Archive for the ‘Motorcycle licensing’ category

Bicycle boom has opposite result from motorcyclist boom

November 24, 2010

There’s a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal, Cycling’s New Rules of the Road, by Tom Perrotta that offers some interesting possible parallels and counterpoints to motorcycling in the USA:

According to the article, after years of “tepid growth” bicycling in New York has doubled to more than 200,000 riders a day. In a similar way, motorcycling suddenly surged in the late 1990s.

The article implies that bike lanes are at least partly responsible for the increase in bicycling.  Since 2007 NYC has built a further 200 miles of  bike lanes for a total of 482 miles with another 1,300 miles to be built by 2030. Bike lanes are promoted by a wide variety of means as the answer to bike safety like this one, NY 9th Ave Separated Bike Lane Experiment:

New York is not alone—the number of bicyclists has been rising for years in other large urban areas like Portland, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Chicago.  This, too, is like motorcycling where urban areas have seen the greatest increases in motorcyclists. And like NYC, these cities have been putting in miles and miles of bike lanes.

There’s another unexpected parallel to the recently passed boom in motorcycling. Just like in the motorcycling boom, far more women and “elderly” people are climbing on bicycles to travel around one of the most congested cities in America.

The increase in women and elderly riders is “a sign,” said John Pucher, a professor of urban planning and public policy at Rutgers University, “that cycling is seen as safe.” And they feel safe because of the bike lanes.

A report,  Four Types of Cyclists, by Roger Geller, Bicycle Coordinator, Portland , OR Office of Transportation directly associates the increase in bicyclists with a decrease of fear because of the increase in bike lanes, “This enthused and confident demographic of cyclists are the primary reason why bicycle commuting doubled between 1990 and 2000 (U.S. Census) and why measured bicycle trips on Portland’s four main bicycle-friendly bridges across the Willamette River saw more than a 300% increase in daily bicycle trips between the early 1990’s and 2006.”

Four types of bicyclists—and motorcyclists? Geller identifies four types of Cyclists, “Survey after survey and poll after poll has found again and again that the number one reason people do not ride bicycles is because they are afraid to be in the roadway on a bicycle. They are generally not afraid of other cyclists, or pedestrians, or of injuring themselves in a bicycle-only crash. When they say they are “afraid” it is a fear of people driving automobiles. This has been documented and reported in transportation literature from studies, surveys and conversations across the US, Canada, and Europe.”

And it is fear, according to Geller, that has the most to do with whether people ride, how often they ride and where they ride. He breaks them down into four types—and I suggest that this is a possible model for motorcyclists:

The first, and smallest, group are the “Strong and Fearless” that he describes as, “These are the people who will ride in Portland regardless of roadway conditions. They are ‘bicyclists;’ riding is a strong part of their identity and they are generally undeterred by roadway conditions…”

The “Enthused and Confident” are those who are comfortable riding around cars because of bike lanes and “bike boulevards”. Both Geller and the general perception in the bicycling community suggest that riders are newer to the activity and less experienced, do not ride as often or as long—and are believed, by the Strong and Fearless group, to ride slower and get into more dangerous situations due to their inexperience or recreational nature of their ride.

The largest group is the “Interested but Concerned” who “would ride if they felt safer on the roadways—if cars were slower and less frequent, and if there were more quiet streets with few cars and paths without any cars at all.”

The last group is the “No Way No How” who are “currently not interested in bicycling at all, for reasons of topography, inability, or simply a complete and utter lack of interest.”

Based on Motorcycle Industry Council research, it’s probably that while the proportions may differ it is extremely likely that there are the same four groups in regards to motorcycling but with slightly different descriptions but sharing the same concern about safety.

Safety matters when it comes to bicycling Study after study has found that bicycling is particularly sensitive to perceptions of risk—perceived improvements in bicycle safety is followed by a corresponding rise in participation.

Bicycling, though not as objectively dangerous as motorcycling, is still far more dangerous than any other form of road transportation. Head injuries are a leading cause of fatalities and any crash is more likely to result in injury than a similar one in a passenger vehicle or truck. Fatal head or chest trauma or internal injury can occur, as with motorcycling, at 13 mph and above—just as in motorcycling. And, as in motorcycling, the cyclist gets injured in fixed object crashes (like hitting a light pole—or even curb), in multi-vehicle crashes or even a collision with a pedestrian.

In terms of control, bicycles and motorcycles are not too different. Both share the same vulnerabilities to weather, pavement and handling. Both do not lend themselves to seat belts, air bags or crush zones.

Traveling peed, then, is the main difference between bicyclists and motorcyclists in terms of safety. But bicyclists can—on the flat—reach consistent traveling speeds of up to 30 mph and, in shorter bursts, higher speeds—and, of course, on a slope. And it’s a fallacy that most motorcyclist fatalities happen at high speeds.

Given that, there’s a marked difference in what’s considered “safe” for bicyclists and “safe” for motorcyclists:

There are no mandatory training courses for adults, and, of course, no bicycling license, insurance or registration required. The bicycling community unofficially teaches road strategies including controlling your space—“take the lane”; taking full responsibility for their own behavior and safety; assuming they aren’t seen; predicting and decide on avoidance actions, etc.

Not one state requires adults to use a helmet and helmet use varies widely state to state.

There is protective gear—pads for elbows, knees, wrists; shorts; chest and neck protectors; and jackets—but use is mostly associated with racing or mountain biking and most are rarely seen on city streets where bicyclists dress in ordinary clothes.

Iow, the only thing that has really changed is the amount of bike lanes in NYC and other large urban areas. There’s a very low threshold for “safety” then for bicycling. Bike lanes, because they are promoted and perceived as safer, are enough to move people from  “Interested but Concerned” to the “Enthused and Confident” group.

This, then, is a difference between the motorcycle and bicycle boom—no one thinks motorcycling is safe.[i]

Still, one wonders if helmets, riding gear and training courses fulfill the same role as bike lanes for bicyclists and, as with bicycling, gave a great many “Interested but Concerned” a reason to move over to the “Enthused and Confident” group.

New York bicyclists might be right that bicycling is safer—and the risk is lower: despite this enormous increase in riding on incredibly congested streets, “the yearly number of cycling fatalities and injuries has remained flat or declined, and the percentage of riders who are injured while riding has fallen dramatically.” This is very unlike motorcycling as we well know.

