Thursday, October 29, 2009

Public Policies and Motorcycle Safety

Two universities in Florida recently analyzed the effect of public policies in reducing motorcycle injuries and deaths.

Researchers from the University of Miami and the Florida International University compiled fatal and non-fatal motorcycle injuries with state laws, population characteristics and environmental characteristics. The study covered the period from 1990 to 2005.

Information came from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System and state traffic agencies.

The goal was to estimate the effects of alcohol and traffic policies on fatal and non-fatal injuries.

Several striking conclusions were seen:

Universal Helmet Laws

About 489 lives could have been saved if helmet laws were in effect nation-wide in 2005. The large magnitude of this effect was unexpected by the authors of the study. Helmet laws dominated all other traffic safety policies, highlighting the importance of wearing a helmet to minimize the consequences of a crash.

Mandatory Rider Education Programs

Programs for training and educating new motorcyclists reduced non-fatal motorcycle injuries, according to result of the study.

Higher Speed Limits

Interestingly, higher speed limits on rural interstate highways worked in the opposite direction for the non-fatal injury rate. Fewer injuries resulted from higher speeds. One possible explanation may be that states with the higher speed limits also have more dangerous road conditions, so that crashes more often resulted in deaths, rather than non-fatal injuries. Another factor may be the characteristics of rural states, with less traffic congestion, allowing higher speed limits.

License Revocation Policies

Having laws that revoke or suspend the operators license of traffic offenders actually resulted in higher rates of non-fatal injuries. No explanation was given for this unexpected analysis.

The study was unable to account for other important factors that vary from state to state, such as enforcement policies and advocacy groups.

The researchers intend to focus now on how the universal helmet policies reduce fatalities and whether the effects change over time.


Lessons Learned

First, a big thank-you to and their Twitter stream ( pointed me to this interesting article published by R&D Magazine (

Now, some lessons learned:


Wearing an adequate helmet will probably save your life in the event of a crash. There should be no doubt in your mind that wearing the helmet is better than not wearing it...the risk is too great.

A common objection is along the lines of "It's my life, my brain, my ride." But that is false, selfish, distorted thinking. If you are rendered comatose or dead from brain injury resulting from a motorcycle crash, your decision to not wear a helmet will devastate a huge network of friends, family and fellow motorcyclists. Your injury will bring horror to possibly hundreds of people.

There is no guarantee with a helmet...that's why I'm careful to write that it will "probably save your life". And there is, of course the chance that wearing a helmet will actually cause spinal injury in the event of a less than catastrophic crash, but we must put these "exceptions" in proper persepective. Riding with a helmet will usually, more often than not, almost always, protect your brain, mind, and emotions better than riding without a helmet.

Rider Education

I'm a huge fan of basic and experienced rider training. 25 years of experience is usually just one year's worth of learning multiplied 25's not really skilled, progressive, practiced training. There is no substitute for learning the basic skills, practicing them often, and improving advanced techniques. This cannot be done by commuting to work or three hours on a weekend ride for fun...the training must be focused and observed by someone who can, and will, critique your skills.

I'm beginning to internally close my ears and ratchet down my respect for motorcyclists who say something like, "I don't need no basic training...I've been riding for 25 years, for goodness sake!" To me, they are saying that they know how to twist a throttle and stamp on gears, but they know little about the true skills of motorcycling:

  • Advanced turning

  • Maximum braking

  • Slow speed operation

  • Street-riding strategies

  • Critical situations

  • Stopping on a curve

  • Swerving and evasive maneuvers

  • Alert readers will recognize my regurgitation of the topics covered by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation books. I'm a supporter of MSF and their courses, and I'll not apologize for it...their basic Riding and Street Skills RiderCourse is excellent for the beginning rider. The 8-hour Experienced RiderCourse is invaluable for any rider with at least one year's experience up to the roughest old-timer.

    I would challenge any experience rider who thinks they are riding safely and skillfully without benefit of formal training: sign up for the experienced rider course and put your money where your mouth is. I'll bet that you will NOT be able to adequately perform their drills the first time.

    And that's what a crash is: the first time.