thing comes to mind (or right behind beer). But now, barely two years after opening its self-referential museum in Milwaukee, Harley is threatening to move its manufacturing out of state.

It’s already shut the plant in Wauwatosa—and, of course, the Buell operations in East Troy closed down earlier this year. But Harley’s not doing well (more on that in the next entry) and desperate times call for desperate measures.

According to company spokesperson, Bob Klein, the Motor Company would rather stay there but is looking at other locations. Kansas City—who hoped to benefit from the troubles in York a few years ago—hopes to benefit from the Dairy state turning sour for Harley.

It all depends on the unions, according to Harley. All the workers have to do is agree to freeze their pay, cut hundreds of jobs, turn hundreds more into non-union jobs—many of which would be temporary jobs with no benefits. The three unions have encouraged their workers to accept the bad deal to keep the Motor Company in the state.

While Harley’s threat may sound drastic, a little history is in order to see this threat in its proper perspective:

In 2005, Harley-Davidson paid 1.5% of pre-tax profits in Wisconsin income tax resulting in almost $23 million in state taxes. In a series of political maneuvers and tacit threats to leave and promises to stay, employ and grow, H-D (and other big corporations) won tax rate breaks that had the Motor Company paying a mere $1 million in 2008 or less than 0.1% of profits.

In 2006, when Harley was riding high on the HOG, the Motor Company threatened to move manufacturing out of state unless the Wisconsin unions agreed to drastic cuts in wages and benefits. And, after some empty saber rattling, the union capitulated.

In 2007, union workers in Pennsylvania went on strike for two weeks before basically capitulating to Harley’s contract that lowered wages and benefits.

During these same years when its revenue soared and state taxes plummeted and unions rolled over, Harley also received not just federal credit for research and development but a Wisconsin state Transportation Economic Assistance grant of over a quarter of a million dollars to the Harley plant in Tomahawk, WI. According to a case study by the Federal Highway Administration

“The goal of the TEA Program is to attract and retain non-speculative business firms and create or retain jobs in the State.”

Iow, Harley took a quarter of a million of taxpayer dollars to create or retain jobs in Tomahawk in 2009 and plans to not only cut them in 2010 but move out of state.

In 2009, the Motor Company cut 370 union jobs and about 300 administrative jobs with most occurring at the facility in Springettsbury Twp in York County, PA.

Early in 2009, Harley announced it was laying off 12% of its workforce amounting to 1,100 jobs. Later in 2009, Harley threatened to build a new plant in Shelbyville, Ky and close the plant in York—and in November, 2009 the union in Pennsylvania agreed to cut jobs and benefits to keep the plant open—and the state of Pennsylvania gave the Motor Company around $15 million to stay in the state.  Though Shelbyville lost that time, it is coyly silent on whether it’s in the running for the Wisconsin operations this time.

Back at corporate headquarters—still in 2009, Harley Corporate complained bitterly that they had to pay 22.5 million in bookkeeping charges to determine how much the company would owe in the future because Wisconsin closed a corporate tax loophole. Iow, they complained about paying less than they used to for an entire year. For more on this, read here:

Oh, it seemed justified in 2009—Harley suffered in the Great Recession with plummeting motorcycle sales and egregious problems with credit defaults and the inability to securitize those consumer loans. Altogether the Motor Company lost $55 million.

But it’s an ill wind that blows no good and Harley used the recession to do some massive house-cleaning:  Buying the MV Augusta—who had gone through several owners all unable to make the company profitable was one of the most colossally stupid corporate decisions it had made in decades. The recession gave a easy reason to sell it.

Somehow it attracted the interest and investment of the legendary Warren Buffet—and, of course, it used the Great Recession to strongarm Pennsylvania with the very same threat it is now using in Wisconsin. Hey, if it worked once, why not do it again.