Unintended consequences

Despite the video above, the reality is that the safety of bike lanes has been oversold—or rather, something that should’ve been protected space has been co-opted by other road users. Check out My Commuted Commute:

for another take on bike lanes. Other videos show the same thing—vehicles blocking the lanes, using the lanes, turning in front of bicyclists, pedestrians jaywalking in front of bikes—iow, the same behavior they do on the regular lanes. And, perhaps most troubling, cyclists being “doored”—vehicle doors being opened in front of cyclists resulting in injury or death.

Bicyclists, then share many of the same problems that motorcyclists do and I have long encouraged motorcycle rights activists to combine forces with both bicyclists and pedestrian rights groups for more effective action. That advice has been ignored, though.

Other research has found that motorists drive closer to cyclists if they are in a bike lane than if they aren’t. Iow, if bike lanes were truly respected as intended, bicycling would be safer but because they aren’t, they may be more dangerous even if cyclists are streetwise and wary.

Additionally, cyclists speak of the danger of the inexperienced or casual rider who is not street smart or rides too slowly causing other riders difficulty. In this way, also, bicyclists are similar to motorcyclists—it’s not them it’s the new guy that’s causing the problems. Yet, like motorcycling, there’s no proof of that.

Interestingly, some of the bicyclists in the video identify the problem as risk perception—it’s thinking that the bike lane is supposed to be safe, is safe, that makes it so dangerous.

The video ends with several bicyclists—including the narrator and filmmaker—saying that bike lanes dangers has them now co-opting the bus lane because they perceive the risks are lower there.

Bad behavior increases risks But, according to the WSJ article, when it comes to bicyclists the bad behavior is not one-sided. Scott Stringer, the President of the Manhattan Borough, sent out some staffers to observe and what they “recorded over three days, astounded him: 1,700 total infractions by drivers, bikers and pedestrians, many of them egregious.”

While bicyclists emphasize (as do motorcyclists) offenses against them, there’s a great deal of bad bicycle behavior that includes running red lights and stop signs, accepting too narrow gaps between moving or stationary vehicles,  following too close, too fast for conditions, etc.

Bike lanes don’t discourage much of that behavior—and may exacerbate some of it. To what degree bicyclists take on additional risk because they feel justified by the bad behavior of pedestrians or motorists or because they feel they have the street smarts/experience to handle it.

Danger increases as risk perception drops As discussed above, bicycling in NYC has been as safe or safer despite the surge in participation until this year.  “There were 19 cyclist fatalities in the city through October 31, seven more than in all of 2009. In the same period, 3,505 bikers were injured in crashes with motor vehicles, more than last year’s total and up 20% compared to the first 10 months of last year. If the current rate of injuries continues, the percentage of daily riders who sustain injuries in 2010 will rise slightly.”

Iow, the fears of the “Interested but Concerned” are founded in reality—despite the bike lanes, bicycling isn’t all that safe. And this, too, is like motorcyclists—motorists and pedestrians invade bicyclists’ space, do not yield the right-of-way, look but do not see, and so forth.[ii]

Lower death rate for bicyclists: The great difference between the booms The rise in fatalities, though, may be a blip, an anomaly in NYC this year. Comparing pedalcyclist fatalities for other bicycle-friendly states shows that although bicycling has boomed in those states the fatality rates have dropped over the years—though with occasional minor fluctuations year after year even as the numbers of riders doubled.

This is the exact opposite experience of motorcyclists where the death toll far outpaced the increase in riders.

And, amazingly, it was accomplished without formal training—let alone mandatory training, without an overarching, over-controlling corporation made up of the major manufacturers, without helmet laws or use of protective equipment. Iow, without anything that we’ve been told ad nauseum that we have to do as motorcyclists to be safe.

But what we do to be safe hasn’t been effective while what bicyclists don’t do has been. And what’s up with that?


[i] According to a study Perceived Risk And Modal Choice: Risk Compensation In Transportation Systems,  high income people perceive the risks of a given form of transportation as lower. The author, Robert B. Noland, speculates this may be because they purchase (and use) more safety devices.  However, as noted, observed helmet use is rather low and protective gear, in cities, is almost non-existent. Males also perceive the risks of a given mode of transportation as lower than females do. Surprisingly, risk perception drops as age rises.

Iow, older, well-off men perceive less risks in a form of transportation than the younger and  poorer and females do. Needless to say, older, well-off men are the majority of those who took up motorcycling in the last boom.  Iow, the very group that perceives the least risk are the ones who were drawn to the most risky form of road transportation.

[ii] Like motorcyclists, the average age for bicyclist fatalities has risen and, in 2008, was 41 while in 1998 it was 32. In 2008 the average age for injuries was 31 while in 1998 it was 24. Yet, unlike motorcycling, NHTSA does not blame the rise on the born-again bicyclist. But those who were 41 in 2008 were 31 in 1998—iow, bicycling seems to be affected by that large Boomer cohort. Unlike motorcyclists, NHTSA makes it clear when it comes to alcohol-involvement and fatalities, it’s either the rider or the pedalcyclist—even though it’s the same situation for motorcyclists. However, there’s less alcohol-involved fatalities in bicycling than motorcycling.

Dueling press releases: MSF adds more courses while IIHS says mandatory training results in more crash claims for those under 21

April 5, 2010

First—the Institute of Insurance Highway Safety’s press release that dealt with the conclusions from three separate studies the Institute had found regarding anti-lock brakes, helmets and rider training. It found that ABS brakes and helmets resulted in less collision claims—no surprise there. However, its finding about rider training may surprise those who aren’t regular readers of this blog: “The frequency of insurance collision claims for riders younger than 21 is 10 percent higher in states that require riders this age to take a training course before they become eligible for a license to drive a motorcycle, compared with states that don’t require training.”

This finding supports other studies that examined broader age groups: rider training with Motorcycle Safety Foundation curriculum may lead to greater—not lesser—crash involvement. The IIHS release nor it’s newsletter nor the Highway Loss Data Institute Bulletin.

This doesn’t mean, IIHS, hastened to say that training isn’t needed as the article in the institute’s in-house newsletter clarified, “Motorcycling requires unique skills, and training probably is the right way for most riders to learn them,” says Adrian Lund, president of both HLDI and the affiliated Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Just don’t count on it to reduce crashes or substitute for laws requiring helmet use.”

“Although this difference isn’t statistically significant, it contradicts the notion that training courses reduce crashes. A potential explanation is that riders in some states are fully licensed once they finish training. This might shorten the permit period so that riders end up with full licenses earlier than if training weren’t mandated.”

