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Landmark motorcycle crash causation study progressing slowly in America’s heartland

March 3, 2009

Landmark motorcycle crash causation study progressing slowly in America’s heartland

By Jeff Cobb

With more motorcyclists on American roads today than ever, injuries and deaths are also at all time highs, but the man responsible to help find solutions has been administratively stopped from doing so. 

Dr. Samir Ahmed, Professor of Transportation Systems & Engineering at the Oklahoma State University (OSU) Transportation Center told Motorcycle Safety News he is more than just a little frustrated.

Ahmed is to head the Motorcycle Crash Causation study, a four-year project intended to forensically examine 900-plus motorcycle accidents over a three-four year period. It is only the second of its type in American history, and has been described as badly needed. Its data would be used to help reformulate “countermeasures” and redevelop training and strategies intended to prevent motorcycle accidents.

But the wheels are turning slowly in Oklahoma.
“Everything is frozen. For me to do any work, I have to have an account,” Ahmed said of a spending budget needed to do preliminary groundwork while he awaits results of a pilot study begun a couple months ago and due in March or April by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Meanwhile, according to Tim Buche, president of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF), although U.S. motorcyclists represent less than one half of one percent of all vehicle miles traveled (VMT), in 2007 they represented 12.55 percent of all highway fatalities.

Citing NHTSA statistics, Buche said also in 2007, the number of motorcycles registered in the U.S. had topped 7.1 million, but while other roadway user group fatalities have been declining, motorcyclist fatalities have increased for the past 10 years. He and many other stakeholders are determined to get answers.
And count the U.S. military a stakeholder, also much in need of answers. Like their civilian counterparts, soldiers have been dying or getting hurt in unprecedented numbers on motorcycles. According to CNN, from November 2007 to October 2008, a record 25 Marines were killed in sport bike crashes, which exceeded the Marine combat death tally during the same time period in Iraq.

The pending OSU study is said to be needed to update the Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures, or “Hurt Report,” of 1981 named after head researcher, Harry Hurt.

Buche said stakeholders including the motorcycle press, enthusiast groups, and others helped formulate a game plan to address safety for American riders called the NAMS (National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety). It was developed with funding by the MSF and NHTSA, and its top recommendation was the new crash causation study.
The legislative ball for the new study got rolling in 2005 with a push by lobbyists for motorcycle enthusiast groups. While assurances of government funding came in summer 2006, and required matching funds were more than anted-up by the motorcycle community in summer 2007, Ahmed said he has been unable to do anything because he has been denied permission by his administration to start a “finalized work plan.”

“These are the things I need to do right away,” Ahmed said of formulating research questions, making arrangements with subcontractors and more, “I should have done them a year ago at least.”

The legislation that allowed the study was signed Aug. 10, 2005 by President Bush. Officially called SAFETEA-LU (Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users), it was to be administered through the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), and made provision initially for $2.8 million, later capped at $2 million to be used in studying motorcycle crashes. It mandated 1:1 matching funds from non-federal government sources. The motorcycle industry has since committed $3 million, and the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) has written a check for about $100,000.

The study’s rigorously scientific testing methodology is to come from the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development). This methodology mirrors that used by the benchmark Hurt Report, and the MAIDs (Motorcycle Accident In-Depth Study) conducted in Europe in 1999-2000.

But with about $5.1 million in commitments, Alan Tree, associate dean for research at OSU’s College of Engineers, Architects and Technology, said he does not want to be left accountable for what he foresees as a minimum $9-10 million project.
“The challenge is the study is under funded,” Tree said, “And that’s the crux of the problem.”

ree said he is still waiting for monies to be added to a pooled fund established by the FHWA. Thus far, only two U.S. states, New York and Texas, have given a combined $225,000 of a hoped for $1.5 million or greater total contribution by all 50 states.

It is also hoped the U.S. Department of Defense may be willing to offer similar funding, as its personnel have directly to gain.