By the time the lay-offs are done, the full-time permanent workforce York, PA will have been cut by more than half from 1,950 to 700-800 employees. Not to mention the huge cuts in the labor force elsewhere—and upcoming in Wisconsin if the workers accept the over-the-barrel deal the Motor Company offers.

But every cloud has a silver lining—Pennsylvania hopes that if Harley shuts its factories in Wisconsin and moves the work to Kansas City that some of the work done now in KC will move to York—making that $15 million investment and the sacrifices of the York unions worthwhile.

Of course that’s what Wisconsin thought when it gave Harley the TEA grant and those unions took a haircut years ago. Now Harley wants the workers to shave their heads. And, if the union workers bend over again tomorrow to keep Harley there—well…just how long do you think it will be before Harley is threatening again.

Which is a word to the wise in KC—when their union negotiations come up, how much do you want to bet that Harley threatens to move out of Missouri to Wisconsin and/or Pennsylvania or Kentucky or somewhere else unless those unions, too, accept Harley’s terms?

Of course, Harley—though shipments are down almost 26% over 2008—had made a profit at the end of the second quarter (more on this tomorrow) even though shipments are only marginally up over the same quarter a year ago.

Iow, workers’ sacrifices will pave the way to Harley not just surviving the recession but doing so profitably. (Of course, we don’t know what the 3 and 4 quarter results will be).

And before you give me any “unions are the curse of America” argument or the recession argument consider this: According to a op-ed piece, “Are Harley cuts a case of need or greed?” by Jack Norman published in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel yesterday, draconic cost-cutting is limited to the worker:

In 2009 when the USA was in the worst recession since the Great Depression and motorcycle sales had plummeted, the CEO salary (split between Zeimer and Wendell in 2009) was $1,105,169 with another $8,864,919 in extras.

External board members (not already on Harley’s payroll) collected $80,000 fee in 2009, plus $50,000 worth of stock. And things aren’t so bad at Harley that board members gave up their $1,500 annual allowance for clothes and accessories.

This at the same time as thousands (at the least) of their core demographic struggled to make their make their monthly payments or had to sell their bikes or had them repossessed. And more than 3,000 workers will have lost their jobs in the past two years.

But, hey, that’s the Great American Way, right? Except Harley has taken tens of millions from taxpayers—much of it based on promises to create or retain jobs.

In fact, Harley’s hand is always out either begging for bucks from taxpayers or strong-arming the American worker….it’s such a great example of the American free market, isn’t it?

The American worker who has been Harley’s base and yet, because of corporate shenanigans like Harley’s or Wall Streets have lost their jobs or forced to accept equally bad deals to keep a job while the CEOS suffer not at all. Really, does it deserve its fans that bleed black and orange?

Another death in Motorcycle Safety Foundation Training

July 18, 2010

There’s been another death as the result of an MSF-curriculum rider training class. There may have been more—but this is the latest one I have heard about from an alert reader and loyal friend:

Fifty-five year-old James Lawrence Smith was taking a MSF-curriculum rider training course at Florence-Darlington Technical College in Florence, SC on Saturday, July 10, 2010 when he thrown from his bike after he lost control. According to his family, he died from his injuries. The same news story can be found here and here and here.

The articles do not say which course Smith was taking at the time of his crash.

Rider training is offered by the state motorcycle training program in South Carolina on community and technical college campuses.  The Florence-Darlington Technical College website says the continuing ed program offers beginning, intermediate and expert classes, however the available courses button only links to intermediate classes.

That is all the information I have at this time.

This is the 12th death that we know about in training in the past eight years. From 1973-2001 and almost 1.5 million riders trained, there had only been one death due to rider error. From 2002 until now, there have been at least 12 and several other near-fatal injuries.

Who doesn’t tell the Motorcycle Helmet Story–the manufacturers

April 27, 2010

There’s two groups that don’t tell the Helmet Story, and I don’t mean the rabid anti-helmet folks.

No, one group is the helmet manufacturers themselves. And my next guess is that many of you are strenuously objecting right now—so let’s take a look at the most popular helmets in the USA (in no particular order).