Iow, just as we’ve discussed over a series of entries on this blog, MSF training is once again implicated not just in ineffectively preparing riders but putting at least younger ones at greater risk.

Now on to the MSF’s press release:

In a press release dated March 31, 2010, Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) President Tim Buche said, “We’re presenting a new, and much improved, way forward for all riders and raising what is generally perceived as the minimum threshold of motorcycle riding competence. We want better-prepared riders capable of higher levels of thinking out on the streets.”

The press release goes on to explain that a beginning rider needs three courses to do what MSF claimed to motorcycle rights activists, state representatives and state and federal agency officials that one course did in the past—get a rider trained enough to ride in traffic:

“Essential CORESM Curriculum,” [is what] the MSF recommends as the minimum training for every beginning rider. The Essential CORE Curriculum includes the current MSF Basic RiderCourseSM, the new Street RiderCourse that takes students into real-world traffic, and the new Basic Bike-BondingSM RiderCourse that features skill drills to help students handle their own motorcycles.”

Iow, MSF finally has come around to doing exactly what I’ve been writing about since 2004 and insisting was needed.

Buche’s statement and MSF’s tripling of minimum requirements marks an abrupt turnaround of what MSF has claimed for almost 40 years, MSF has claimed that it’s basic riding training course was sufficient to train riders to such a degree that they could—and should—get a motorcycle endorsement on their licenses for passing the course. In fact, MSF spent hundreds of thousands of man-hours and dollars to get states to give endorsements to riders upon completion of its basic training program.

Iow, at almost the same moment that IIHS says that young riders who took rider training had more collision claims, MSF says that two more courses are necessary before riders are really ready for the road.

It would appear, then, that MSF agrees with IIHS—the standard training for riders in the USA is not doing what it’s supposed to do.

One wonders exactly why MSF extended the Discovery Project one more year than it was supposed to. Did they find out what IIHS did and hope to fix it with more courses and another year to hope to find different results?

What can we figure out about the motorcyclist fatality?

January 24, 2010

Someone posted a comment and I thought deserved more attention:

Dennis wrote: “Curious thing about statistics. You can make things look the way you want, depending on what gets factored in”

Me: In my experience, one of the curious thing about statistics is that the only people who say things like “You can make things look the way you want, depending on what gets factored in” are those who don’t like what the statistics show. Having no proof to counter it–which is the intellectually responsible thing to do, they dismiss it with a statement like that. However, had you read the other entries on the motorcycle safety puzzle, you’d know that is one of the main problems with the motorcycle safety puzzle–The Things They Don’t Ask–or don’t bother to find out–or tell us if they know. But it also speaks to the difficulty (or at least expense) of finding out those things. All of which I’ve discussed ad nauseum.

But what I find amusing is that once you belittle the statistics, you ask not only for more of them but me to find more of them to prove your implied point (that the 5 safety messages actually work). But since I’m a very nice person, I’ll do it–but only for one year. You are welcome to do the work on as many years as you want:

Dennis: “The article said things like 56.7% were helmeted. But how many of those helmeted were not sober or had not taken a safety class. Of the fatalities, how many had followed all 5 of you [sic] safe riding items? Statistically you have only listed them out one item at a time.”

Me: I’m going to come back to the “how many had followed all 5” part. First of all, they aren’t my 5 safe riding items. They are the Motorcycle Safety Foundation safety messages–but they are ones that most safety experts would agree with–and it seems that you do as well. And had you read the other motorcycle safety puzzle piece items, you wouldn’t ask some of these questions–or you could use the data there (or read the material cited) and figure it out for yourself.

In 2008, 5,290 riders were killed. Of that total, 1,322.5 riders were not validly licensed–meaning 3,967.5 dead riders were. So, the vast majority of riders were following at least one of the safety messages. When it comes to training, depending on the state, up to 100 percent of riders are licensed through the waiver earned by passing a state (or state-approved) motorcycle training course. In Florida, for example, in 2009 all riders had to pass a training course to obtain a license.  Iow, in the majority of cases, practicing one to two of the safety messages did not prevent a fatal crash.

Of those 5,290 dead riders 1,587 had a BAC equal to or over the legal limit meaning up to 3,703 were following the safety message to ride sober (though the probability is likely to be high that some of them had a legal BAC at the time they crashed–even so, they were riding legally).

If the improperly licensed and illegally intoxicated cohorts perfectly overlapped (meaning that all improperly licensed riders also drank to excess), then then 264.5 of the dead drunk were legally licensed–meaning that they followed at least one safety message but not the ride sober one.

Of those 1,587 drunk and dead riders, 730.02 were both drunk and unhelmeted. If the overlap was perfect, that means at the very least 856.8 drunk riders were wearing helmets, once again, it reveals that some riders pick and choose among the safety messages–at least on occasion.

However, the above assumes a perfect world where those who don’t follow one safety rule follow none of them–something highly unlikely–particularly in universal helmet law states.

And if you go through media accounts (usually based on police reports) of motorcycle fatalities (as I have extensively) you’d realize that the par for the course isn’t as nice and neat as you’d like to believe. Good riders who make safe choices all too often–it’s unrighteous (in the old-fashioned biker sense), unfair and downright dangerous to try to reduce the carnage on the roads to such simplistic terms.

Dennis: Also, how many of the atgatt riders survived due to having on the safety equipment?

Me: NHTSA/FARS does not calculate the number of ATGATT riders in terms of injuries or deaths. Nor do any studies examine the difference between fatalities with helmet AND gear, gear but no helmet and helmet but no gear in terms of survival. But I would caution you not to confuse wearing a helmet with ATGATT as you seem to have done–as even the most cursory observation on a hot (or even cold day) will show, riders wear helmets and no gear and (at least some) gear and no helmets.

But the problem is this: While MSF’s safety message is ATGATT, in fact not even MSF nor NHTSA claims that gear (jacket, pants, boots, gloves)  prevents fatal injuries. Gear cannot prevent the kind of injuries (head or chest trauma, severed limbs or arteries or internal bleeding) that kill riders. What gear does do is reduce abrasions and (minor) lacerations and may minimize some sprains. It doesn’t prevent (most) fractures.

If you mean the helmet part, NHTSA estimates helmets would save 37%–however, going to your point about statistics–there’s many questions about how they determined that figure that many want answered.