Talks are ongoing, but behind the scenes others are saying this is bureaucratic subterfuge, and the whole truth is not being told.

Sources close to the FHWA have said they have all but begged the university administrators to get started with the $5.1 million it already has, and to have faith that the remaining funds will come. It is said a two-phase plan could commence now; phase one being done with existing money earmarked for the project.
Tree, who is the administrator with authority to say the word “go” to research contracts, flatly denied that he could responsibly get started now.

“There are people who would like to get started with the study. They are not the people who would not be on the hoof for millions of dollars if we cannot complete the study,” Tree said. “That would be me.”

Others have said this is a fabrication. In question is whether OSU would be contractually bound – as Tree said – to complete the study with its own money should no other funds be offered.

But this is only one of the bigger complications in what has been less than smooth sailing.

The study itself was funded by an earmark largely sponsored by Rep. Sam Graves, R-Missouri, and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma.

As is characteristic for earmarks designated to benefit a respective legislator’s constituency, it was given without democratic consideration for competitive bids or, it was suggested, full consideration of merit by OSU.

And beyond this, there are those in the motorcycle community who are less than excited to even see the results of a study.

Presently, the U.S. has comparatively fewer safety laws than are found in parts of Europe. For example, only 20 U.S. states have universal mandatory helmet laws, according to Rae Tyson of NHTSA. Likewise, gear such as leather and textile apparel, boots, gloves and armor is not required to meet any certification standards in order to be offered for sale to motorcyclists.

In Europe, gear sold must meet “CE” level 1 or level 2 standards, a perceived measurable value not lost on American marketers who advertise world market gear as “CE” certified.

But while some hesitancy exists, no one says they do not want the study to take place, or that they do not care about injured and dying riders. On that, all agree progress is needed as soon as possible.

Since the late 1970s when Harry Hurt’s team worked with the University of Southern California and NHTSA to craft its report on motorcycle accident causation, much has changed.

In question now is exactly how much will still be found to be valid from the Hurt report.
With changed conditions today, it is anyone’s guess what outcomes, if any, might be different.
Fine-tuned data are expected though. One change today is the average American rider’s age has gone from 24 to 38. There are more registered women motorcycle riders too.

Likewise, road traffic is denser in most areas, and automobile drivers now have a host of new distractions like cup holders, cell phones, PDAs, DVD players, etc. And passenger vehicles have gotten bigger on average.

Some researchers have criticized SUVs as particularly dangerous for motorcyclists because crashing into one often means the rider’s body slams into it, instead of possibly careening over as with a lower roofed automobile.

In short, even though injury and death stats look terrible, and everyone wants answers to improve them, some are at least a little worried that “bad legislation” might result if data suggests new approaches are necessary.

Among fears are that some lawmakers may get it in their minds to mandate motorcycle rollover protection, or mandatory anti-lock brakes, or excessive re-engineering of current designs to include crash bars and more which would affect costs and competitiveness in an already tight market.

Lawmakers who do not ride have been known to sometimes look at motorcycles as simply dangerous, and try to make quick sweeping solutions without sensitivity or full understanding. Proof of lack of comprehension among some lawmakers could be seen in an extreme example where seat belts were once suggested for motorcycles.
Even in heavily regulated Europe the constant specter of regulation from unsympathetic lawmakers occasionally raises concern for what is really a small international community. In February 2008, Motorcycle News (MCN) reported that the president of the Association of European Motorcycle Manufacturers, Stefan Pierer said Brussels politicians were discussing a comprehensive ban on all motorcycles from the roads because they simply categorized them as “too dangerous.”
And more close to home, New York government officials are presently fighting a battle with industry advocates over the legality of motorcycle usage in High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes. It is said, the New York powers that be are flagrantly violating motorcyclists’ rights in an attempt to push their views.