First of all, all helmets sold in the USA have to meet, at minimum, DOT standards—and that information is available on the sites. But, we’ll take a look at standards in another entry.

Arai “You could go through a bunch of cheaper helmets in the lifespan of just a single 5-year-warranty Arai – and wind up spending more in the long run. Worse, you’d miss out on Arai’s legendary comfort, fit, features, and feeling of confidence along the way. A helmet is something you’re going to spend too much time and too many miles in to not ensure that every bit of it is a pleasure. So compromise somewhere else.”[i]

Iow Arai takes the same approach L’Oreal hair color took with women: yes it’s more expensive, but you’re “worth it.” But nothing in the manufacturer’s site says safety is what the rider is buying.

Shoei doesn’t say it’s reduces injuries or prevents death either: In the section “Inside A Shoei Helmet” there’s a subsection, “SHOEI ACTIVE SAFETY”: “As opposed to “passive safety” that is ensured by compliance with Snell and DOT safety standards, “active safety” defines the further improvements made by SHOEI to ensure that maximum comfort is achieved, allowing the rider to devote all of his or her focus to riding. Advanced helmet features such as our anatomically-shaped comfort liner for optimum helmet fitment, lowest possible weight to reduce stress on the neck muscles, and effective ventilation system for temperature regulation and reduction in wind noises all serve to further improve the safety of the rider. Further development and continued improvement in the areas of safety and comfort technology are SHOEI’s primary goals.”

Shoei implies that safety is synonymous with comfort and that’s “active” safety. Safety is defined as the rider paying more attention, having a cooler head (which is only hot because they’re wearing a helmet) and is quieter (though the helmet itself is causing much of the noise which Shoei then dampens). All that is a limited truth because comfort can just as easily led to inattention. But that’s not why we buy helmets.[ii]

HJC doesn’t claim its helmets do anything either:  “With the addition of the helmet models mentioned above, it is clear that HJC continues to be a brand that is friendly to motorcyclists around the world providing safe, comfortable, stylish and affordable helmets.”

In the section “Helmet Usage” HJC comes the closet to claiming that its helmet will reduce injury or death:  “To reduce the risk of serious injury or death…” “and to help prevent damage to your helmet” …“always use your helmet correctly.” However, this doesn’t say the helmet reduces the risk. Rather, its what the rider does that will reduce the risk.

But that’s a half-truth. A rider can vastly reduce the risk of a crash by what he or she does (and that includes using the helmet correctly) but once the crash occurs, the rider can’t reduce the risk of injury or death—that’s exactly what a helmet is supposed to do. But that’s not what HJC claims.

Nolan Helmets has a truly ridiculous claim: “…since the early 1970’s, Nolan began using sophisticated materials to bring optimum performance to motorcycle riders at a competitive price.” Iow, it’s not skill or judgment that makes a rider perform as best  (but not necessarily safely) as they can. Iow, helmets are like tires or a trellis frame or a few hundred extra cc’s. Safety—or even comfort—aren’t appeals that Nolan uses in its advertising.

KBC comes the closest to referencing safety in terms of helmets with its slogan: “Ride Long. Ride Hard. Ride Safe.” It’s also the only manufacturer that states a direct though somewhat ambiguous warning on its website: “PLEASE NOTE: A.  No helmet can protect the user against all foreseeable impacts.”

Scorpion has a section on safety but it doesn’t say its helmets will protect you. Instead it references MSF training (without saying that will keep you safe), has a link to the MSF’s .pdf on helmets and directs readers to the Snell Foundation.

Safety seems to be the last thing on Icon’s mind—as does grammar and coherent thought. Rather, Icon courts and encourages both risk and violence: For example, it describes its new “Airframe Sacrifice” helmet as: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Some will thrive whilst others wither. The Airframe Sacrifice is the former. A warrior’s helm. A leader destined for glory amongst the disposable ranks. Legions of weaker willed troops will break upon it’s chromed brow. There will be no legends passed down to glorify their sacrifice. Only this single heroic helmet and magnificent crest will remain.”

