Let’s Talk About Crashes

You know that motorcycle riding is dangerous. We all know this. Well-intentioned dimwits remind us all the time with their epiphanic insights (“Isn’t that dangerous?”) and fatuous humor (Every time some maroon mentions the term “organ donor” [as if I’ve never heard it before], I whip out my driver’s license to show them that I am, in fact, an organ donor. [I really do this] That generally shuts them up.).


So, yeah, we all know it’s dangerous. Or rather, we have this general sense that it’s dangerous. We don’t truly understand the danger of motorcycling. How dangerous is it really? What types of riding are dangerous? What are the factors in crashes that I can and cannot control? How effective is “defensive riding” in preventing accidents? Do loud pipes really save lives? Am I becoming a safer or less safe rider as I get older? Is a big, heavy cruiser safer than a nimble sport bike? Does lane-splitting really increase or decrease rider safety?


We don’t have good answers for these, because motorcycle safety is seriously understudied. Maybe it’s because we’re a small constituency, or maybe it’s because, frankly, we haven’t asked for it, but there hasn’t been a comprehensive study of motorcycle crashes since nineteen-eighty-freaking-one. That study, Motorcycle Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures, (informally called the Hurt Report [after its primary author Harry Hurt, not as a kind of sardonic humor]) looked at 900 crashes. This was an examination of case studies rather than an aggregation of overall national data. It was also limited to the Los Angeles area, so the results may not be entirely (or at all) extrapolatable to the whole country.


And it was 34 years ago; do you think anything might have changed since Dolly Parton sang “9 to 5” and Walter Cronkite retired? (Not trying to imply that those two events are related)


Well, there is a new study going on right now, and according to the AMA (the motorcycle people, not the doctors), it just received additional funding to continue through 2015. This is a good thing, but it also has some serious limitations.


The Motorcycle Crash Causation Study is being conducted by Oklahoma State University and is funded by the states of Oklahoma (natch), Iowa, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin, and by the Federal Highway Administration, NHTSA, and the AMA (again, the bike folks). The study is expected to be published in Spring 2016.


Like the Hurt Report, the MCCS will examine a limited number of accidents in detail to understand causes with the goal of providing the background information to other institutions to develop countermeasures and safety standards. There will be about 500 crashes included in the final study. This type of in-depth analysis of specific incidents is critical to understanding the how and why of crashes and to training bikers in safe riding practice. Hopefully some of this will also filter into training car and truck drivers in how to not “not see” bikes.


However, this data set is even more limited than the original Hurt set of 900 crashes. We understand that this is a labor-intensive (and therefore expensive) process, but smaller data sets do not make for more universal results. This case-study analysis would be much more meaningful if it were complemented with large-scale data analytics of overall national crash statistics. This could illuminate regional differences and demonstrate how broadly the conclusions from the 500 case crashes can be applied to everyone and help states and individuals assess their risks.


This report also needs to be correlated with the June 2013 NHTSA publication of the Prioritized Recommendations of the National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety (NAMS). This report makes 82 specific recommendations for increased motorcycle safety. The very first recommendation is “Government and industry research studies, both comprehensive and specific,” so we are starting in the right direction just by fact of conducting the MCCS itself. Of course, the industry doesn’t appear to be involved here, which is a shame, but it’s a start. (I can understand why manufacturers might be shy about getting too real about the dangers of using their product, but they need to take the long view and help promote knowledge and education for biker longevity. They don’t want their customers being splattered.) The MCCS might validate or debunk many of the other 81 recommendations in the NAMS report. These need to be put together and assessed when the MCCS is complete.


The number of crashes in the MCCS is not the only limitation of the study. Similar to the Hurt Report, the MCCS is only studying crashes in California. No-one could reasonably say that CA is representative of the nation as a whole when it comes to riding. First, there is a different level of driver awareness of bikers in CA, and possibly a different attitude (bikers tend to be seen more as “outlaws” in CA, which might [do you think?] result in different behavior on the part of car drivers). Second, adverse weather conditions for riding are much more common in other states and so will be underrepresented in a survey of CA accidents. The lack of freeze-thaw in much of the state also means roads may be in better condition, thus underrepresenting potholes, cracks, and loose asphalt as causes. Finally, and most importantly, CA is the only state which allows lane-splitting. That means this survey cannot make any intelligent statement about whether lane-splitting increases or decreases biker safety. This is one of the most burning questions about motorcycle regulation and safety, and this study cannot address it. There are surely other significant (I mean “significant” strictly in the sense of actually statistically significant) differences between CA and the other 49, but these three are obvious important differences that seriously limit the applicability of the MCCS to other states.


Finally, the study only looks at accidents that resulted in injury. You might think, well, that’s fine: we’re really mainly interested in accidents that cause injury. Isn’t that the point: to understand injury? Safety, right? Yes, but to understand what causes injury, you need to understand the difference between injury accidents and non-injury accidents. Therefore you need to study both. It’s like having a control for the experiment. What are the factors that are common in injury accidents but not so common in non-injury accidents, and vice-versa? We cannot know from this report.


The final question is, how will this report’s findings be communicated to riders, regulators, and the industry? How will this information be translated to regular schmucks like you and me so that we can assess our threat? What, if anything, will manufacturers do differently once this report is out there? How might state laws change, and (very importantly) how will we bikers have a say in that? We (bikers) need to take ownership of this. This report is something that everyone who uses a road (or trail) should see and understand.


Of course this study is limited – my intent here is to be realistic, not negative about it. The MCCS is important, but it is only a long-overdue (as in like generation-overdue) next step in understanding and protecting ourselves against the hazards of our life on the road. Without unlimited funding and time, there is no perfect study. When this study comes out, it should be welcomed and lauded by the biker community, but we need to understand more than the headline (“Helmets prevent injuries!” No shit.) and get deeper into the methodology to really grok what the data are (and are not) truly telling us. Researchers are generally very careful about framing their results to provide the context of those limitations, but that framing tends to get lost in the re-telling and in the popular media, so let’s look deeper into the study and push for more research in the future.


A skeptical biker is a safer biker.




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