Compared to cars and trucks, motorcycles have a very low “carbon footprint,” offer very little wear and tear on roadways, but vigilance still must be constantly kept to protect riders’ rights.
Also included in the fears by motorcycle industry stakeholders are possible new rules on motorcyclists who use cell phones or intercoms, which could fall under scrutiny just as automotive cell use is in various regions.

In the main, motorcycles must obey all rules of the road just like automobiles, but with regards to safety, technology and innovations, the industry has had been largely self-regulated, and remarkably few laws on vehicle design have been forced on manufacturers, that might be considered intrusive or over the top.
Everyone spoken to for this article said they want to keep their freedoms, and this country’s history was touted as a proof of rights to be defended.
But when they can show justification, American legislators are known to write safety laws anyway, such as mandatory seat belt usage for car occupants, as well as air bag and child seat requirements, and more.

Some motorcycle enthusiast groups actively lobby to prevent unwarranted laws with hidden and unforeseen costs and consequences, and do not want to give ammunition to eager lawmakers ready to take an unjustified shot at motorcycle safety.
Peter terHorst, a spokesman for the AMA said if riders will just be proactive and do the right thing, ride within limits, unimpaired, and wear proper gear, there would be fewer incidents, and they might not force lawmakers’ hands, and all could remain well.

On the other hand, it is known that laws are traditionally made when any group is believed to be unable to manage the freedoms or privileges it has.
In light of many safety laws for other modes of transportation, NHTSA’s Tyson described some freedoms motorcyclists now enjoy as especially “selectively libertarian” indicating an attitude already present by some in government.
And the holy grail of liberties today would appear to be the freedom in 30 out of 50 states not to wear a helmet.
Whether airbags or other innovations are ever required on motorcycles, or not, helmet requirements are definitely of concern. The Motorcycle Riders Foundation (MRF) in Washington, D.C., and the related state-based American Bikers Aimed Toward Education (ABATE) motorcyclists’ rights organizations have lobbied against helmet laws.

Jeff Hennie, vice president of government relations for the MRF, said therefore, while he thinks the Hurt report is sorely in need of updating, he is only “cautiously optimistic that the study will be durable and worthy. There is a possibility that there will be some stuff in there that we are not thrilled about.”
While the study is meant to explore crash causation only, concerns remain that data presented may prompt some to suggest countermeasures and solutions he and others who feel as he does would find unfavorable.

Hennie defended his position, citing Michigan – a helmet state – that he said traditionally has more motorcycle fatalities than neighboring states without compulsory helmet use laws. He said population and demographics are comparable between Michigan and its neighbors, and it is an apples-to-apples comparison.
He and others who oppose mandatory helmets were clear, however, that they are not “anti-helmet,” but they believe it is a matter of discretionary individual freedom – one that has to date been hard won.

So in spite of strongly held opinions, if a new study were to present compelling data that could be interpreted to suggest that helmets overwhelmingly saved lives, or that not wearing a helmet appeared to be a worse idea than previously suspected, that might influence a legislator in a direction Hennie, as well as the AMA and others oppose.

Ahmed, however, emphasized that unlike the Hurt Report, countermeasures were deliberately not being suggested, and the new study’s scope will only address crash causation, not propose solutions – although he acknowledged concerns from diverse agendas remain.

The variety of interests – each with somewhat different dogs in the hunt – helps explain why, despite the inertia at Oklahoma, there is not as great a sense of urgency as one might expect.
To its credit the motorcycle enthusiast community has already exceeded its required commitment, and all agree the project cost was simply underestimated from the start.
But with funding in question, Buche told Motorcycle Safety News that at this point, he would urge Congress to place the needed funding as a priority, under supervision of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), which oversees both NHTSA and FHWA.

“Congress definitely needs to step up to fund this,” Buche said. While the MSF is doing what it can to create research-based initiatives for motorist awareness and rider training programs and more, he said the need is more than obvious. It is time, he said, that the nation offered more funding to motorcycling, which represents the interests of million of Americans and their families and friends.
Out of all the industry representatives, it appears the MSF and AMA are among those which most want to see the study completed.
In October 2008, AMA President and CEO Rob Dingman issued a press release citing the “long-overdue” study.

