A fresh look at bike safety

It's about time. After 26 years, a major new motorcycle crash study is poised to begin.

Since 1981, when the famed Hurt Study issued its findings on the causes of motorcycle accidents, a lot has changed. Almost 11 million street bikes have been sold in the U.S. Not only has the size of the rider population grown to 6.6 million, but so has the average motorcycle size. In 1990, just 40% of motorcycles were larger than 749 cc; that percentage has since doubled. Even more significant is the average age of riders. In 1985, the typical rider was 27 years old. Today, he's 41.

"We need new field research that might help us further refine our motorcycle safety initiatives," said Tim Buche, president of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, which on June 29 stepped forward with $2.8 million for the study. "There's a long list of things that have changed over the years. There's a long list of things that haven't."

Motorcyclists still tend to be about 0.5% of vehicle miles traveled, Buche said, "but motorcycle fatalities are approximately 10% of all roadway fatalities in the United States."

The idea for a new study has been kicking around for years, but it only gained traction in 2000. That's when the National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety issued a list of suggestions. A rise in single-vehicle motorcycle fatalities in the late '90s prompted a call for "immediate action," with in-depth crash research topping the list of urgent recommendations.

Even so, it wasn't until 2005 that the federal government decided to fund a new motorcycle crash causation study. A federal transportation reauthorization bill (a.k.a. SAFETEA-LU) included $2.1 million for the research, with the caveat that federal funds be matched from a nongovernmental source.

At that time, the motorcycle industry was on board to come up with the matching funds -- at least until the study's first cost estimate came in. According to the investigator charged with conducting the study, it was going to cost $8 million, not the $4.2 million outlined by SAFETEA-LU.

Until last month, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation was averse to helping pay for it, fearing the study would be underfunded and would use statistically insignificant samples of motorcycle crashes. The foundation agreed to throw in $2.8 million, 33% more than federally required, but only after extensive lobbying for more government money, which hasn't come through.

"At some point, you want to be moving ahead," Buche said. That point came after a revised budget was presented -- one that factored in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's payment for the pilot study, which would ensure adequate sample size and offset the cost.

According to Samir Ahmed, the Oklahoma State University civil engineering professor in charge of the research, "900 is the least we consider adequate from a statistical point of view." That's also the number of crashes analyzed for the Hurt Study. Other research, the Motorcycle Accident In-Depth Study, or MAIDS Report, conducted in Europe in 1999-2000, analyzed 921 crashes.

The Hurt and MAIDS reports both used methods pioneered by the Hurt Study. The new study will use that same methodology, now known as "OECD." In it, independent investigators are dispatched to motorcycle accidents in real time, so they can collect on-scene, in-depth data. About 2,000 variables are coded for each crash, including a full reconstruction of the accident, plus vehicle inspections, witness interviews and medical records for the injured riders and passengers. That information is then analyzed -- to identify what human, environmental and vehicle factors contributed to the accident -- and compared with two riders of similar age, experience and motorcycle type who were not involved in an accident but who traveled the same stretch of road at the same time of day.

The number of analytical variables is 20 times greater with OECD than with the other main source of motorcycle accident information, the U.S. Fatality Analysis Reporting System. FARS data were used in the traffic safety administration's 2001 report on Fatal Single Vehicle Motorcycle Crashes.

That report identified some major areas of interest for the new motorcycle study -- troubling incremental changes that hadn't been identified in the 1981 Hurt Study. More riders over age 40 were getting killed. More than half the fatalities were related to negotiating a curve prior to a crash, and more deaths were occurring on rural, rather than urban, roadways.

"There's a lot that has changed, and one of the big things is just that there's a lot more older riders," said Jim Ouellet, an accident investigator and author on the Hurt Study. "Why are people getting into accidents now, and what things can be done to reduce the severity of accidents are issues that need exploring again.

"We know why they were getting into accidents 30 years ago, but we don't have such a good idea if the change from riders being 20-year-old kids to being guys in their 40s and 50s is making the accidents different."

Unfortunately, the answer won't be available for several years. The layers of bureaucracy that need to be navigated pretty much explain why it's taken 26 years to get another study launched. (The traffic safety administration is currently preparing its application for the U.S. Office of Management and Budget -- "standard procedure for anything involving public interaction by a federal agency," said NHTSAspokesman Ray Tyson.)

Once that application is submitted, approval will take at least six months.

That brings us to spring 2008, at which point the traffic safety administration will begin its pilot study, which will take an additional 18 months to be released.

That brings us to fall 2009. If everything is ready to go with the national research at that point, it will take an additional four years for the actual study to be completed.

So, we're looking at fall 2013 at the earliest before we see the results of all this.

The study will be based at Oklahoma State University's Oklahoma Transportation Center and conducted by Ahmed. While Ahmed doesn't have any prior experience with motorcycle crash causation studies, "We're as good as anybody else," he said. "There is no university in the U.S. that conducts motorcycle crash causation research."

That is true. The USC lab where Prof. Harry Hurt and his team conducted their research no longer exists. But the real reason Oklahoma State was selected is more political. The primary sponsor of the legislation funding the study was Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who at the time was chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

But even though the research will be conducted at Oklahoma State, the work itself will be subcontracted. On the short list of potential subcontractors is Hurt, who at age 79 is president of the Head Protection Research Laboratory in Paramount.

According to Ahmed, the study will take place in at least one market, and possibly two. "The L.A. area is one of them definitely," he said.

Basing at least part of the study in L.A. has a number of advantages. For one, the Hurt Study was conducted with L.A. data, so any variables due to location can be ruled out. Basing the study in L.A., the results can also come together more quickly. Not only is California home to the country's largest rider population, but "the weather is good year 'round," Ahmed said. "You can expect crashes all year."