The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) solicited comments with regard to its proposed Amendments to Highway Safety Program Guidelines at Federal Register, Vol. 71, No. 27, February 9, 2006.
Ray Henke, biker advocate for Motorcyclists Against Dumb Drivers, submitted the following comment in opposition to the Amendments.
Thank you for the opportunity to comment with regard to Amendments to the Highway Safety Program Guidelines, Docket number 23090 and in particular your amendments with regard to motorcycle safety.
I am concerned that you fail to appreciate what is the principle factor resulting in motorcycle accidents, motorcyclist injury and motorcyclist death. The problem is auto driver ignorance of motorcycle safety issues and auto driver ignorance of basic motorcycle accident avoidance strategies. The solution is mandatory auto driver education on motorcycle safety issues which can be accomplished inexpensively (1) by the addition of comprehensive motorcycle safety information to the state DMV auto driver education booklets; (2) by the inclusion of a comprehensive list of motorcycle safety and motorcycle accident avoidance strategy questions on the written tests which auto drivers must take to obtain or renew their auto driver licenses, and (3) a strict policy to deny auto drivers licenses to any motorist who fails to answer correctly even one motorcycle safety question.
The Amendments to the Highway Safety Program Guidelines, unfortunately, read like an anti-motorcyclist diatribe, and what is worse they are guaranteed to have virtually no positive effect to reduce the incidence of motorcycle injuries and death because they fail to address the principle cause of motorcycle accidents.
There is a misunderstanding with regard to the causes of motorcycle accidents which unfortunately has been repeated without criticism relentlessly since Harry Hurt first published his conclusions. It is true that the data support the conclusion that the greatest cause of multi-vehicle accidents is motorists who enter intersections or turn left into the motorcyclists right of way. And it is true that the motorist will commonly “explain” that he or she didn’t “see” the motorcyclist. That is the data. The conclusion that this is the unavoidable consequence of the lack of “conspicuity” of the motorcycle is not merely bad English diction (the word is conspicuousness); the tragedy is that it is an erroneous conclusion.
Motorcycles are a legitimate means of travel on our roads and highways. The problem is not their lack of conspicuousness. The problem is that auto drivers have not been trained to open their eyes and look specifically for motorcyclists, particularly when they engage in behaviors such as entering intersections and turning left into oncoming traffic which are statistically the moments at which auto drivers are most likely to fail to “see” motorcyclists. Auto drivers also fail to “see” motorcyclists because motorcycles don’t pose the kind of threat to them that other cars, trucks and busses do. The problem is that other motorists are ignorant of motorcycle safety issues; and they are uneducated about what they need to do to assure the safety of their two wheeled brethren. Motorists need to be informed that because motorcyclists don’t have the many thousands of pounds of metal surrounding them, the interior padding, seat belts and air bags that auto drivers do, that other motorists have an enhanced duty to open their eyes and look specifically for the oncoming motorcycle before engaging in the auto driver behaviors which most commonly put motorcyclists at risk. Auto drivers are also ignorant of the fact that their rear view mirrors have “holes” in them large enough to obscure the motorcyclist riding or passing in an adjoining lane; and so they must be taught that it is their responsibility to turn their heads and look into their blind spots specifically for motorcyclists before changing lanes. Another example is that auto drivers are ignorant of the fact that bikes generally can stop in emergency situations more quickly than most cars and so they need to permit a greater number of car lengths distance when following a motorcycle.
Ask any biker and he will tell you that the greatest threat riding on our American roads and highways are the idiotic antics of ignorant auto drivers literally at every turn. Indeed, what you don’t see in the “statistics,” even looking at the data without the misleading conclusions, is that probably 98 percent of motorcycle accidents which might have occurred because of the stupid antics of auto drivers are avoided solely because of the skill of the motorcyclist. Those two quick counter-steers that so often permit us to avoid the idiotic moves of the ignorant auto driver overwhelm the data with regard to the stupid moves that result in motorcycle accident statistics. These “near accidents” aren’t in the motorcycle data in the same way that near accidents in aviation statistics are recorded. But ask any biker about his experiences with the idiotic antics of auto drivers and he will provide you ample anecdotal verification of this statistic.
