Archive for the ‘Motorcycle Training’ 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.

Advertisements

Another death in Motorcycle Safety Foundation Training

July 18, 2010

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

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

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

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

That is all the information I have at this time.

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

Why do we believe what we believe about motorcycle helmets?

April 21, 2010

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

Experts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/TSF2004.PDF

does not contain that statistic.

Media articles on motorcycle safety also repeat the same claims.

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

http://www.oppnews.net/default.asp?sourceid=&smenu=73&twindow=Default&mad=No&sdetail=&wpage=&skeyword=&sidate=&ccat=&ccatm=&restate=&restatus=&reoption=&retype=&repmin=&repmax=&rebed=&rebath=&subname=&pform=&sc=2985&hn=oppnews&he=.net

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reasonable to believe helmets are effective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[i] Helmet Use Laws. NHTSA. http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/new-fact-sheet03/motorcyclehelmet.pdf

[ii] “They’re designed to cushion and protect riders’ heads from the impact of a crash…. Motorcycle crash statistics show that helmets are about 37 percent effective in preventing crash fatalities. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates an unhelmeted rider is 40 percent more likely to suffer a fatal head injury and 15 percent more likely to incur a nonfatal head injury than a helmeted motorcyclist.” http://www.michigan.gov/msp/0,1607,7-123-1593_3504_22760-13677–,00.html

[iii] “Helmets are estimated to be 37 percent effective in preventing fatal injuries to motorcycle riders. (NHTSA)… Everyone is only one step away from a medical emergency….Helmet use is the single most important factor in people surviving in motorcycle crashes. They reduce the risk of head, brain and facial injury among motorcyclists of all ages and crash severities. Unhelmeted motorists are 40 percent more likely to die from a head injury, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).” http://www.acep.org/pressroom.aspx?id=26118

[iv] http://www.safroads.org/issues/fs-helmets.htm

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

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

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

[vii] http://msf-usa.org/CurriculumMaterials/BRCHandbook2009.pdf

[viii] “State troopers say just wearing a helmet and the proper gear could help save your life People who drive motorcycles say the feel of the wind on your face is a thrilling experience, Wisconsin doesn’t require helmets, but those who sell motorcycles and those who enforce the law, say safety needs to be of utmost importance. http://www.weau.com/news/headlines/90705479.html?ref=479

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

“For cars, watch for them. They’re everywhere, and it only takes a second to take somebody’s life.” http://www.dispatch.com/live/content/local_news/stories/2010/04/03/caution-urged-in-motorcycle-season.html?sid=101

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 seat belt usage can teach us about motorcycle safety

February 28, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s a very different view of motorcyclists.


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

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

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

[iv] Gantz, Toni and Gretchen Henkle. Seatbelts: Current Issues. Prevention Institute. October 2002. http://ww.preventioninstitute.org/traffic_seatbelt.html. Highway Loss Data Institute, Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. Q&As: Motorcycle helmet use laws. January 2009. http://www.iihs.org/research/qanda/helmet_use.html.

[v] Committee for the Safety Belt Technology Study. Buckling Up: Technologies to Increase Seat Belt Use, Special Report 278. Transportation Research Board. 2004. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10832&page=R1

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

[vii] Highway Loss Data Institute, Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. Q&As: Motorcycle helmet use laws. January 2009. http://www.iihs.org/research/qanda/helmet_use.html.

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

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

Smeed’s Law and motorcycle fatalities

February 25, 2010

We’ve looked at the various pieces of the motorcycle safety puzzle and found that they all—without exception—have failed to bring the death toll down but as more riders practice them the death and injury toll goes up.

It’s time, then to explore other things that might affect the crash rate of motorcycles in America. Some of these readers have referred to—and we’ll look at them more closely. Some of them may seem quite far-fetched and some might be rather offensive. Yet, since the usual answers haven’t solved the puzzle, it’s appropriate to explore other factors—no matter how unpalatable—in case they may in part or in concert led to safer roads for riders.

We start with R.J. Smeed’s “Law” which was first published in 1949. It states that as the number of automobiles in a country increase so do fatalities in a predictable way: the number of deaths equals .0003 times the two-thirds power of the number of people times the one-third power of the number of cars.[i] After that point, road fatalities begin to fall off and then level off at a much lower point.

