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Transcript: Thursday, October 28, 2004, 11 a.m. ET

Motorcycle Safety

Marietta Bowen
Motorcyle Safety Expert, NHTSA
Thursday, October 28, 2004; 11:00 AM

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is responsible for reducing deaths, injuries and economic losses resulting from motor vehicle crashes. This is accomplished by setting and enforcing safety performance standards for motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment. NHTSA also investigates safety defects in motor vehicles, sets and enforces fuel economy standards, helps to reduce the threat of drunk drivers, promotes the use of safety belts, child safety seats and air bags, establishes and enforces vehicle anti-theft regulations and provides consumer information on motor vehicle safety topics.

This discussion was about motorcycle safety.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Marietta Bowen: Hello:
I'm looking forward to a stimulating discussion on motorcycle safety, a topic of great interest within our agency as well as to many, many people!


Washington, D.C.: Do you ride?

Have you ever been a licensed motorcyclist?

If the answer to these questions is "no," please explain why those of us who do -- and have, without incident, for decades -- should listen to you or the NHTSA.

I'd apologize for the somewhat combative tone, but I (a licensed motorcyclist for well over 10 years without an accident to my name) have noticed nothing but hostility from NHTSA towards motorcycling.

Marietta Bowen: I have successfully completed a rider training course but, because I have young children, I do not currently have much spare time to ride. But you should be aware that NHTSA has quite a few riders on staff. Several NHTSA employees teach rider training courses in Maryland and Virginia. Some belong to clubs; one NHTSA staffer is president of a local motorcycle club. A few race motorcycles on weekends. A number of us commute to work on motorcycles every day. On the national Ride to Work day this past July, our courtyard was filled with motorcycles of all kinds - sport bikes, touring bikes, cruisers and choppers - that are owned and ridden by NHTSA employees. In sum, we have a number of enthusiasts here who care passionately about motorcycles and motorcycle safety.


Washington, D.C.: What is the NHTSA doing to address the increase in deaths and injuries among motorcycle riders?

Marietta Bowen: Reducing the number of deaths and injuries requires a joint effort involving state and federal governments, motorcycle manufacturers and the riding community itself. With our limited resources, NHTSA, in general, uses a balanced approach: Prevent crashes before they occur; mitigate and reduce injuries once a crash happens; and provide rapid and appropriate emergency response. To reduce the chance of a crash, NHTSA is doing research in several areas. Among them: Studying ways to make motorcycles more conspicuous to other motorists. NHTSA also is working with the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) on a campaign to reduce alcohol and drug-impaired riding. In addition, the agency is collaborating with the emergency medical services community to improve the care of motorcyclists involved in traffic crashes.


Rockville, Md.: Hi, Marietta!;

In collecting data on motorcycle fatalities, has anyone ever tried to track the accident rates of graduates of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation-designed courses that are taught around the country? I'd be interested in knowing whether such riders have a better safety record. I took an MSF class at Montgomery College when I returned to motorcycling this year after 27 years away from it. I thought it was a good course and I think about its lessons every time I ride. What do you think?

Marietta Bowen: We do not have much data related to the value of rider training courses though common sense tells us that approved training courses have significant value. Rider training courses are offered by most states. I understand Maryland is currently collecting data from their training and crash data to correlate the safety of trained riders. We look forward to seeing the results of their study.
I took the rider training program in Maryland and I agree that was very worthwhile.


Capitol Heights, Maryland: What are the statistics of motorcycle riders that are killed or injury by car/trucks? I'm a sports bike rider in the D.C. area and it's kill or be killed out there. Every day I ride I get cut off at least four times a day by motorists talking on cell phones, reading newspapers, putting on make up and eating, smoking or drinking. I'm willing to wager that your stated statistics are based on the motorists statement because most of the time the biker can't give a statement. Dead men tell no tales!

Marietta Bowen: About 55 percent of motorcycle rider fatalities are the result of crashes with another vehicle. Often, those crashes resulted because the motorist either didn't see the motorcycle or, perhaps, misjudged its speed. For example, 38 percent of those fatal crashes resulted when someone turned in front of the motorcycle.
There are active programs to make motorists more aware of motorcycles. Meanwhile, these statistics are a reminder that you need to ride a motorcycle defensively - as you have already discovered.


Ithaca, New York: Do the statistics show a marked increase in injuries and fatalities in those states which have recently struck down laws requiring helmet usage?

Marietta Bowen: Our studies show that fatalities always increase following the repeal of helmet laws.


Miami, Fla.: Hello Ms. Bowen -
I keep seeing riders driving without helmets and in t-shirts and shorts. Wassup with that? Do they know something I don't or are their heads just harder than mine and their bodies covered in invisible armor?