If MAIDS findings can be generalized to American populations (big IF there), then we could guess that 23-50 percent of the time jackets, pants, gloves or footwear reduced injuries.And, in terms of the helmet, in 33.2 percent of the cases a helmet reduced injury and in 35.5 percent of the cases, it prevented injury.

Dennis: “Another factor that hasn’t been considered is rider experience. Less experienced riders are more likely to have an accident. What percentage of the helmeted riders had been riding less than a year?”

Me: While some studies show that riders with 6 mos or less riding experience are more likely to be in a crash, others have found that the  “more experience, less crashing” thing doesn’t hold up when the study takes into account variables such as mileage and how much of the year they ride and age. In fact, more experienced riders tend to ride more often, farther and in more riding conditions–and hence any safety experience gives is mitigated by increased exposure.

However, to my knowledge no studies have attempted to determine how much experience those who died had.

Dennis: “Riding does present more risk. But think about how many more injuries and fatalities there would be if all riders ignored the 5 messages that you list.”

“All riders”, “ignored” all 5? That’s a  meaningless thing to say as it’s impossible to prove or disprove. Nor was I, for one, suggesting that anyone let alone everyone should “ignore” the safety messages. How silly. What I am suggesting that riders shouldn’t take on more risk because they follow them or think they’re safe or even safer on the roads because they follow them.

I want to return to your statement, “how many had followed all 5 of you [sic] safe riding items?”  There is no magic formula for safe riding. Please note that MSF does not make a direct or even implied claim that following those 5 “key messages” is “safe riding” or will reduce anyone’s chances of being in a crash. If you–as others have–taken them to mean that, it’s on you.

What are the odds of winning the lottery v. crashing?

January 18, 2010

Research shows that most riders don’t think they’re likely to crash. In fact, they believe other riders are more likely to crash then they are. This is particularly true for those who follow the five messages of motorcycle safety: believe they ride within their limits, wear safety gear—including helmets, have been trained and licensed and ride sober. Doing the right thing, they believe, will diminish their chances of crashing— and those who consider themselves safe riders swear by their safety practices.

For example, the 2006 Scottish study, “Risk and Motorcyclists in Scotland”[i] found that riders overwhelming agreed that riding was risky—even very risky. But 42% of the participants didn’t think the risks of riding applied to themselves because they were good riders who did the right things.

Those that don’t do those things, riders and safety experts alike believe, are more likely to crash.

It’s almost as if “safe” riders think that their chance of having a crash is like their chance of winning the Powerball lottery. To win the Powerball jackpot, you have to choose 5 white ball numbers correctly and the number of the red ball.

And the odds of doing that, according to Dr. Math, are 1 in 80,089,128.

He explains it this way, “There are C(49,5) = 49!/(5! * (49-5)!) = 1,906,884 ways to pick your five numbers. And there are C(42,1) = 42 ways to pick the powerball… Thus there are 1,906,884 * 42 = 80,089,128 total number of ways that the drawing can occur… Hence the probability is 1/80,089,128.”

Powerball.com, however, gives the odds of winning the jackpot at 1 in 195,249,054.00 because it includes the chances of not picking the wrong numbers.[ii]

People pick their combinations all kinds of ways. Some play meaningful numbers like birthdays and addresses. Some play the same numbers religiously week in and out. Some play the most frequently drawn numbers. March 30, 1995, a married couple—separately—bought a ticket using the numbers suggested in a fortune cookie and both won—and so did a third person (no word whether he had gotten the same fortune cookie). A decade later. Then there are those that let bakeries do their choosing: On almost to the day, 110 people won the second largest pot in the Powerball and all of them had played the numbers they had found in a fortune cookie.

Those who are very serious about the lottery swear by their methods—they will pay off some day. And there’s just enough stories about how this method or that one did win that it encourages all the Method-players to keep buying tickets by the numbers.

Then again, there are those who are casual about it and let the computer do the picking for them. Studies show that it doesn’t matter whether you pick the numbers or the numbers pick you—neither way wins more often.

While the chance of winning the Powerball are remote, according to Powerball.com, the odds of winning $3 are 1 in 61.74. The odds of winning some prize, however, are much lower—1 in 35.11 once all the ways of winning are factored in.

If you’re an optimist those don’t seem to be bad odds considering tickets cost one buck. In fact, “safe” riders bet their lives on a helmet that has a 37 percent chance of saving their life and a 25 percent chance of eliminating injury.

But the big jackpot? You have a better chance of being in a plane crash (1 in 11  million) or being killed in a motor vehicle collision (1 in 5,000) on your way to the store.

That actually happened to Carl Atwood of Elwood, Indiana. He won $73,450 and that evening was on his way to the grocery store a block away when a pickup came around the corner and hit and killed him.

But he did win the lottery before he died despite high odds. And people do amazingly often.  Lottery expert Tino Sundin wrote, “According to the TLC television show, “The Lottery Changed My Life,” more than 1600 new lottery millionaires are created each year. That doesn’t include people that have won jackpots of, say, $100,000 because than the number would be much higher. Still, 1600 is quite a high number. If 1600 win at least a million in the lotto every year, it means that there are more than 130 each month, more than 30 each week, and more than 4 each day. That’s a lot of winners.”

Others—some would call them pessimists others would call them realists—would argue that millions of people play each week so investing in the lottery is foolishness. Sundin, who wants to win the lottery one day, would agree with them, “1600 yearly jackpot winners isn’t that big of a number when you consider how many people actually play.”

But that’s a common mistake about the lottery—that it matters how many people play. It doesn’t. The more players increase the value of the jackpot, the chance that someone will win, and the chance others will chose the same numbers you do. But it doesn’t change the odds of your ticket  winning: each set of numbers is up against the odds—not the other players.

And those odds are always millions to one for the jackpot—and still significant for the lesser prizes.

Last year, thirteen tickets beat the tens of millions to one odds and won the Powerball.

And on January 16, 2010, no one won the jackpot but there were 435,682 winning tickets for the lesser prizes—true, almost 85 percent of them won between $3.00-$4.00—but they still won something.

Iow, for a series of random drawings with enormous odds, it’s amazing that lotteries are so regularly won—and that there are so many winners of one degree or another week after week, year in and year out.

The truth is, you have a far, far, far greater chance of being crash-involved than you do of winning the Powerball jackpot.

What are your chances of being in a crash? In 2007, there were 4,758,984 motorcycle owners[iii] and 123, 306 police-reported crashes.

The chance, then, of any one motorcyclist having some kind of crash isn’t anything like the Powerball odds at 1 in over 80 million. Instead, it’s 1 in 38.59. It’s a lot more probable than you probably expected.