Then Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peter’s office had just released confirmation of what others already suspected. According to NHTSA, motorcycle riders or passengers killed had increased yet again. From 2006 to 2007, these deaths increased another 6.6 percent, while the overall number of traffic fatalities fell to the lowest since 1994.

One of the stipulations by the AMA and others in pushing for the 2005 legislation had been that it be handled through the FHWA. Although terHorst said the AMA is pleased NHTSA is doing the pilot study, others have said an institutional bias is held by NHTSA that includes advocating for mandatory helmet laws.
Even so, NHTSA has traditionally been responsible to monitor motorcycle and scooter statistics, promote safety awareness campaigns, and had been partners in the original Hurt Report. Requesting the FHWA do the study was seen by some as a slight against NHTSA.

In his press release, Dingman asked the FHWA and OSU to hurry up, and at the time revealed some thoughts he had for NHTSA.
“Some time ago, Congress and the motorcycling community committed the necessary funds for this study,” said Dingman. “For too long, NHTSA has simply focused on a strategy of advocating mandatory helmet use, while doing little to prevent crashes from occurring in the first place. With a new administration set to take office on January 20, we can’t afford any more delays while motorcycle crashes, injuries and fatalities continue to mount. The time to begin the study is now.”
But despite NHTSA’s not being in charge of the project, it ironically is the agency developing the protocols the FHWA will use, and the only agency presently getting measurable work done.

For the last two months emergency service dispatchers and workers in Orange County, Calif., under direction of NHTSA have been notifying its researchers each time a motorcycle or scooter crashes so they can rush to the scene and investigate.
After about 30 such test cases, the protocols will be handed to the FHWA and Ahmed at OSU’s Transportation Center to finalize the work plan for the national study of another 900-plus accidents to be conducted in still not fully determined Sun Belt areas. This number is considered a bare minimum and originally 1200 test cases had been desired.

Each is expected to cost about $10,000 per crash, which will include two follow-up “control cases” where non-crashing riders are pulled over and interviewed by researchers in the exhaustive study. Interviewers will compare those who did crash with those who did not under similar or identical conditions.
As of this writing, despite denials by a spokesman of the FHWA, it has been said by those close to the study that there has even been some talk of its being considered for withdrawal from OSU, which insists its hands are tied. This, the AMA and others have said would be a most undesirable setback.
Overall, the AMA’s terHorst said because the NHTSA pilot project is not yet complete, it is still premature to speculate, and the AMA and others are hopeful the study will go on as planned.

The pilot project is expected to give more accurate cost estimates to assist in setting actual goals for funding which is still actively being sought from a variety of sources.
Ironically, Ahmed said, the national study was supposed to be a natural and seamless continuation of the pilot project. Because of delays, it would seem that they are not going to gain as much from it as intended.

The pilot study has established arrangements with emergency departments in Orange County, and they were initially expected to keep working once the national study started, but that is now in question. Further, OSU did not take advantage of the opportunity to train more investigators for the national study. The original intent had been to send nine investigators who would have learned from the training in the pilot project.

“It appears that we are not going to benefit much from the pilot project,” Ahmed said, “These trained investigators are going to go look for something else to do. All the agreements with the agencies in California will just die gradually.”
His statement is of course based on whether the OSU project does get started.
But OSU’s Tree said there is no cause for concern, and expects funding should be forthcoming and he is willing to wait, and said the study will get the job done right.
“We’re not embarrassed about this at all. We were invited to participate in this project, and even though we are taking a little heat, the project is so important, we will continue,” Tree said. “Everyone agrees it is extremely important we identify the causes of motorcycle fatalities among Americans. And we are honored to be a part of this, and we are willing to put our time and resources and good will into finding the additional needed funding.”

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