Marietta Bowen: I can tell you this: Wearing protective gear, including a helmet, will significantly increase your odds of survival if you do crash.


Falls Church, Va.: I shouldn't make generalizations, but I have a feeling that many of those people riding their Harleys and Harley look-alikes around the Virginia countryside every weekend in their expensive leathers might have just recently bought their bikes, eager to develop a new image for themselves. I've noticed a few of these people to be a bit unsteady, but to their credit most that I see do not speed or appear to ride unsafely. Motorcycle riding seems to have expanded its ridership from the core of enthusiasts who learned as kids on dirt bikes to legions of new riders who lack the years of learning on dirt bikes.

Marietta Bowen: Sales of motorcycles to riders over 40 years of age have increased significantly over the past several years. Unfortunately, that age group also is responsible for the increase in motorcycle fatalities. And many of those crashes occur on larger displacement, cruiser-style motorcycles.


Takoma Park, Md.: Hello,

What kind of training courses are offered in the Maryland/D.C. area? I've read positive comments about the Motorcycle Safety Foundation beginner rider course and I'm considering enrolling as a way to test the waters.

Marietta Bowen: I'm glad you asked that. As it happens, both Maryland and Virginia offer the Motorcycle Safety Foundation Training Course--not only for beginners but also for experienced riders. All 50 states and DC require a license to ride a motorcycle on a public roadway. To obtain a motorcycle license in most states, you need to pass a written exam and an on-cycle skills test. In addition, some states require that you take an approved rider education course. Others will waive the on-cycle skills test if you have successfully completed an approved training course. It's my understanding that the DC Department of Motor Vehicles will honor the course completion card from both the Virginia and Maryland rider training programs. To find the motorcycle rider course nearest you, call the Motorcycle Safety Foundation at (800) 446-9227. Locally, you can check the following websites for information on training programs in Maryland and Virginia: www.marylandmva.com/MVAProg/moto/default.htm; www.dmv.state.va.us/webdoc/citizen/drivers/index.asp. For general information on licensing, registration in the District, you can visit ://dmv.washingtondc.gov/serv/dlicense/get_motoL.shtm


Arlington, Va.: You have a death wish if you ride a bike in this area. Drivers of cars dont see 18 wheelers what makes you think they are going to see your Harley, Beamer or sport bike? Ride out in the country where there is less traffic. Commuting on bike is suicide.

Marietta Bowen: Many commuting riders would not agree with your opinion. In the DC area, you can ride a motorcycle in the HOV lanes (getting you to work faster) and many employers offer discount parking for motorcycles. Plus, most motorcycles get terrific gas mileage, making them very economical. Driving on congested highways offer risks for all motorists, not just motorcycle riders. If you notice those who commute on motorcycles daily, you'll see that most of them minimize their risks by riding carefully and wearing full protective gear.


Beaufort, South Carolina: I would like to suggest the following rules for motorcycle safety:

(1) leave your ego at home
(2) wear a helmet, protective/armored overpants and jackets, leather gloves and motorcycle boots (there is hot weather mesh clothing available)
(3) take the motorcycle safety foundation courses, and then re-take the experienced rider course every couple of years.
(4) practice the skills learned in rule 3
(5) make sure you are visible
(6) a corollary to (1): take it easy and ride within your skill level, not that of co-riders
(7) ride a bike you have at least one year's experience with (ok, this last one has to be violated occasionally)

Marietta Bowen: Good advice.


Washington, D.C.: What are the statistics relating to motorcyclists' injuries and deaths as a result of tractor-trailors speeding?

Is there data available (and if so, where)relating to correlations between excessive speed and motorcycle fatalities? This is given that the motorcyclist is driving in a responsible manner.

Are there trends in any states to reduce speed limits on highways?

Thank you.

Marietta Bowen: Excessive speed is a factor in about 36 percent of all fatal motorcyle crashes. But most two-vehicle crashes involve passenger vehicles and not large trucks.


San Francisco, Calif.: I am a early 20's male who rides sportbikes (and I have for 6 years without any incident more serious than knocking a bike over during an oil change), and I am all too familiar with deaths in the motorcycle community.
A big topic of discussion with my rider friends is the issue of tiered licensing. This goes far beyond the learner-permit based system, which I feel is worthless since you still have an unexperience rider out on the road. Many of us think it would be a good idea to require not only the basic motorcycle safety course now offered, but to restrict those licenses to bikes with smaller engines, riding only during the day, not on freeways, no passengers, and to mandate helmets for these riders in in states with no helmet laws. Also if a rider is under 18 he/she should be required to hold a regular driver's license for at least a year prior to getting a motorcycle endorsement. Over the course of two years you could move up to an unrestricted license with a good record and a follow up riders' course.
What, if any, steps does your organization propose to implement tiered licensing in the U.S.? I, for one, am sick of the negative publicity that comes from a 16 year old crashing his brand new 100hp motorcycle into a minivan. Most of us are responsible and do not welcome irresponsible riders to the roads who are only interested in indulging so movie-star fantasy at the expense of the rest of the community.