That’s roughly the chance any one ticket has of winning some prize in the Powerball lottery—something that 435,682 did last night.

In 2007, there were a total of 123,306 crashes (fatal 5,306; injury 98,000; 20,000 property-only).[iv]

Injury crashes, then, were 79.47 percent of all collisions.

Fatalities were 4.3 percent

And property-damage only crashes were 16.21 percent.

Iow, if you’re in a collision, your chance of suffering anything from a minor injury to a fatal one is 83.77 percent. This means your chance of being hurt in a crash is even higher than the percentage of winning tickets in last night’s lottery.

The early edition of the NHTSA Annual Traffic Safety Facts 2008[v] reports 5,387 motorcyclists were killed and 90,000 were injured in 2008. That translates to 103 fatalities and almost 1,730 injuries per week. Iow, more motorcyclists are injured every week than millionaire lottery winners are created in a year.

In fact, the odds of being injured in a crash are 1 in 48.56 or over 60 percent lower  than the chance of choosing one white ball number plus the Powerball correctly (1 in 123.48).

The chance of dying is 1 in 896.9—or somewhat greater than the odds of picking two correct white ball numbers and the Powerball number.

But, of course, you’re different—you follow the 5 safety messages, after all. You ride trained and licensed, ATGATT, sober and within your limits. Surely you have those Powerball jackpot odds.

Except, in 2007, that 73.86 percent of the fatalities were licensed,

64 percent were sober,

and 56.7 percent of them were helmeted.

In 2005,[vi] 56 percent of multi-vehicle crashes occurred on urban roadways that are considered within the skill level of even new riders.

And study after study showed that those who were trained were no less crash-involved than those who weren’t.

Iow, those who depend on those safety practices to keep them safe are no different than those who depend on winning the lottery to pay their rent.

No, the motorcycle safety puzzle hasn’t been solved by relying on the five safety messages promulgated by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.

Isn’t it time we started to look at the actual puzzle and figure out what’s really going on and what we really need to do to protect ourselves?

Or maybe we should just go out and buy a Powerball ticket and play the odds on the road.


[i] Stradling, Stephen G and Sexton, B and Hamilton, K and Baughan, C and Broughton, P (2006) Risk and motorcyclists in Scotland. Scottish Executive Research Unit .

[ii] see: http://www.molottery.com/powerball/understanding_chances.jsp

[iii] NHTSA reports 7,138,476 registered motorcycles. The Motorcycle Industry Council’s formula of 1.5 motorcycles per owner, equaling 4,758,984 owners.

[iv] Traffic Safety Facts 2007. NHTSA. http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811002.PDF

[v] Traffic Safety Facts 2008, Early Edition. NHTSA.  http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811170.PDF

[vi] 2005 is the latest date for which detailed information is available. See “Fatal Two-Vehicle Motorcycle Crashes” (2007). DOT HS 810 834. http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/810834.PDF

Motorcycle puzzle piece: training, part III

January 14, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Table 4.1    Summary of best practice components for motorcycle licensing system

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

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

The report then summarizes the best practices for motorcycle training:

Table 4.2    Summary of best practice components for motorcycle training

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

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

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


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

Motorcycle safety puzzle piece: training

January 8, 2010

I apologize for formatting errors in the chart–for some reason, wordpress.com changes the font size part way through and won’t allow me to fix it.

Training is the next piece that’s supposed to solve the motorcycle safety puzzle. It’s the most important piece in this way: while helmets have their fervent and often vehement supporters and detractors, everyone agrees that training is axiomatic as an effective solution to the motorcycle safety puzzle.

As motorcycle rights organizations are fond of saying–don’t legislate, educate. Training (and to an extent licensing), it’s believed, keeps one out of situations that could lead to crashes.

Training in some form or another has been around since the earliest days. One of the first how-to-ride manuals,  Boy Scouts on Motorcycles, was copyrighted in 1912, and the earliest official course, the British Metropolitan Police Hendon Training System began in 1934 with a civilian version taught by the 1950s.  By the time the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) began in 1973 there were over 30 different courses, curriculum  and manuals–including Montgomery Ward.

In 1974, MSF claims it trained 15,000 students. Today it claims that “5,422,315 students have graduated from MSF RiderCourses since 1974. 400,000 motorcyclists enroll in our courses each year.”

We’re going to look at training in more than one entry. The first uses MSF documentation to show how the range section has changed from MSF’s Motorcycle Rider Course through the Basic RiderCourse.

The second entry will be as comprehensive a list and summary of twenty-one studies I’ve tracked down on training and licensing.

Thirty-something years of MSF basic training curriculum

MSF produced a chart for the state administrators who were invited to a private preview of the Basic RiderCourse in the summer of 2000. It outlines what was taught in the range portion in the Motorcycle Rider Course, the MRC: RSS and the then-new BRC.

Comparing the curriculums, the MRC taught 43 skills, the MRC:RSS taught 22 skills with 8 optional skills and the BRC taught 16 skills. The MRC tested  8 skills, the RSS tested 5 and the BRC tests 4.

The course went from 22 hours to 15 during these years.

Some of the skills listed separately in the MRC were clumped in the RSS and BRC so there’s not as much disparity as it appears—however, some of the skills are not included in the clumped skill exercises. A skill test for swerving was added in the RSS (and kept in the BRC) however swerving itself was taught in the MRC.

There are those who argue that some skills previously taught but not mentioned in the BRC portion of the chart are still taught—like the sharp turn. However, there is no portion of the BRC range cards that teach students how to do a sharp turn or a sharp turn from a stop. All we can go on is what is actually in the range cards and this MSF-produced chart to compare the curriculums.

Also, even if some of the skills are still taught, the shorter course length means they’re taught (and practiced) for a shorter time.

Please note that there are differences in the order of the BRC exercises between what MSF planned to do in the summer of 2000 and the current order.

