NTSB's push for helmet laws disappoints safety groups
By Susan Carpenter, www.latimes.com
AMA: Federal panel's motorcycle safety recommendations fall short
The National Transportation Safety Board this week approved recommendations for motorcycle safety focusing on passage of mandatory helmet-use laws in all states, but did not deal with other significant issues related to the safety of riders on the road.
The recommendations, which do not carry the force of law, come a year after the NTSB held a public forum on motorcycle safety that gathered comments from motorcycle manufacturers, researchers, trauma physicians, law enforcement officials, insurance companies and motorcycle associations, including the AMA. Those groups expressed support for a wide range of motorcycle-safety initiatives, including campaigns against alcohol impairment, increased opportunities for rider education and stricter enforcement of licensing laws.
In the end, though, the panel's final report focused almost exclusively on the helmet-law issue.
"While we encourage all riders to voluntarily wear a DOT-certified helmet as a part of a comprehensive approach to motorcycle safety," noted Ed Moreland, AMA Vice President for Government Relations, "we're disappointed that the NTSB missed this opportunity to focus on meaningful issues related to the reduction of motorcycle crashes, rather than just reducing injuries once a crash occurs."
The AMA has worked for years to secure federal funding for the first comprehensive study of the causes of motorcycle crashes in more than 25 years. And thanks to major financial support from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, plus contributions from the AMA and individual riders, the matching funds for that federal grant are now in place and the study should begin this fall.
"The motorcycling community has demonstrated its commitment to vital issues of safety through support for this study, along with rider education, alcohol impairment and licensing programs," Moreland said. "We would have hoped that federal officials would have taken a more well-rounded approach of working with the community to create truly effective countermeasures to reduce crashes, rather than investing more resources in a very limited legislative agenda that has not had much success in recent years."
The results are in. After a year's analysis of testimony from the National Transportation Safety Board's first-ever forum on motorcycle safety, the NTSB has finally made its recommendations.
The biggest take-away: Helmets save lives.
That message wasn't for riders but for state governments, which the safety board is encouraging to adopt universal helmet laws. Right now, just 20 states, including California, have laws requiring all motorcyclists and their passengers to wear helmets that meet the Department of Transportation standard. Twenty-seven states have partial laws requiring helmet use for a specific segment of riders, usually those under age 18, while three states have no helmet laws whatsoever.
"If you're wearing a helmet, your risk of dying in a crash is reduced by 37%," said Deborah Hersman, the board member who led last September's public forum on motorcycle safety. "That's the one measure we know will result in reducing fatalities and injuries."
The forum, prompted by the statistic that 10% of U.S. highway fatalities occur on motorcycles, was the first time in the board's 40-year history that it had addressed the topic of motorcycles.
More than 30 individuals testified on topics ranging from vehicle design and protective equipment to safety statistics, rider training, rider impairment and public education, yet most of those subjects went unmentioned in the board's recommendations due to "conflicting testimony" and inadequate statistical data, Hersman said.
The board is a not a regulatory authority. It is an arm of the U.S. government, responsible for investigating transportation accidents and making safety recommendations to whatever entities are best able to implement them. Since 1967, the board has issued more than 10,000 recommendations, 80% of which "have been closed in a favorable status," Hersman said.
Some take months to resolve. Others are open for years or decades.
"It depends on how challenging they are," Hersman added.
Despite the NTSB's track record, many in the motorcycle safety field were disappointed by the narrow scope and legislative bent of the six recommendations the board issued last week, three of which were calls to states and territories to adopt universal helmet laws. The other three were:
A request to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to re-prioritize its 7-year-old National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety.
A companion request that each state provide the NHTSA with data on the effectiveness of its motorcycle safety efforts.
A call to the Federal Highway Administration to develop guidelines for states to gather accurate data on motorcycle registrations and vehicle miles traveled.
"We're disappointed," said Ed Moreland, the American Motorcyclist Assn.'s vice president for government relations. "We think the NTSB missed an opportunity to weigh in on crash prevention measures and to work with the community to devise truly effective countermeasures instead of just seeking to implement nationwide helmet laws."
Specifically, Moreland said, the association would have liked to see a focus on alcohol awareness and distracted-driver education programs.
"The fact of the matter remains that before the NTSB recommendations and following, motorcyclists are going to continue to be harmed on America's highways until something is done about other motorists not seeing them," he said. "That continues to be at the top of the list for causes of collisions between vehicles and motorcyclists."
The association isn't the only entity to express surprise at the safety board's focus on helmets. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation was also measured in its response. "They did not address a lot of areas that we think contribute to saving lives and enhancing motorcyclist safety," said Dean Thompson, MSF's communications director.
He added, "We try to provide leadership for rider awareness. . . . What we're saying with our response is: Step up in your area."