Marietta Bowen: Decisions about licensing are made by the states. If you feel strongly (and, obviously, you do), we'd suggest you contact the appropriate authorities in Sacramento.


Washington, D.C.: I'm about to take a motorcycle safety class given by the Maryland MVA. Do you have any statistics about what percentage of motorcycle accidents are fatal as compared to cars, and how much these (and similar) safety classes help in avoiding accidents? Does the risk go down substantially if one takes back roads and keeps off of large interstates, etc.?

Marietta Bowen: You are wise to take a motorcycle safety class. Per vehicle mile traveled, motorcycle riders are about 27 times as likely as passenger car occupants to die in a traffic crash. Though we do not have any data correlating safety classes and a reduction in crashes, common sense tells us that it is a wise thing to do. Maryland is in the process of collecting data on training and crashes. We are looking forward to the results of this effort in Maryland.


RE: Motorcycle helmet laws: To be "fair and balanced," shouldn't it also be acknowledged that motorcyle fatalities in Md. -increased- the first year that it imposed its helmet laws? In the second year, it fell from the higher first year figure.

Too many people -- riders and non-riders alike -- treat the helmet as a magic talisman against injury. Many people die with them on as well.

Marietta Bowen: As I recall, Maryland reinstated its helmet law effective October, 1 1992. So the statistics for that year would reflect just three months of mandatory helmets. Regardless, I can tell you that, without question, your chances of survival are always going to be greater if you are wearing a helmet.


Herndon, Va.: First thank you for taking to time to answer our questions.

Secondly, I hear the statistics about the increase in injuries and it being attributed to the increase in the over 40 age group. However, I've also read that although the -number- of injuries/deaths have steadilly gone up, so has the number of riders and that if one looked at the percentage of injuries, it's actually -lower- than it was ten years ago. It's one thing to say that there were X number of injuries over the previous year, but if it's not correct to assume that there's actually an -increase- unless it's compared correctly to the actual increase in ridership as well. The insurance companies seem to convienently forget the second half of this vital equasion.

Thank you for your thoughts and comments.

Marietta Bowen: Our analysis shows that even after adjusting for increased motorcycle registrations, the fatality rate and injury rates have increased.


McLean, Va.: Hope I'm not too late.

Been riding for 20+ years, wrecked twice. Both times due to road conditions. Gravel or oil on the road. Both times I was wearing a full face helmet, leathers, boots, and gloves. One time the bike was totaled. I was uninjured (except for some bruises) both times.

On the road I ride under the assumption that all drivers are either one or more of the following: blind, drunk, stoned, or stupid.

Marietta Bowen: A testimony to the value of protective gear. We'll let others decide how they feel about your survival philosophy.


Clifton, Va.: I have never understood a riders desire to ride without a helmet or a brain bucket that is not full face and meets the bare minimum specs set forth by DOT. If you can't afford or do not wish to use a helmet than stay off the roads on your motorcycle. If you choose to ride with one of those flimsy DOT approved brain buckets or no hlemet at all than you or your survivors should have to pay your medical expenses with no help from insurance or the government.

Marietta Bowen: Yes! Absolutely wearing a helmet will greatly improve your chance of surviving a motorycle crash, or of significantly reducing your level of injury.

Our research shows that, in the event of a motorcycle crash, the use of a helmet increases your likelihood of survival by 37 percent.

But remember that it's crucial you select a helmet which meets the standards set by the U.S. Department of Transportation (that's us). Our standard defines the minimum levels of performance that helmets must meet to protect your head in the event of a crash.

Unfortunately, there are many helmets on the market that simply do not meet the DOT standard. These are often sold as "novelty" or "costume helmets." Here's how you can tell if the helmet you're buying meets the DOT standard:

1. Look for the "DOT" sticker on the back of the helmet.
2. Make sure that the helmet has a label that lists the manufacturer's name, model, size, month and year of manufacture and construction materials used.
Here's some added advice:
1. Check to be sure the helmet has a thick inner liner--generally at least one inch of firm polystyrene foam styrofoam).
2. Look for sturdy strap and rivets.
3. Make sure that the helmet weigh at least three pounds and has a very hard outer shell.
4. Watch for protruding decorations on the helmet. This is a sign that it doesn't meet DOT requirement, which prohibit such decorations.


Marietta Bowen: I really enjoyed your thoughful questions. Thank you for a lively discussion we will revisit the issue of motorcycle safety in the spring.


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