NHTSA Motorcycle Safety Priorities

Doug Westly | Safety Editor

IMPORTANT NOTICE: Ultimately, the safety of motorcycle riders and their passengers is their own responsibility. Nothing presented in the column supersedes, negates or relieves a motorcyclist and/or passenger from assumption of personal responsibility for their actions and safety.

In June 2013, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) released its report on prioritized recommendations for improving motorcycle safety. There is a lot of information to digest in the report, and much of it is centered not on the motorcyclists themselves, but also on ancillary entities and factors that influence and/or are factors in motorcycle crashes. Full reference is provided below.

Appendix C of the Report contains a prioritized list of recommendations to improve motorcycle safety. We won’t go into the entire list here, but it’s worth taking a look at the Priority 1 recommendations. As listed in the report, here are the Priority 1 items associated directly with the motorcyclist(s), with a few applicable comments:

Use effective strategies to increase use of FMVSS 218-compliant helmets: NHTSA states that approved helmet use in crashes currently runs at about 60%. That means in approximately 40% of crashes, the rider and/or passenger is not wearing an approved helmet. (NOTE: FMVSS 218 is “Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 218 – Motorcycle Helmets”.) Obviously this statistic is significantly impacted by the number of states where approved helmets are optional wear. Regardless of what naysayers claim, helmets have been proven to save lives and reduce severe head/face/cranial injuries. We would hope that MSTA members, as dedicated riders, understand this one. Other crash statistics also demonstrate that over 70% of the time, head trauma during motorcycle crashes involves impacts in the front or side facial areas. Bottom line: Wear a full-face or at least flip-face helmet. If it’s a flipface, close the front of the helmet when you ride. Don’t spread your face along the road surface.

Study motorcyclists’ alcohol, drug, and medication use patterns: Statistically, motorcyclists are more likely than car drivers to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs in a crash. How many times have you heard of a motorcyclist crashing at 2am? What are the chances alcohol is involved? Why do motorcycle groups insist on doing “Poker Runs”, where groups ride from bar to bar? Don’t drink and ride. If someone is going to drink, then peer pressure is the best antidote. Let them know you’re not going to ride with them if they take that drink, or they aren’t welcome to ride with or continue with the group. There is no place for alcohol or drugs in riding, period.

Study effectiveness of linked and antilock brakes; if positive, use more widely: This one indicates motorcyclists have braking issues. Here we go back to training and proper riding techniques. A few months ago, I was in traffic, by coincidence following a cruiser rider, when the traffic light in front of him suddenly (for him) turned red. In reality you could have and I already had made the mental predication that it was going to turn red. In any case, I literally watched him pick up his right foot and jam it on the rear brake lever, locking the rear tire and causing a rear wheel skid. His right hand never even reached for the front brake. Fortunately he kept it upright as he slid to a stop, almost halfway through the intersection. NTHSA sees faulty braking and is looking for technology solutions. I suggest the real problem is a lack of proper training, expertise and usage of current braking systems. Motorcycles can already stop MUCH faster than most cars. Effective motorcycle linked and antilock brake systems already exist. The problem is not the brakes. The problem is the rider who needs to execute proper riding technique. That includes predictive riding (remember MSF’s “Search, Evaluate, Execute” mantra?) and proper braking technique.

Study riders’ attitudes, behavior, effect on crash involvement: This one is interesting. The report suggest that rider attitudes have a lot to do with crash involvement. I think we can all appreciate this issue. Just this week there was a report of sport bike rider in South Florida, killed when he lost control of his bike while doing wheelies at over 100 mph on the Interstate. The resulting crash ejected him over the side of the elevated roadway and he fell to his death. Yes, this is an extreme example. But, our social attitude has a lot to do with how we ride, and how we are perceived by the general public. MSF calls it “social cooperation”. We need to keep control of our attitudes and riding when we’re on public roads. Don’t fall for road rage, excessive vehicle performance riding, rude traffic maneuvers, etc. Keep your emotions under control when you ride!

Identify critical crash avoidance skills: NHTSA believes that many riders statistically don’t demonstrate adequate crash avoidance skills. Based on my observance of riders for the past 42 years of my riding career, I’m not going to challenge this assumption. Everything from excessive speed in corners (the number one crash scenario and factor in single vehicle motorcycle crashes) to just being able to put your feet down at a traffic light are indicators that most riders don’t have/get enough training. I watched a sport bike rider pull into a gas station the other day. He pulled up and with the front wheel still turned, grabbed the front brake. The result was predictable; a bike laying on its side with its tongue hanging out. Let’s face it; the MSF’s Basic Rider Course teaches new riders how to control a motorcycle in a parking lot. The majority of riders don’t get any more training, and it shows. Unfortunately our political/social system is at odds with mandating more advanced training. We’ll probably never have the type of graduated licensing system for motorcycle riding that is common in Europe, Japan and other countries (I’m not faulting
MSF, just don’t get me started about the abysmal training and licensing philosophy in this country.). Bottom Line: Get advanced training. Do continuing training. SAFELY practice crash avoidance skills and techniques.

So what have we learned from all this? The same things we’ve been preaching all along. NHTSA just reinforces our safety efforts! Riders need to wear gear and good helmets. Alcohol, drugs and riding never mix. Keep your bike in good operating condition. Training, training, training. Practice, practice, practice. There is also one other VERY IMPORTANT consideration. One part on the motorcycle inevitably fails before any other: That is the nut that connects the handlebars to the seat; you, the rider. Your attitude about riding is the very first thing you need to consider. The most important safety feature on your motorcycle is between your ears. Use it!

Reference: DOT HS 811 789 June 2013 June 2013, Prioritized Recommendations of the National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety, http://www.nhtsa.gov/Safety/Motorcycle

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