MRC MRC: RSS BRC
1 Mount/Dismount Getting Familiar with the motorcycle Motorcycle Familiarization
2 Posture Moving the Motorcycle Using the Friction Zone
3 Controls Starting and Stopping the Engine Starting and Stopping Drill
4 Start/Stop Engine Riding in a Straight Line Shifting and Stopping
5 Walking Motorcycle Riding the Perimeter and Large

Circles

Adjusting Speed and Turning
6 Buddy Push Weaving (30’) Control-skills Practice
7 Friction Point Turning on Different Curves and

Weaving (20’)

Pressing to Initiate Lean
8 Straight Line Riding Riding Slowly Cornering
9 Rectangle Making Sharp Turns Matching Gears to Speed
10 Large Circles Shifting in a Straight Line Stopping Quickly
11 Medium Circles Shifting and Turning on Different

Curves

Limited-Space Maneuvers
12 Cone Weave (20’) Shifting and Making Sharp Turns Cornering Judgment
13 Sharp Turns Stopping with Both Brakes Negotiating Curves
14 Shifting in a Straight Line Stopping Quickly on Command Stopping Quickly in a Curve
15 Turning at Higher Speeds Stopping on a Curve Lane Change and Obstacles
16 Riding Slowly Level 1 Evaluation: 1.

1. Stalling

2.Shifting/Turning/Stopping

3. Sharp Turns

4. Stopping on Command.

Avoiding Hazards
17 Principles of Braking Gap Selection Skills Practice
18 Stopping at a Designated Point Turning from a Stop and

Changing Lanes

Skills Test:1. U-turns

2. Swerve

3. Quick Stop

4. Cornering

19 Figure 8-Turning and Adjusting Speed Controlling Rear-Wheel Skids
20 Turning in Tight Circles Stopping in the Shortest Distance (maximum braking)
21 Weaving Between Cones(20’ X 10’) Swerving to Avoid Obstacles
22 Shifting and Acceleratingin a Turn Stopping Quickly on a Curve
23 Stopping Quickly withBoth Brakes Selecting a Safe Turning Speed
24 Sharp Turns and Shifting Optional Exercises: Offset Weaving, Shifting

and Turning on Different Curves

and Weaving,

Stopping Quickly on Command,

Tight U-Turns

and Stop-and-Go, Counterbalancing

in Decreasing-Radius Turns,

Surmounting Obstacles

25 Simulated Traffic Situations Level Two Skills Test:

1. Cone Weave

2.Sharp Turns,

3. Quick Stop,

4. Turning Speed Selection

5. Quick Lane Change (swerving).

26 Passing
27 Turning Speed Adjustment
28 Circuit Training
29 Starting on a Hill
30 Stop and Go
31 Staggered Serpentine
32 One-hand controls
33 Engine Braking
34 Controlling Rear-Wheel Skids
35 Quick Stops
36 Stopping in a Curve
37 Riding on the Pegs
38 Crossing Obstacles
39 Countersteering
40 Quick Lane Change (swerve)
41 Carrying Passengers
42 Pre-Ride Inspection
43 Maintaining Your Motorcycle
Skill Test:

1.Stalling,

2.Shifting and Stop (in a circle),

3.Operating Controls (in a circle),

4. Straight Line Balance,

5. S-Turn,

6.U-turn,

7. Stopping,

8.Weaving.

One more puzzle piece on motorcycle licensing

December 29, 2009

I had cited this earlier this year but it’s good to remind ourselves what MSF knew almost 22 years ago about the efficacy of its motorcycling products:

MSF’s then licensing director, Carl Spurgeon, wrote in the Spring 1988 edition, “When testing is administered by a state licensing examiner…only basic skills and abilities are evaluated. To be blunt, these tests screen out the bottom 20 percent or so and send the rest on their way with a license.”

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

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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.

Puzzle piece: motorcycle licensing compliance and fatalities

December 20, 2009

One of the motorcycle safety puzzle pieces is licensing—licensed riders are believed to be more competent and therefore safer. Besides, it’s the law—we’re supposed to get one. In fact, licensing is believed by rider educators to drive participation in training courses because of the driver-license waiver.

Forgive me for stating the obvious in the following but it assures we’re all understanding the same puzzle piece:

The Motorcycle Safety Foundation publishes both the licensing tests used in almost every state and the curriculum that’s used in all but two states. MSF sold state DMVs and legislators on the driver’s license-waiver by assuring them the end-of-course test and the DMV test were equivalent (and is currently paying for a study to prove that they are indeed equivalent). Iow, whether you passed the course or at the DMV, the same knowledge and skill level are required.

Those without licenses or who are inadequately licensed are believed to be less competent and therefore not-as-safe riders.

So let’s see if the puzzle piece really fits—really makes riders safer using data from  The Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), which has fourteen years of data on motorcyclist fatalities available here.

There’s a breakdown of  fatalities by age and license compliance at the bottom of the page.

FARS separates riders into four categories: no license, no valid motorcycle license, valid motorcycle license and no license needed (and unknown). The no valid license category means they have a license of some kind—iow, they know the rules of the road, have operated a vehicle in traffic and so forth but not the proper form of motorcycle license. It’s unknown if they simply had not gotten a motorcycle license, or had their license revoked or could even be properly licensed in some country/state but not in the state where they were killed[i] or there was another reason—this information is possible to discover though it would be expensive, difficult and time-consuming—so far it fits a puzzle.

The fourth category includes passengers and moped/scooter riders in those states that do not require some/all to be licensed—this is, by far, the smallest category.

Ok, enough of the fundamentals.

Analyzing fourteen years of data some interesting things emerge:

Stubborn patterns

In the following video, 14 years of data broken down by age and license compliance has been put side by side so we can see the flow of data as that gives us a more realistic picture of what been happening.

As we can see, the rough proportions of the three operator groups remain the same across the 14 years[ii]: Roughly one-quarter to one-fifth of motorcyclist fatalities don’t have valid motorcycle licenses and roughly three-fourths of them are validly licensed  year after year after year.[iii]

It’s a stunningly consistent picture—and it raises some questions: We’ve been led to believe that there’s a huge contingent of unlicensed riders—or those who are about to get on a motorcycle and ride without a license—out there that we need to seduce into training by offering the driver’s license-waiver. And maybe there is, but apparently they’re alive and well and happily riding because an exceedingly few of them (2.6% in 2008) are dying on the road. And when I say few I mean exactly 138 unlicensed riders were killed in 2008.

Rather those who were legally licensed are the significant majority of dead riders (roughly 74% of all fatalities or almost 4,000 riders in 2008).

So that’s a little puzzling since states spend millions training and testing riders because the motorcycle manufacturers convinced us there’s this horde of untrained riders who are going to die brutal deaths if they aren’t a) licensed and b) trained and licensed through training.

The miniscule number of unlicensed riders who die raises the question if such a group exist in significant numbers. The other alternative is that this horde does indeed exist and it seems they’re much safer by avoiding training and licensing.