According to Dave Thom, a longtime helmet researcher who worked on the landmark 1981 Hurt Study on crash causes and who currently heads the Collision and Injury Dynamics lab in El Segundo, "Ignoring mandatory helmets is like ignoring the 400-pound gorilla in the room. It's very controversial. There's 40 years of animosity when you say helmet laws, so the NTSB was brave to put it out there, but those of us that have been involved in motorcycling for many years know that it's not that simple. . . . It creates a quagmire."
In states that lack universal helmet laws, the quagmire involves getting such regulations passed. Motorcycle rights organizations have successfully lobbied for the repeal of many laws, arguing that helmets make it more difficult to see or hear while riding. Since 1997, six states have weakened helmet laws to limit coverage to those under a specific age. Despite nine consecutive years of motorcycle fatality increases, only one state -- Louisiana -- has reversed itself and re-adopted a universal law.
In Iowa, one of three states lacking any helmet law, the governor and legislators on its transportation committee responded to the NTSB recommendations by saying they have no plans to revive the debate.
In states with universal helmet laws, such as California, the quagmire relates to enforcement -- not only that riders wear helmets, but that they wear genuine Transportation Department-approved ones. According to the department, 14% of motorcycle riders use helmets that do not comply with its Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 218. These substandard or "novelty" helmets, which often sport DOT stickers but do not live up to the billing, "present motorcycle riders with a higher risk for skull fracture and brain injury when compared to certified helmets," according to an April 2007 report from the department.
In California, there is little enforcement of the standard.
"Our officers are not DOT experts," said Heather Hoglund, a public affairs officer for the California Highway Patrol. "Unless it's completely obvious that this thing is a little piece of plastic or is not a motorcycle helmet even if it had the sticker on there, it would be at the officer's discretion to issue a citation. . . . "
The California Vehicle Code doesn't even have a specific code for a novelty helmet violation. It's lumped together with the violation for not wearing a helmet at all. In 2006, 631 motorcyclists in California were cited for such a violation, compared with 13,620 for excessive speed and 2,340 for registration violations.
CONCLUSIONS MISLEADING IN NEW IIHS REPORT, AMA SAYS
The American Motorcyclist Association has expressed serious reservations about the conclusions reached in a report of motorcycle fatalities released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety this week.
The IIHS report purports to show that sport-styled motorcycles are considerably more dangerous than other types of bikes. But an AMA analysis of the report notes that the methodology used in the research makes it difficult to determine whether that's a valid conclusion.
"The synopsis released by the IIHS claims that it has data showing a much higher fatality rate among so-called 'supersport' motorcycles," noted Ed Moreland, AMA Vice President for Government Relations. "But that is by no means clear, based on this report."
The IIHS report is not a new study. Instead, it's an analysis of existing data from the national Fatal Accident Reporting System. The methodology consists of a comparison of fatalities for different styles of motorcycles based on a rate per 10,000 registrations. But that approach ignores a number of key factors, like the number of miles the bike was ridden, the traffic environment in which it was used, along with the age and experience of the rider, among others.
The timing of the IIHS report is also unusual. Just this week, the National Transportation Safety Board specifically asked the Federal Highway Administration to work with states to develop uniform data-collection procedures that will result in better information about the number of miles traveled by motorcycles, one of the most important factors in evaluating crash statistics. As a result, this could be one of the final reports to use registration data exclusively, which is less accurate in reflecting actual motorcycle use.
This new IIHS report is remarkably similar to a study the group financed 20 years ago that also purported to show higher fatality rates among sportbikes. At that time, the IIHS used its study as the springboard for a well-orchestrated campaign that included ready-made news footage it fed to TV news operations across the country. That campaign culminated in the introduction of a bill in the U.S. Senate to impose a horsepower limit on all motorcycles sold in the U.S.
The current IIHS research has plenty of echoes of that era in the late 1980s. In fact, the final sentence of the IIHS "Status Report" on the subject, published Sept. 11, says, "Short of banning supersport and sport motorcycles from public roadways, capping the speed of these street-legal racing machines at the factory might be one way to reduce their risk."
In response to that previous attempt by the IIHS to ban sportbikes, the AMA conducted an analysis of the study and raised questions that the Association submitted to Harry Hurt, lead researcher on the most comprehensive study of motorcycle crashes ever conducted. Hurt reviewed the research and declared it "fatally flawed" for exactly the kind of methodology problems seen in the new IIHS report. The Association then coordinated a campaign among motorcyclists across the country that eventually led the senator to withdraw his proposed legislation.
Ironically, the new IIHS report comes out just as the AMA and the motorcycling community have been successful in getting federal funding for the first comprehensive motorcycle safety study since the Hurt Report all those years ago. And thanks to funding from the industry, through the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, along with the AMA and individual riders, that study will begin this fall.
"We look forward to getting the results of actual, in-the-field research that won't just compare fatalities to some hypothetical class of motorcycle, but will pin down the actual factors involved in motorcycle crashes," Moreland said. "That will be much more useful in helping save lives on the highway."