Despite safer cars, Smeed’s Law is still basically true in all developing countries. For example, it held true in the USA until about 1966—and his formula for the decline of traffic fatalities is very close to what has actually happened.

His friend, the eminent physicist Freeman John Dyson, wrote, “It is remarkable that the number of deaths does not depend strongly on the size of the country, the quality of the roads, the rules and regulations governing traffic, or the safety equipment installed in cars. Smeed interpreted his law as a law of human nature. The number of deaths is determined mainly by psychological factors that are independent of material circumstances. People will drive recklessly until the number of deaths reaches the maximum they can tolerate. When the number exceeds that limit, they drive more carefully. Smeed’s Law merely defines the number of deaths that we find psychologically tolerable.”[ii]

Of course, in 1965, Ralph Nader’s book, Unsafe At Any Speed, was published which both captured the general public’s growing frustration with traffic fatalities and exacerbated that frustration. From the mid-Sixties on there was a massive push for safer design, safer roads and safer crashing. Iow, Smeed was right about the linkage but assumed it would take more cars and deaths to get to the point we could no longer psychologically tolerate the death toll.

It’s true that motorcycles can’t be made as objectively safe (crush zones, front and side air bags, etc.) as cars—but then that’s true for bicyclists and pedestrians as well and their death rates have dropped in the past ten years while motorcyclist fatalities rose—and rose and rose outpacing registrations.

When it comes to automobiles and perhaps bicycles[iii], there’s not just a correlation but some kind of subconscious process at work that first allows the death toll to rise and then, eventually, lowers it.

But the key here is that drivers keep driving—they just drive safer.

The question is: does Smeed’s Law work for motorcycle registrations and rider deaths?  I’ll leave it to anyone who’s better at math than I to do the math but I do wonder: How can we as riders still “psychologically tolerate” the soaring death toll?

But here’s this—even if it does, it’s a little different when it comes to motorcycles:   The past 11 years is not the first surge in motorcycle registrations and fatalities in the USA. The most recent registration surge ended in the early 1980s and fatalities topped out in 1981. The death toll began dropping and bottomed out in 1997—even though registrations had begun to increase a few years earlier.

While 29 states either dropped or adjusted universal helmet laws during the 1970s while fatalities were rising, the laws weren’t reinstated yet fatalities dropped. From 1973-2001, 1.6 million were trained and all states began to require motorcycle licensing—and most were trained as fatalities were falling.

But the death toll did drop beginning in 1982—and so did registrations and then registrations started to go up in the early 1990s—and fatalities followed suit in 1998.

However since 2002, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation claims over 2 million have been trained—and yet fatalities have exceeded the height of the late 1970s-1981 surge in rider deaths.

Today, EMS response time is better than it ever has been, medical procedures are more effective and traffic system design has concentrated on safer roads and intersections. While this has brought about reductions in auto, bicycle and pedestrian deaths, some of that loss was simply transferred over to motorcyclist deaths.

Iow, just as with automobiles, Dyson’s words could be applied to motorcycles. It appears “the number of deaths does not depend strongly on the size of the country, the quality of the roads, the rules and regulations governing traffic, or the safety equipment.”

In this way, Smeed’s Law might be true but in a different way than with cars. When it comes to autos, people are sickened by the death rate and demand change as a nation of drivers—but they keep on driving and registrations keep on going up.

But motorcycling doesn’t behave the same way: in the past three cycles, registrations peaked before fatalities did—but unlike Smeed’s Law predicted, registrations did fall off.

Iow, while drivers either behave more safely or there are changes to design, roads or safety measures are brought to bear, this doesn’t happen with riders—yet the fatality rate still drops. But so does registrations.

It could be that individual riders no longer believe that riding is safe for them and give up motorcycling—and thus increased motorcycle “safety” is really attrition. Which doesn’t make motorcycling safer at all.


[i] Smeed, R. J. Some Statistical Aspects of Road Safety Research. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series A (General), Vol. 112, No. 1 (1949), pp. 1-34.

[ii] Dyson, Freeman. “Part II: A Failure of Intelligence” Technology Review

http://www.technologyreview.com/Infotech/17847/page5/

[iii] Hakamies-Blomqvist, Liisa and Mats Wiklund, Per Henriksson. Predicting older drivers’ accident involvement – Smeed’s law revisited. Accident Analysis and Prevention 37 (2005) 675–680.

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