The Not Validly Licensed group is much larger—in 2008 there were 1,109 of them. The assumption is that they are not as skilled as the licensed/trained group—yet no one has tried to verify that this group’s crashes are different than the licensed group. So just because they’re riding illegally doesn’t mean they are riding ineptly.

Motorcycle safety experts may be combining the unlicensed and Not valid License groups to justify the millions spent on training. However, even conflated, they still end up being just over one-fourth of all fatalities while the licensed are the vast majority of fatalities.

So do riders die in proportion to what percentage they are in the riding population? We don’t know because no one has gathered that data either. How many unlicensed and not-validly licensed riders are there really? No one knows—and it’s puzzling that no one has bothered to find out.

Already there are some puzzling questions: why do so many licensed riders die on the roads and relatively few unlicensed and those without valid licenses if licensing is supposed to be an important part of the safety puzzle?

Puzzling decreases and increases

Since 1997 motorcycle fatalities have gone up 150%.

However, validly licensed fatalities rose from almost 61 percent (60.94) in 1994 to almost 75 percent (74.55-74.78) in 2003-2005 and slightly dropped to almost 74 percent (73.82) of all fatalities.

Those without valid motorcycle licenses went from a high of 31.88 percent of the whole in 1994 to a low of 20.84 in 2004 and are now 21.92.

No-license fatalities dropped from 4.8 percent in 1994 to 2.6 percent in 2008.

Iow, since 1994 there’s been about a 45% decrease in the proportion of fatalities among those without valid motorcycle licenses and a 51% decrease among no-license fatalities. At the same time, there’s been almost a 23 percent (22.95) increase in licensed rider fatalities.

When it comes to puzzles, then, the very groups that those in the motorcycle safety business tell us are most at-risk did phenomenally well as a group at a time when the motorcycle death toll was soaring. And more of those who did the right thing—got licensed and may or may not have gotten training. And that’s not puzzling, it’s mysterious.

Strangely, the numbers of no-license fatalities remained basically the same for 10 years and only began to consistently increase in 2004. Even so, the number of no-license fatalities went from 124 in 1994 to 138 in 2008.[iv]

Furthermore, no-valid license fatalities dropped from the 1994 score until 2001 while the number of valid-license fatalities more than doubled from 1,420 to 3,974 in the same period of time.

Iow, the entire increase in the death toll from 1998-2001 was solely among validly licensed riders. And that’s mysterious.

At the very time, then, that more people were choosing to take training and get licensed and less people were choosing to ride illegally, the death toll not only soared but particularly rose in the Valid License group.

Deaths by generation

Here’s another back-to-back presentation of the FARS data—in this one we see age in terms of license compliance and fatalities as a flow of years:

One of the key benefits of doing it this way is that we can watch a generational cohort move through the years, albeit in the grimmest possible way:

One of the interesting things is that both the Validly-Licensed and Not-Valid License groups have normal distributions or Bell curves—and that is not surprising. Strangely  enough, though, the Unlicensed group does not come close to a normal distribution for any age group over the 14 years.

The strange case of the Not Valid License Fatality

Perhaps the most fascinating thing is what happens—or, rather, what doesn’t happen—with the Not-Valid License group. Watching this curve over the 14 years is like watching a snowbank melt.
Note that the peak is solidly fixed in the 25-34 age group throughout the entire 14 years and the number of fatalities in this particular age group rose a whopping 176% in 14 years (from 127 in 1994 to 357 in 2008).

That’s why it’s important to remember that those who were 25 in 1994 were 39 in 2008 and those who were 25 in 2008 were 11 in 1994. This suggests there’s some kind of attitude, belief or circumstance or something else that’s prevalent in this age group whether they were Boomers or now Gen Xers that both influenced how they rode and the decision not to get licensed (and trained). And that’s mysterious. Discovering what that is and addressing it might be an important part of the motorcycle safety puzzle—for that age group at least.

Boomers

Otoh, the peak of the valid-license curve travels from left to right or from the 25-34 year-old group to the 45-54 year-old group. Along the way, it bulges out over the 55-64 year-old group and then falls off sharply. We see, then, the well-publicized increase in 40+ rider deaths.

The 40+ dead rider story, as published in the media, always includes a call for them to get licensed and get training—and yet, as we see, the vast majority of the 40+ dead riders are in the Valid License group and had been for years before the huge upswell in motorcycle sales.

While the data seems to prove the Older Rider story, the last of the Boomers turned forty just before 2000—which puts the youngest Boomers in the 25-34 group in 1994. Iow, the Boomers were already dying in greater numbers when they were younger and have continued to do so—which says more about the number of Boomer motorcyclists than it does about their skill.

Nor do we know who these Boomer riders are—returning riders or new older riders or  continuing riders? Once again this is in puzzle territory—it could be discovered with effort, expense and time. But this we do know: the story is wrong: the 40+ is dying on the roads fully licensed and perhaps trained.

Gen X

Gen X is equally interesting—in 1994 they were 16-28 and as they age the Valid Licensing death toll goes up for their cohort just as it did for the Boomers. It doesn’t get as high at any point as the Boomers but then that generation is much smaller than the Boomers.

Unless there’s a huge surge of Gen Z riders in the next few years, the majority of deaths will still be in the 40+ range after the Boomers move into their late 60s-early 70s and retire from riding. By then, of course, people will have forgotten that this was a new phenomena that supposedly said something awful about the riding skills of middle-age Americans and treat this as the par for the course.

Gen Z

As the years progress, the points on the left side of the graph begin to represent Gen Z. Of all generations Gen X and especially Gen Z are the ones who are most likely to have taken rider training since mandatory training usually only applies to those 18 or younger.

When it comes to Valid License fatalities, there was a 52 percent jump from 2002 to 2003 in the number of deaths among 16-20 year-olds and by 2008, deaths in this age group of validly licensed fatalities had risen 97 percent from 1997.

Both of the youngest groups experienced a statistically significant but unexplained surge in deaths within a year of each other. The death toll in the 45-54 group jumped 22 percent and 55-64 age group experienced a 38% jump in 2003.

This may indicate the size of Gen Z—somewhat smaller than the Boomers but bigger than Gen X. Or it may indicate something else. For example, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety would have us believe that the kind of bikes—sport v. cruisers—are to blame. Or it’s possible that it’s related to the increase in motorcycle sales. Or another possible explanation is that states were adopting MSF’s Basic RiderCourse in those years.