You devote an entire section of your Amendments to “Motorcycle Rider Education” and we certainly agree that motorcyclists should be encouraged to take these courses, inter alia by encouraging motorcycle insurance companies to provide substantial discounts to motorcyclists who avail them. But the great majority of motorcycle accidents are not the result of motorcyclist negligence, they are the result of auto driver negligence. And yet you have relegated your only muted reference to the problem of auto driver ignorance to a single uninformative empty 10 word sentence “Ways that other motorists can increase their awareness of motorcyclists” at the bottom of a list of specific recommendations focusing on what motorcyclists should do increase their “conspicuity,” from the type of clothing you think we should wear to lane positioning to help the auto drivers see us. (Parenthetically this statement that we should chose our lane position to increase “conspicuity” is simplistic misinformation and potentially dangerous because there are many factors which bikers must take into consideration in choosing lane position, including providing the best and greatest number of escape routes; avoiding auto driver rear view mirror blind spots; increasing our ability to observe potential hazards; avoiding road defects and surface hazards; and "protecting our lane" from other motorists.)
You begin your Guidelines with a section on Motorcycle Personal Protective Equipment but again, with all due respect, you should focus on the principle cause of motorcycle accidents, to wit, auto driver ignorance of motorcycle safety issues, and you will reduce the incidence of motorcyclist injury by 80 percent, and that means an 80 percent decreased incidence of injury and death among bikers who chose to wear helmets and 80 percent decreased incidence of injury and death among those who chose not to. There are good reasons to wear helmets, good reasons not to wear helmets, good data, bad data, and bad conclusions from good and bad data with regard to the contribution of helmets to motorcyclist safety. But the bottom line is that the federal government should stay out of these personal decisions. It is a matter of freedom, it is a matter of choice, and it is a matter of respect for the individual choices of the American citizen. Auto drivers would suffer a significant drop in serious injury and death if they wore helmets, drove tanks, and drove at speeds never in excess of 15 miles per hour. Auto drivers are permitted to chose whether to drive a Cadillac or VW van despite that the driver of the Cadillac is much less likely to be killed in an accident. In so many areas in which the federal government might impose itself upon the freedom of the American people for their “best interest” it refrains from doing so out of respect for our individual freedoms of choice. This is America. America is synonymous with freedom around the world. The American biker is synonymous with American freedom. The American biker is as American as apple pie, and you threaten our American way of life when you take away our freedom of choice.
Yes, indeed your Amendments read like an anti-biker diatribe, insisting that it is the biker who needs to be educated, not the auto driver, insisting that it is the unavoidable lack of “conspicuity” of the motorcycle rather than the failure of auto drivers to actively look for them, even seeking to tell us what to wear while riding rather than telling the auto driver to turn his head and look for us. But the bottom line is that you cannot defend your Amendments or any one of them, when you are unwilling to curb what is clearly the most prevalent cause of motorcycle accidents, and that is the ignorance of other motorists about motorcycle safety issues and their ignorance of motorcycle accident avoidance strategies
There is a solution to the dangers we face on our streets, and the solution is auto driver education. The states have the power to require mandatory auto driver education on motorcycle safety issues as a prerequisite to obtaining or renewing an auto drivers license. As Willie Sutton said, “That is where the money is.” That is how you will achieve the substantial reduction in motorcyclist injury and death.
We thank you for having solicited our comments. We appreciate your willingness to consider our point of view. We plead with you to reexamine the data upon which you have formed your conclusions which led you to frame these Amendments. And we pray that you will find that auto driver ignorance of motorcycle safety issues is the problem and that mandatory auto driver education is the solution.
Very truly yours,
Raymond L. Henke
Motorcyclists Against Dumb Drivers