The Airframe Predator is described as: “When this bird shows up, trust us, it’s no party. This foul predator eats your dog’s food, craps over the driveway and one day will probably carry off the cat. We’ve seen it a thousand times.” And the Airframe Death or Glory as: “Some live their life in moderation – a careful balancing act devoid of excess. And that’s fine, the world needs those people. Then there are those who are destined to leave their mark on history’s pages. Those courageous (or stupid) souls who know no such balance. For those few it’s all or nothing. A pure digital lifestyle – Zero or One, Black or White, Death or Glory.”

Icon, though, does have a section called “Survivors” where Icon purchasers relate their various crashes and attribute their well-being to Icon.

Only one manufacturer claims that its helmet saved a life—while Bell also advertises its helmets in terms of ventilation, weight and price it’s the only manufacturer that directly claims that once a helmet saved someone’s life: “In 1955 a guy named Cal Niday plowed into the retaining wall during the Indianapolis 500 and the first Bell comeback was officially underway. The impact fractured his skull, but one of our helmets saved his life.”

But from that point on it uses euphemisms to imply it saves lives without directly claiming they do: “Cal returned to racing a few months later. We’ve been engineering spectacular comebacks ever since….Bell was there when the world’s best riders went down. And with innovations like energy-absorbing liners, the first full-face motorcycle helmet, and more design patents than any helmet company in history, we’ve always been there to help them get back up again. Over the years we earned enough trust to make our name synonymous with motorcycle helmets.”

Iow, if one didn’t know the Helmet Story one would never ever guess from what those who make them that the primary purpose of helmets is to reduce injuries and prevent deaths. But then we do know the Helmet Story thanks to NHTSA and the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, which is one of two organizational sister corporations to the Motorcycle Industry Council—to which all the helmet manufacturers belong.

The easy answer is that helmet manufacturers don’t say a helmet can save your life because of fear of liability suits—if they say it, and someone is hurt or dies, then they’ll get sued.

So let’s look at life jacket/vest manufacturers as a comparison. Certainly their products also are supposed to save lives and if they failed, they, too could be sued.

Like helmet manufacturers every one states their products meet standards—but, unlike helmet manufacturers they don’t stop there:

The Personal Flotation Device Manufacturers Association is a trade group like MIC and states on its homepage, “Most drowning victims had access to a Personal Flotation Device, but did not wear it. A wearable PFD can save your life – if you wear it!”

Float-Tech “Safety in the water is something we should all take seriously. One of the easiest things we can do is wear our life preserver, a habit that would have a significant impact on annual drowning.”

Jim BuoyModel #SO-1 – Features Jim Buoy’s remarkable new LIFE-SAVING design that enables an unconscious person to roll over, face-up, with their mouth more than 4 3/4″ above the water in LESS THAN 5 SECONDS!”

Or this from manufacturer Extrasports, “Wherever safety is needed most, rescue experts turn to Extrasport® Swiftwater® rescue PFDs. The right equipment can mean the difference between success and failure, life and death. Our accomplished Swiftwater® rescue line is often called to unexpected places and dangerous water conditions.”

Or Mustang Survival Company that states, “For more than 40 years, Mustang Survival has been committed to providing lifesaving solutions for people exposed to the most hazardous environments. Through constant innovation and application of new technologies we have established ourselves as a leading supplier of survival solutions to the most demanding military, professional, and recreational users.”

The difference between helmet manufacturers and personal flotation device manufacturers could not be more pronounced. And the latter aren’t afraid to mention the elephant in the room—that their products are meant to be used in terrible times. They aren’t afraid to say that their products can mean the difference between living and dying. In fact, they flaunt it.

Nor do they try to justify the purchase by waxing on about comfort or how side effects will make the boater safer. They know why their consumers buy their products and that’s what they sell: we save lives for a living.

