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Statement for the National Conference of State Legislatures, Nashville, TN
Deborah A. P. Hersman
National Conference of State Legislatures, Nashville, TN

Good afternoon.

It’s exciting to be a part of this working lunch discussion on motorcycle safety. You are to be commended for drawing attention to what is clearly an emerging highway safety issue. I’m looking forward to hearing legislators’ perspectives on how we can most effectively address the rapidly growing toll of deaths and serious injuries involving motorcycles.

The Committee knows the Safety Board in large part through the work of Mr. Steve Blackistone who is here with me today. And while the Safety Board is most known for its investigations of aviation and other major transportation crashes, we are charged by Congress to investigate accidents and conduct studies of significant safety problems in all modes of transportation. The recommendations for reducing crashes, injuries and fatalities that result from our investigations and studies are our most important product.

Before this year, the Safety Board has not investigated accidents involving motorcycles. However, last year, 4,315 motorcyclists died in crashes and the rate of motorcycle fatalities has increased more than 25 percent since 1997. At a time when highway fatalities have been decreasing, fatalities involving motorcycles have continued to increase, both in overall number and in fatality rate.

This have led the Safety Board to schedule a two-day public forum on motorcycle safety beginning on Tuesday, September 12, in Washington, D.C. To be clear, the decision to hold this forum pre-dated the accident involving Ben Roethlisberger. The forum will have two goals. The first is to gather information about ongoing motorcycle safety research and initiatives. The second is to identify safety countermeasures that are expected to reduce the likelihood of motorcycle accidents, injuries, and fatalities.

During the forum, we will examine a variety of issues. In order to support our work on the forum, we are investigating several accidents this summer. The Safety Board has launched or undertaken limited investigations into three accidents that occurred in June of this year. While almost all of you are familiar with the June 12 motorcycle crash involving Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, we are also investigating two lesser known, but significant, accidents that took place the day before. While we did not launch a team to the Roethlisberger accident, we did launch a team to a June 11th crash involving a motorcycle and a minivan in Linden, PA that killed five people. We are also conducting a limited investigation of an accident in Thornton, New Hampshire.

The accident in New Hampshire took place about noon on Sunday, June 11, 2006. A 1995 Mercury Tracer passenger vehicle, occupied by a 26-year-old male driver, was traveling eastbound on State Route 49 near the town Thornton, in Grafton County, New Hampshire. At that same time, two motorcycles, a 2000 Harley Davidson and a 1999 Suzuki were traveling westbound on SR-49. Each motorcycle was occupied by a male operator and a female passenger. In this area, SR-49 is comprised of two lanes and had a posted speed limit of 45 mph. Also, the geometry of the roadway was such that eastbound traffic would have to negotiate a slight horizontal curve to the right.

According to local police investigators, while traversing the right-hand curve, the Mercury Tracer drifted across the highway’s centerline and encroached into the westbound lanes by about 1-½ feet. The westbound Harley Davidson collided with the Mercury in the vicinity of the car’s left headlight assembly. The 56-year-old motorcycle operator was thrown into the car’s windshield while the 56-year-old female passenger was ejected from the bike and came to rest in the roadway about 40 feet from the crash. Following this initial collision, the Mercury rotated and collided with the Suzuki motorcycle. Both the 50-year-old motorcycle operator and the 56-year-old female passenger were thrown from the bike. As a result of the crashes, the driver of the passenger vehicle was seriously injured. Both occupants of the Harley Davidson and the Suzuki’s female passenger were fatally injured. The operator of the Suzuki was critically injured.

In the crash involving Roethlisberger, a 1996 Chrysler New Yorker was traveling westbound on Second Avenue in Pittsburgh. The driver was intending to make a left turn from Second Avenue onto the 10 th Street Bridge. The motorcycle was traveling in the opposite direction, also approaching the intersection of 10 th Street. As the Chrysler started to turn left, it crossed in front of the motorcycle. The motorcycle collided with the right front fender of the car, and the rider was ejected. Roethlisberger struck the Chrysler’s windshield and subsequently landed on the pavement.

The Linden accident, which occurred a day before Roethlisberger’s, has received far less attention but was far more catastrophic in its consequences. At about 3:15 p.m., a 1993 Plymouth minivan was traveling southbound on Pennsylvania State Route 220 in Woodward Township, Pennsylvania, west of the town of Linden. This section of road is a four-lane rural highway divided by a depressed earthen median and has a speed limit of 55 mph.

A 2003 Kawasaki motorcycle operated by an adult male was traveling northbound. Preliminary witness reports indicate that the motorcyclist was traveling with another motorcycle and both vehicles were weaving in and out of traffic at a very high rate of speed. Again, as the van was in the process of making a left turn, it crossed the northbound lanes of the highway and was struck on the right side by the motorcycle. It is likely that neither driver saw the other. Following the impact, the van rolled onto its left side with the motorcycle embedded in the van. One van passenger was ejected, another was partially ejected, and a post-crash fire ensued. As a result of the crash, the motorcycle operator and all four occupants of the van were killed.

I will preside at our motorcycle safety forum, and NTSB staff will lead technical discussions that will examine each major aspect of motorcycle safety. We will open the forum by seeking to more fully identify the scope of the problem. Researchers and experts from both the motorcycle industry and government will provide exposure data, crash data, crash causation studies, and different databases that cover motorcycle crashes.

We then will look at specific elements of motorcycle operations. First, motorcycle manufacturers will describe the latest in vehicle design developments aimed at reducing accidents, including motorcycle visibility, braking systems, and rider protection systems such as airbags. A leading emergency room physician will describe injury patterns that are typical of motorcycle accidents. We will hear a broad range of perspectives on rider protective equipment, including the types of protective equipment available, their effectiveness, and comfort. We will also explore current design standards and other regulations for protective equipment.

Of course, the performance of operators is a critical element of reducing motorcycle accidents. So, the forum will hear from a variety of experts on training and licensing. They will address the relationship between training and safety, types of training available, barriers to increased training, and describe model programs. We also will look into rider impairment from alcohol and other drugs, medical, law enforcement and other perspectives on the effects of impairment on riders, and efforts to reduce impaired riding.

As evidenced in these accidents, a vehicle operator’s awareness of motorcycles plays an important role in reducing motorcycle accidents. This points to another important approach to reducing motorcycle accidents, that of public education and awareness programs, targeting both motorcycle riders and other vehicle operators alike. We will discuss current Federal and State programs, as well as local and industry programs to explore what works and what doesn’t work. Many of you can probably educate us today about some of those programs.

Representatives from the motorcycle industry, motorcycle rider organizations, government, and others, will bring their perspectives and respond to questions from Safety Board investigators. We will also accept information as well as position papers from interested organizations, and I would welcome input from legislators such as you. In fact, that is why I am here today, to open a dialogue with you.

Based on the public forum’s findings, the Safety Board may make recommendations for reducing both the number and severity of crashes involving motorcycles. Those recommendations will be sent to whomever we believe can have an impact upon this growing problem. This may include the States, if we identify programs or laws that can make a difference. We enter this forum with an open mind. We are simply looking for ways to reduce deaths and injuries involving motorcycles on our highways.

I am looking forward to the discussions that the public forum will generate, and, more importantly, the ideas for improving motorcycle safety that will come from it. We must find ways to stop the growing death toll upon our highways.

Thank you again for inviting the Safety Board today, and I will be glad to answer your questions about our forum.