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Remarks before the National Association Of State Motorcycle Safety Administrators Business Meeting On Motorcycle Safety, Madison, WI
Deborah A. P. Hersman
National Association Of State Motorcycle Safety Administrators Business Meeting On Motorcycle Safety, Madison, WI

Good morning Chairwoman Thurn, Vice Chairman Krajewski, Executive Committee members, and guests.  Thank you for inviting me to be here in Madison today to discuss motorcycle safety.  With me today is Steve Blackistone, who coordinates our state and local liaison activities.

You may recognize the National Transportation Safety Board from its high profile investigations of transportation accidents, such as the mid-air collision between a small plane and a sightseeing helicopter over the Hudson River in New York City two weeks ago or the collapse of the Minneapolis bridge in 2007.  We’re on call 24 hours a day to launch when these tragedies occur, investigate what went wrong, and recommend ways to prevent them from reoccurring. 

The National Transportation Safety Board is an independent Federal agency charged by Congress to investigate transportation accidents, determine their probable cause, and make recommendations to prevent their recurrence.  We’re led by a 5-member Board appointed by the President, which I now have the privilege of chairing.  Our staff of investigators and researchers conducts accident investigations and safety studies in all modes of transportation. The recommendations that arise from our investigations and safety studies are our most important product. The Safety Board cannot mandate implementation of these recommendations. But, since 1967 we have issued almost 13,000 recommendations and 82 percent of those have been adopted.

The NTSB is particularly concerned with highway transportation; approximately 40,000 people are killed on our nation’s roads each year.  Not all accidents, however, injure or kill large numbers of people.  More often deaths and injuries happen in ones and twos.  But that does not make them any less tragic or any less deserving of attention to determine how we can prevent them from happening again.  I noted Chairwoman Thurn’s comments earlier about the memorial fund that you have established, so I would guess that some of you in the room have suffered the personal loss of a friend or relative who was killed in a traffic accident.

A few years ago, the NTSB focused on the growing number of motorcycle riders killed or injured in crashes. In September 2006 we held a public forum that explored the available facts and ways that fatalities and injuries could be reduced.  SMSA was well represented by Ron Thompson from Wisconsin, who addressed rider training and licensing; and by Chad Burns from Georgia, who addressed the need for public education and awareness.  Perhaps others here were also able to attend or watch the webcast.

Let’s look at some of the facts about motorcycle crashes.  Since 1997, the number of motorcycle fatalities has increased 150 percent, which far exceeds that of any other form of transportation. In fact, the number of motorcycle fatalities in recent years has been more than double the number of deaths in each year from aviation, rail, marine, and pipeline transportation accidents combined.  

Two thousand one hundred sixteen motorcyclists died in 1997.  That number rose to 5,290 in 2008, and motorcycle fatalities now account for more than 14 percent of all motor vehicle crash fatalities.  Although rising motorcycle use may partly explain this growth, the available data show increases in fatalities have outpaced increases in motorcycle registrations and vehicle miles traveled.

Likewise, we have seen dramatic increases in the number of people injured in motorcycle accidents in the past decade.  According to NHTSA estimates, motorcyclists injured in crashes increased by 110 percent from 1998 to 2007.  That translates into 103,000 motorcyclists injured in 2007, compared to 49,000 in 1998.

As a result of our forum, the NTSB issued a series of recommendations in October 2007.  One recommendation asked the Federal Highway Administration to develop guidance to improve the collection of motorcycle ridership data such as the number of registered motorcycles and the vehicle miles traveled by motorcycles.  Improved data will enable us to better understand the trends we are seeing.  This is important for many reasons, especially for determining the effectiveness of any safety measure that is taken. Unfortunately, as we learned at our forum, some states do not currently collect the data, and there are great differences in the estimates that have been developed by various public and private sources.

Carol just mentioned SMSA’s participation in her remarks, but there have been a lot of activities related to improved data collection.  We were pleased that the FHWA and NHTSA co-hosted a “Motorcycle Travel Symposium” in October, 2007 at which all of these data issues were discussed.  The FHWA also distributed a Traffic Monitoring Guide in 2008.  The Guide provides guidance on state motorcycle travel data collection and reporting practices.  In addition, a Federal interagency working group was formed in June 2008 to develop a standard definition of a motorcycle for use by the states. The working group is currently reviewing information on state motorcycle registration legislation. 

We also recommended that NHTSA reprioritize the National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety (NAMS).  This document was first published by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2000, as a blueprint for future motorcycle safety efforts in the U.S.  Its value lies in the fact that the NAMS addresses a variety of issues: education, training, riding sober, distractions, and motorcycle safety awareness.  It made a total of 82 recommendations, which were grouped into 3 categories: urgent, essential, and necessary.  However, there has been no official means for tracking the implementation of these recommendations, or of evaluating their effectiveness. 