The helmet manufacturers sell comfort, ventilation, comparative weight, graphics and swappable faceshields. Notice the difference?

Or how about the opposite side of the spectrum—not preventing death but preventing unwanted life? Durex condoms advertises “Durex condoms …they’re not just about protection against sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies.  They’re designed to excite and enhance.”

Or Trojan: “TROJAN® Ultra Thin Spermicidal Lubricant Condoms…

  • Thinnest TROJAN® Latex Condom-Designed for ultra sensation
  • The Strength of a Regular TROJAN® Latex Condom
  • Made from Premium Quality Latex-To help reduce the risk
  • Nonoxynol-9 Spermicide Is On This Condom for extra protection against pregnancy ONLY – NOT for extra protection against AIDS and other STDs
  • Special Reservoir End – For extra safety
  • Each Condom is Electronically Tested – To ensure reliability

CAUTION: Spermicidal lubricants are for extra protection against pregnancy. Spermicidal lubricants are not for rectal use or more-than-once-a-day vaginal use.”

Or, on the feminine side of sexual protection, here’s what Meyer Labs says about Today’s Sponge: “Today Sponge provides effective birth control without “pill” side effects. It is a proven contraceptive with over 150 million sponges sold…”

So if it’s liability that’s the concern, there’s a far greater chance that pregnancy or disease would result trip for trip, so to speak, than a rider has of sustaining a head injury or dying from one. Yet there’s absolutely no doubt about what condom manufacturers are selling—and it’s not reduction but prevention. Comfort and pleasure are added values and not the main benefit when it comes to birth control.

To put this into perspective, then, if helmet manufacturers advertised condoms, it would be all about comfort and pleasure they give without the slightest hint that they’re supposed to prevent pregnancy or disease. Iow, rather like Arai and Shoei advertise helmets.  Personally, I doubt comfort or pleasure are why people buy condoms.

Yet we’ve certainly heard of situations where condoms break or were defective and pregnancy or disease resulted yet that doesn’t stop these manufacturers from stating what their products are meant to do.

Iow, while fear of consumer liability lawsuits is a reasonable explanation for the startling omission of any reference to what helmets are supposed to do, it’s not a very good answer.

Or maybe it’s just a different type lawsuit they fear. Stay tuned…


[i] Arai really does spend a great deal of time justifying its cost: “In the end, what are your comfort and confidence are worth to you? Can you really put a “price” on them? An Arai helmet isn’t inexpensive. It isn’t made to be.” “And when you wear one, it isn’t made to feel good for just an hour or two. It’s made to feel good all day, every day – and to keep feeling good for years, long after cheap helmets have become loose and shabby (and probably had to be replaced more than once).” Notice that the only benefits Arai claims have to do with comfort and not safety:” “You can’t always see the reasons why an Arai feels better, but they’re there: lower weight from aerospace fiberglass-based construction; a lower center of gravity for better balance and less strain; softer single-piece multiple-density liners (whose technology still hasn’t been able to be copied in almost 20 years). Ventilation systems that work in the real world, not just in drawings. A helmet with no “minor” parts. And the result is major: you just feel good. You want to keep riding.”

“That’s why we build our helmets the way we do. Because it’s not about what you pay, it’s about what you get.” “Few of us can afford to own the very best of most things. But with an Arai helmet, you truly can own the very best of something.”

[ii] However, Shoei disagrees with the true experts in helmet’s effectiveness like the late Harry Hurt: “Very thick, soft padding provided good wearing comfort, but it did not hold well at high speeds, leading to helmet buffeting and instability.” http://www.shoei-helmets.com/Safety_ActiveSafety.aspx Hurt, the foremost advocate of helmets and truly effective standards, was very clear:  very thick soft padding absorbs more kinetic energy and is thus safer for the reason we wear helmets: reducing injuries and preventing deaths.

Twenty year drop in standards: licensing as a puzzle piece

December 27, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.