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THROTTLE JOCKEY SUSAN CARPENTER

Motorcycle groups on NTSB report: That's all there is?

Don't just focus on the helmet laws, they say: Work to prevent crashes too.

September 19, 2007|SUSAN CARPENTER

The results are in. After a year's analysis of testimony from the National Transportation Safety Board's first-ever forum on motorcycle safety, the NTSB has finally made its recommendations.

The biggest take-away: Helmets save lives.

That message wasn't for riders but for state governments, which the safety board is encouraging to adopt universal helmet laws. Right now, just 20 states, including California, have laws requiring all motorcyclists and their passengers to wear helmets that meet the Department of Transportation standard. Twenty-seven states have partial laws requiring helmet use for a specific segment of riders, usually those under age 18, while three states have no helmet laws whatsoever.

"If you're wearing a helmet, your risk of dying in a crash is reduced by 37%," said Deborah Hersman, the board member who led last September's public forum on motorcycle safety. "That's the one measure we know will result in reducing fatalities and injuries."

The forum, prompted by the statistic that 10% of U.S. highway fatalities occur on motorcycles, was the first time in the board's 40-year history that it had addressed the topic of motorcycles.

More than 30 individuals testified on topics ranging from vehicle design and protective equipment to safety statistics, rider training, rider impairment and public education, yet most of those subjects went unmentioned in the board's recommendations due to "conflicting testimony" and inadequate statistical data, Hersman said.

The board is a not a regulatory authority. It is an arm of the U.S. government, responsible for investigating transportation accidents and making safety recommendations to whatever entities are best able to implement them. Since 1967, the board has issued more than 10,000 recommendations, 80% of which "have been closed in a favorable status," Hersman said.

Some take months to resolve. Others are open for years or decades.

"It depends on how challenging they are," Hersman added.

Despite the NTSB's track record, many in the motorcycle safety field were disappointed by the narrow scope and legislative bent of the six recommendations the board issued last week, three of which were calls to states and territories to adopt universal helmet laws. The other three were:

A request to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to re-prioritize its 7-year-old National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety.

A companion request that each state provide the NHTSA with data on the effectiveness of its motorcycle safety efforts.

A call to the Federal Highway Administration to develop guidelines for states to gather accurate data on motorcycle registrations and vehicle miles traveled.

"We're disappointed," said Ed Moreland, the American Motorcyclist Assn.'s vice president for government relations. "We think the NTSB missed an opportunity to weigh in on crash prevention measures and to work with the community to devise truly effective countermeasures instead of just seeking to implement nationwide helmet laws."

Specifically, Moreland said, the association would have liked to see a focus on alcohol awareness and distracted-driver education programs.

"The fact of the matter remains that before the NTSB recommendations and following, motorcyclists are going to continue to be harmed on America's highways until something is done about other motorists not seeing them," he said. "That continues to be at the top of the list for causes of collisions between vehicles and motorcyclists."

The association isn't the only entity to express surprise at the safety board's focus on helmets. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation was also measured in its response. "They did not address a lot of areas that we think contribute to saving lives and enhancing motorcyclist safety," said Dean Thompson, MSF's communications director.

He added, "We try to provide leadership for rider awareness. . . . What we're saying with our response is: Step up in your area."

According to Dave Thom, a longtime helmet researcher who worked on the landmark 1981 Hurt Study on crash causes and who currently heads the Collision and Injury Dynamics lab in El Segundo, "Ignoring mandatory helmets is like ignoring the 400-pound gorilla in the room. It's very controversial. There's 40 years of animosity when you say helmet laws, so the NTSB was brave to put it out there, but those of us that have been involved in motorcycling for many years know that it's not that simple. . . . It creates a quagmire."

In states that lack universal helmet laws, the quagmire involves getting such regulations passed. Motorcycle rights organizations have successfully lobbied for the repeal of many laws, arguing that helmets make it more difficult to see or hear while riding. Since 1997, six states have weakened helmet laws to limit coverage to those under a specific age. Despite nine consecutive years of motorcycle fatality increases, only one state -- Louisiana -- has reversed itself and re-adopted a universal law.

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