The Lucky Few

The right side of the Bell Curve represents the Lucky Few generation. The Lucky Few death toll increases slightly as this group moved into their 50s to early 60s. If there is any truth to the Older Rider story then that surge might show that.
What is most noticeable is that there’s a significant drop-off in fatalities beginning in the 55-64 range and after age 74 almost no riders are killed on the road. The Lucky Few generation was always much smaller than the Boomers—but even so the sharp-drop off in fatalities may be a better indicator of when most riders retire from motorcycling—and that would begin around age 65.

Is licensing an important part of solving the safety puzzle?

If, as the key safety messages imply, being licensed makes a rider safer, it appears that licensing is ineffective—at least as licensing stands now. In the latest iteration of the licensing exam, MSF states that it tests to the minimum standard for operating a motorcycle on the street.

The number and percentage of dead but validly licensed riders suggest that the standards are below the minimum if licensing is to be an effective piece of solving the motorcycle safety puzzle. And since so many riders get their license through training, it may mean the standards for MSF training are too low as well. This is especially of concern since MSF claims the course tests to the same minimum standards.

So if motorcycle safety is a puzzle it doesn’t appear we’re any closer to solving it today than we were 14 years ago.


[i] It would also include any rider who had gotten a driver’s license-waiver from training but had not completed the process at the DMV before their death.

[ii] Actually, it remains the same for all four groups but the number of fatalities among the no license needed group are so small they do not really show up on the graphs.

[iii] The vast majority of car fatalities are also fully licensed—but that’s because 98% of all Americans are validly licensed.

[iv] Though the high was in 2005 with 156 fatalities.

What can we learn from looking at all four states?

June 17, 2009

Now that we’ve looked more closely at Pennsylvania, Illinois, Idaho and Oregon, let’s do a little reflection and examine some things that emerged by looking at four states:

In all four states, training expanded enormously: In Oregon, it increased over 220%. In Idaho, training increased over 660%. Illinois increased almost 82% and in Pennsylvania it went up 86%.

The untoward increase in Idaho was directly related to the state program’s inception—but not entirely. Illinois, for example, trained only 200 the first year and 4,500 the next as it was established statewide—but between 1977-1987 didn’t increase 660%.

These states are not unusual; across the nation—except in, notably, the MSF-administered state of West Virginia—training numbers have increased enormously. This is nothing new—however, that training has increased so greatly in specifically Oregon and Idaho, is of special note:

Does length or rigor of the course affect numbers trained?

The Motorcycle Safety Foundation has consistently claimed—and a great many rider educators believed—people didn’t take training because the course was too long. Each new iteration of the MSF curriculum has been shorter. When it sold the rider training community on the Basic RiderCourse, MSF then claimed that people didn’t take training—and many failed or dropped training—because it wasn’t fun and relaxed enough.

As a result, many in the rider ed community have believed that training numbers have increased because the course was both shorter and more relaxed/fun. However, even with only looking at four states, we find that assumption is unfounded:

Oregon and Idaho taught the longer RSS course then switched to the BRT, which is shorter than the RSS but still longer than the BRC. And Illinois’ BRC is significantly longer than MSF’s standard BRC.

So with longer and less “student-friendly” courses, training increased far more in Oregon and Idaho than in Pennsylvania and Illinois. Iow, neither the length or the pedagogical basis of the course seem to drive student participation.

In fact, it appears to be the opposite. MSF claimed the MRC:RSS was too rigid and demanding and TEAM Oregon’s course, the BRT was too much like the RSS—both reasons MSF had sold the motorcycling community on as reasons why more riders weren’t trained. Yet the  states that used longer, more “rigid” courses than the BRC saw far more significant increases in enrollment year after year. In fact, enrollment in the BRC-only Pennsylvania dropped as it was still increasing in Oregon and Idaho (although training in Illinois increased every year as well).

Only in Pennsylvania, a state where the pass and fail rate changed dramatically with the BRC so that more students passed did training rise then fall then rise then fall.

In fact, Illinois had dropped it’s fail rate and raised it’s pass rate soon after the switch to the BRC and training numbers continued to increase. But, when the state lowered the percentage of those who passed and raised the fail rate to what they were under the RSS student numbers kept increasing.

Length of course and how fun/relaxed or student-centered/adult-learning does not appear to influence student participation in a negative way—if anything, the longer course in Illinois and the less adult-centered courses in Oregon and Illinois (and in one region in Illinois) may have a positive influence on student participation.

Is it true that “something’s better than nothing”?

MSF has convinced rider educators that poor students should be allowed to continue, counseling out should be rare and students should self-select to opt out if at all possible.

Rider educators overwhelmingly tell me that if they didn’t keep these poor riders in class “they would go out and ride anyways” and “something is better than nothing”. The assumption behind the second is that a poor but trained rider is a safer rider.

And rider educators at least in MSF-controlled states overwhelmingly report the supposed objectivity of the test forces them to pass students who should not pass, are not competent and should not ride in traffic.

Otoh, in complete contradiction to this common thinking among rider educators, Billheimer’s study said that one of the greatest benefits of rider training is that it convinces those who should not ride not to—and therefore lowers the fatality rate.

Yet here, in three out of four states (and we didn’t do these graphs for Idaho), we find this odd little correlation that may be just that: When the percentage of “Did not graduate” goes up fatalities go down. And we see in states that teach the BRC there’s at least a visual correlation between trained and passed numbers and fatalities.

Every study has found that trained riders were less crash-involved, no less traffic offense involved than the untrained at best. At worst, they had a higher probability of crashing. The one study—one of the Dr. Mortimer ones done a very long time ago—found that training only made those who rode small bikes and rarely rode, didn’t ride far when they did and were women were safer.

While this is hardly conclusive it suggests that MSF is wrong and Billheimer is right: failing a student or counseling them may save their lives by convincing them they aren’t cut out to ride.

Iow, nothing is better than something and they don’t go out and ride anyways—and yet MSF—whose manufacturer members benefit from selling more motorcycles if riders take training—and whose manufacturer members get product liability from riders taking training—keeps pushing this notion that instructors shouldn’t be gatekeepers and something is better than nothing.

And that should be a problem for good-hearted men and women who sincerely believe that training should be saving lives.

And it’s also something that should be studied further. One of the ways that it could be examined further is if the comprehensive accident study was actually done—but, once again, it’s the motorcycle manufacturer members behind MSF and MSF itself that has made that happening less and less likely.