May 1, 2018

What if We Really Cared?

All Rights Reserved © 2017 Thomas W. Day

There is a lot of talk, and little real action, about motorcycle safety improvements. Motorcycles are grossly over-represented in highway death and injury statistics and it will only get worse as cars continue to become safer and less dependent on human drivers. If we really did want to make a serious difference in those statistics and reduce the insanely high cost of all that blood and tears to the non-motorcycling public, what would we have to do?

A lot, I suspect.

After discussions about the possibilities with the Administrator of the Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Program, the owner of an independent motorcycle safety program, and a few MSF instructors, I came to a few conclusions. First, the people involved in the politics of motorcycling (ABATE, the AMA, the MSF/MIC, manufacturers and dealers, safety trainers, DOT bureaucrats at the state and federal level, and motorcyclists themselves) are not incentivized to do ANYTHING that will noticeably improve motorcycle safety. There is more easy money in the status quo than in doing the right thing and in worrying about the future of motorcycling. All of these entities are primarily concerned with putting butts on seats and taking a chunk of money from licensing. In 2010, not a big year for motorcycling, the GAO estimated motorcycle crashes cost the general public about $16B. Not exactly chicken feed. The industry produces about $4.4B in revenue, annually. So, the cost of keeping motorcycles on public roads is about 4X the industry’s economic value to the country. At some point, someone might suggest this is a waste of taxpayer money. In fact, I’m suggesting it right now.
So, my list of things that have to be done to make motorcycling safer, significantly safer, enough safer that motorcycle might be allowed to use public roads in the future, is this:
  • National Helmet Law. I do not know how this isn’t obvious to everyone, but we have a national seat belt law for cars and we simple can’t excuse motorcyclists not taking the minimum safety precaution while we require cagers to belt-up, air-bag-in, and surround themselves in crush-zones and roll-cages. Helmets are a minimum nod to pretending to care about motorcycle safety.
  • National Protective Gear Law. Even more than helmets, I think insurance companies should be allowed to vacate health coverage for riders who have accidents and injuries wearing no reasonable protective gear. At the least, riders should be required to wear decent foot wear, protective jackets, long pants, gloves, eye protection, or self-insure. There is no reason the public needs to assume responsibility for the surgical costs of someone who chooses to ride in flip-flops and a wife-beater.
  • State Emissions and Safety Inspection. Back in the 80's, when I lived in California, every vehicle licensed to be on California's roads had to pass an annual emissions inspection. Part of the inspection was to determine that the intake and exhaust system was bone-stock or equivalent. Anyone who has been anywhere near the usual cruiser suspects knows that those blubbering farm implements drool out as much unburned fuel as they manage to heat up. All that noise and nothing useful to show for it. Loud pipes not only don't save lives, they make millions of enemies for motorcyclists and probably cost a life or two hundred in road rage encounters. Since the fact that motorcyclists are incapable of maintaining safe vehicles has been made apparent by the existence of ape-hangars, chicken strips, missing front brakes, micro-turn signals, and the usual lousy maintenance motorcyclists are often proud of, safety inspections need to be established. Also true for cars and trucks.
  • Mandatory Regular Training. Yeah, I know cagers don’t have to retake the license test every time they re-up their license, but car drivers are in a vehicle that is somewhere around 3,000 –20,000 times safer-per-mile than motorcycles. Even more, cars are consistently getting safer while motorcyclists are a growing portion of highway crashes and mortality. The fact that most states allow a license holder to pay a small premium to add the “M” endorsement to their driver’s license, without any evidence that the endorsee owns or can even ride a motorcycle is flat-out stupid. At the minimum, something like the MSF’s Intermediate Rider Course with a passing score on the test (There is a test? Yes, Georgia there is and it ought to be mandatory.) should be required for that M-endorsement. Of course, I think anyone over 50 should have to retake the written and driving exam for cars and trucks every 5 years or so, too.
  • Tiered Licensing. I’d go with the Eurozone’s 3-tier system, but I’d be really behind something like the Japanese tests and tiers. This is a no-brainer. After teaching beginning MSF classes for 16 years and watching the worst “students” in my classes mount up on the biggest, most cumbersome, hardest to ride cruisers or the most powerful sportbikes after barely passing our minimal “skills test” (or not), I’m convinced that new riders are the last people who should get to choose what they ride without guidance. Yeah, I know that there is a decent argument that requiring serious licensing testing curtails interest in motorcycling, but that's happening with or without. 
Those are my minimum recommendations for changing the direction of an activity and vehicle that appears to be destined to vanish from the transportation system. Otherwise, motorcyclists can look forward to a near future where motorcycles and horses have exactly the same access to public roads (closed street parade permits, only). Why should autonomous vehicles be forced to cope with vehicles and riders who can't manage their own safety? What value does motorcycling bring to a culture that is being asked to foot a $16B annual bill for mere recreational "lifestyle" bullshit? Fix it or lose it, dummies. I'm 70. It doesn't matter to me, either way. I've been on two-wheels since 1952 and with power since 1963 or so. I've had my fun. You, on the other hand, are looking at being forced off of the road in the next decade. Maybe sooner.


Brad Sinn, formerly of MN, now of the mountains of AZ said...

I'm not generally a fan of overthinking and over regulating everything but I'm also old enough to remember when it didn't seem to be necessary. I'm also generally pragmatic. So, it's probably necessary and, honestly, wouldn't affect me anyway as I could meet these requirements right now.

My guess is that once the tide starts to turn against motorcycles, and economics says it will, we won't be able to stem it anyway. I'll enjoy it while I can.

T.W. Day said...

We've been taught, by Karl Rove and the Thinkspeak masters, that words like "regulation" are evil. Regulation is just the word for laws that apply to corporations and the 1%. The rest of us are regulated by "laws." Nobody hates laws more than the rich and powerful and they rarely have to obey the few that apply to them; and damn few apply to them. If humans survive another century, I suspect they will look back at the American "motorcycle safety" exercise in the same way we look at the history of the Plimsoll Line. The expense and carnage unregulated motorcycle riding generates grossly overwhelms the profits of the industry and is almost infinitely greater than the benefit society obtains from all that death and destruction.

Like Andy Goldfine, I really believe there is a "social good" to be obtained from riding a motorcycle, but I think we have to do something to move motorcycles from being a dangerous toy of the mindlessly untalented I-wanna-be-a-pirate kiddies to a means of transportation with advantages aimed at motorcycles' physical advantages and safety responsibilities that prevent the vehicle from being a gross outlier contributor to traffic deaths.

I agree, though, that since humans are clearly incapable of planning and considering the needs of the future, the tide will turn against motorcycles and the few responsible riders will get swept up along with all of the nitwits.

Anonymous said...

How is it possible that motorcycling costs "the public" four times the total industry's revenue?

T.W. Day said...

I'm not sure what your question means? How is it possible that the public tolerates this? Apathy and ignorance. How is it possible that motorcycles generate so much expense? US healthcare costs and the extreme incompetence of US motorcyclists.