The NTSB is concerned that those who use the NAMS as a guide for their motorcycle safety efforts may be less likely to commit time and money to implementing its recommendations without knowing which ones have been shown to provide a benefit.  Thus, we recommended that NHTSA reprioritize the NAMS based on objective criteria, including known safety outcomes.  We also recommended that NHTSA implement an action plan for states and others to carry out those NAMS recommendations that are a high priority.

The NAMS project led to a general agreement on many important steps that can be taken to reduce the ongoing toll of motorcycle crashes, injuries, and deaths.  NHTSA is now working to prioritize the NAMS recommendations, and we are looking forward to seeing their final product.  I urge you to follow and to implement as many of these recommendations as you can once NHTSA has reprioritized them.

In addition to the NAMS and data collection recommendations, we also urged all states to enact laws to require all motorcycle operators and passengers to wear a motorcycle helmet that meets federal standards.  This is perhaps one of the most controversial issues in transportation safety and one of the more controversial issues that the NTSB has addressed.

Head injury, however, is a leading cause of death in motorcycle crashes.  Research conducted by Dr. Harry Hurt in 1981 concluded that use of a safety helmet that complies with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 218 is the “single critical factor in the prevention [and] reduction of head injury.”  The main function of the helmet is to protect the rider’s head, especially the brain.  It is estimated that a rider can reduce his or her risk of suffering a fatal injury in a crash by more than one-third simply by wearing a proper helmet.

Almost no one questions the safety benefits of using a helmet.  A number of motorcycle-related groups, including your Association, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, and the American Motorcyclist Association, encourage riders to wear motorcycle helmets, and most do not oppose laws mandating such use by minors.  The NAMS report, which was supported by NHTSA, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, and many motorcycle manufacturers, included an urgent recommendation to increase the use of FMVSS 218-compliant helmets.  A national survey performed in 2006 by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University noted that, even of those individuals who had previously ridden a motorcycle without a helmet, 61 percent favored state requirements for motorcycle helmet use.

And yet, today, only 20 states and the District of Columbia require helmet use by all riders and passengers.  Three states (Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire) have no helmet requirement and 27 states have some partial requirement typically limited to youth and/or passengers.  

We’ve seen what happens when states have repealed or weakened their mandatory helmet use laws.  Helmet use has declined, and we’ve witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of deaths and severe, traumatic head injuries.  This has been revealed in a series of studies conducted in Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Texas.

Louisiana is a particularly noteworthy example.  Its helmet usage rate drop from 100 to 52 percent after it removed the universal helmet use requirement in 1999.  The motorcycle fatality rate increased by more than 25 percent following the repeal, with unhelmeted accident-involved riders experiencing head injuries at twice the rate of helmeted riders.  Nearly 60 more motorcyclists died in the 2 years following the law’s repeal than in the 2 years preceding it.  In spite of a legal requirement for unhelmeted riders to carry health insurance, the insurance coverage for unhelmeted riders involved in accidents actually decreased by half following the change in the law.  In 2004, in response to this continuing rise in deaths and injuries, Louisiana re-enacted the universal helmet law.

In addition to the extreme emotional toll that a death or serious injury plays on family and friends, society as a whole pays the well-documented excess costs for unhelmeted riders both medical care costs and the potentially even greater costs from productivity losses of individuals injured, disabled, or killed.  At the NTSB’s forum in 2006, the medical costs for injuries incurred by unhelmeted riders and passengers were estimated at about $12.2 billion per year.

It is essential that we find ways to prevent crashes.  But, when a crash occurs, the single greatest defense against injury and death is the use of effective safety equipment.  In cars, that’s your seat belt.  For motorcyclists, it’s a helmet.

The mission of my agency is to improve transportation safety, but we cannot do it alone.  We need help from your organization and the individual state Motorcycle Safety Administrators.  Given the continued rise in fatalities, we as the safety professionals, must do our part to halt this trend.

As professionals who train motorcycle safety educators, you know better than anyone the critical importance of wearing a helmet whenever you ride.  You are the role models that others will be looking to for guidance, and so I urge you to convey this crucial message regarding helmet use to your students and to other trainers throughout your state, both by your actions and by your words.

So today I am encouraging you to change the discussion on motorcycle helmet use.  It used to be acceptable to drink and drive.  Now society no longer tolerates such behavior.  It used to be fashionable to smoke.  It no longer is.  It used to be the norm to carry your baby on your lap in a car.  Now the acceptable behavior is to buckle your child into a safety seat.  We can change societal and political attitudes when health and safety are involved.  Wearing a helmet every time you ride is important to the health and safety of our loved ones, our friends, and our society as a whole.  We want to work with you to change these attitudes.

I came to this meeting because I see motorcycle safety as a critical element of the larger need to improve safety on our highways.  Steve and I are here because we want to listen to you and get your perspective about what it will take to reduce the ongoing toll of motorcycle deaths and injuries.

I again thank you all for inviting me here this morning and I look forward to working with you to reverse the trend we are seeing of high motorcycle injuries and fatalities.