Honorable Deborah Hersman, NTSB Board MemberOpening Statement by
Deborah A.P. Hersman
Chairman, Public Forum on Motorcycle Safety
National Transportation Safety Board

September 12-13, 2006

 

 


Good morning, and welcome to the NTSB Board Room and Conference Center. I am Deborah Hersman, Member of the National Transportation Safety Board and Chairman of this Public Forum on Motorcycle Safety.

For nearly 40 years, the NTSB has served our nation's transportation community by investigating transportation accidents and incidents, making recommendations to ensure that similar events don't occur, and providing safety oversight of the transportation industry and its regulatory agencies. Although it is best known for major aviation accident investigations, the NTSB is charged by Congress to investigate accidents and conduct studies of significant safety problems in all modes of transportation. While aviation and rail accidents generally receive a lot of media attention, 95 percent of our nation’s transportation fatalities occur on our highways.

Recent data indicate that increases in fatalities among motorcycle riders far exceeded that of any other form of transportation. Last year, 4,553 motorcyclists died in crashes, or an average of over 12 motorcyclists every day! Motorcycle fatalities account for more than 10 percent of all motor vehicle crash fatalities. The number of motorcycle fatalities last year is more than double that of a decade ago. We know that the increase in accident numbers is partly due to the steady growth in popularity of motorcycling over the last decade. However, the number of fatalities is outpacing the increase in ridership. This trend is very troubling. To put it in perspective, the number of motorcycle fatalities in any recent year has been almost double the number of deaths that same year from accidents in aviation, rail, marine, and pipeline combined. Motorcycles are probably the American icon for freedom of the road, but right now, too many lives are being lost. In this forum, we hope to explore what can be done to reverse the accident trend and make motorcycles the symbol for both freedom and safety on the road.

Our goal over the next two days is to gather information about motorcycling, ongoing safety research and initiatives, and safety countermeasures that may reduce the likelihood of motorcycle accidents and fatalities. Once we have gathered this critical information, the NTSB may issue recommendations geared toward improving motorcycle safety. The NTSB has no authority to issue or enforce laws or regulations, nor does it have authority to issue grants for research or product development. Our main products are our recommendations. When this forum is completed, we will review the information gathered and, if warranted, issue recommendations to the motorcycle industry, government regulatory agencies, rider safety groups, or any other entity we believe can implement our recommendations and achieve an appreciable improvement in motorcycle safety.

Motorcycle safety is not a new topic, and many of you here today have been working diligently for years to improve the safety of motorcycling. In the late 90’s, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Motorcycle Safety Foundation formed a technical working group to explore ways to improve motorcycle safety. At that time, motorcycle crashes and fatalities had increased for two years after a period of decline. The working group produced the National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety, or NAMS, which provided a comprehensive overview of concerns in motorcycle safety and numerous suggestions on how to improve motorcycle safety. It has been six years since the NAMS, and many efforts have been made to improve motorcycle safety: rider training and education is at its highest levels, manufacturers have introduced new safety features on motorcycles, and Congress has called for both a large-scale crash causation study as well as a motorcycle advisory council to provide suggestions to the Federal Highway Administration about roadway and environmental issues affecting motorcyclists.

Before this year, the NTSB had not investigated accidents involving motorcycles or studied the issue. However, last June, the NTSB launched investigations into three motorcycle crashes. The first accident occurred about noon, on Sunday, June 11, and involved a collision between a 1995 Mercury Tracer and two motorcycles--a 2000 Harley Davidson and a 1999 Suzuki--on State Route 49 near the town of Thornton, New Hampshire. As a result of the crash, the driver of the passenger vehicle and the Suzuki operator were seriously injured. Both the operator and passenger of the Harley Davidson and the Suzuki’s passenger were fatally injured.

The second accident occurred at about 3:15 p.m. on the same day. It involved a 2003 Kawasaki motorcycle and a 1993 Plymouth minivan on State Route 220 in Linden, Pennsylvania. As the southbound 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. Following the impact, the van rolled to the left and a post-crash fire ensued. As a result of the crash, the motorcycle operator and all four occupants of the van were killed.

The third is a well-known crash that occurred on June 12 and involved Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. In that crash, 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. A 2005 Suzuki 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 and was seriously injured.

It is not our intent to use this forum to further the NTSB’s investigation of these particular accidents. However, concerns raised by these investigations, as well as issues noted from accident data, from motorcycle safety research, and from riders we have spoken to, have all influenced the agenda for this public forum.

Before I get into the details of our agenda, I would like to acknowledge some of the rider experience we have within our agency. Fifteen percent of NTSB employees have been motorcycle riders at one time in their lives, and about 7 percent of them currently ride today. Of those who currently ride, riding experience ranges from 1 year to 40 years, and more than two thirds of them have taken a rider safety course at least once. For my own preparation, I took the Basic Rider Course and passed the motorcycle licensing test in Virginia. I learned a lot about motorcycling from my instructors and from my classmates. I also learned, however, that one rider course and a motorcycle endorsement on my driver’s license did not turn me into an expert about motorcycles and motorcycle riding. That’s why I am grateful that we have been able to assemble panels of experts who are volunteering their time to help us address motorcycle safety in an informed way.

Over the next two days, we have an ambitious agenda. We will have three technical panels on each day. Today, we will discuss trends and safety statistics, vehicle design, and rider protective equipment. Tomorrow we will discuss training and licensing, public education and awareness, and rider impairment. In each panel, experts from government, research organizations, manufacturers, and industry will give brief introductory presentations, and then NTSB staff will lead a round of questions for the panelists. I will then lead additional questioning by NTSB’s Director of Research and Engineering, Dr. Vern Ellingstad, our Acting Director of the Office of Highway Safety, Mr. Bruce Magladry, and manager of the forum, Jana Price. We will also present questions from the audience. I encourage you to write your questions on the index cards that have been distributed and return them the staff who will be collecting them in the aisles. We will do our best to stay on schedule so that there will be time for meaningful discussion after each set of panel presentations.

Our first panel today will discuss motorcycling trends and safety statistics. We will learn about factors associated with crashes, changes in motorcycle characteristics and in rider demographics, as well as how motorcycle-related data are calculated. In our second panel today, we will focus on vehicle design, how vehicle design factors influence crashes and crash safety, and the influence of new technologies on motorcycle safety. Our final panel today will cover rider protective equipment. We hope to learn about what types of injuries result from motorcycle crashes and what research has been done on the effectiveness of various types of rider protective equipment.

Tomorrow, we will have three technical panels. In our first panel on training and licensing, we will learn about training programs, their effectiveness, and efforts to increase the number of riders who receive training and obtain a motorcycle license. The second panel on public education and awareness will highlight efforts to alert all road users about how to operate safely in the presence of motorcycles. We will look at what States, rider groups, and the insurance industry is doing to educate both riders and all motorists about motorcycle safety.

Our final technical panel tomorrow will discuss rider impairment. In 2004, 41 percent of motorcycle operators involved in a fatal single vehicle motorcycle crash had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or higher. In this panel, we hope to learn more about how alcohol and other substances impair riders, and find out about what efforts government, law enforcement, and rider groups are taking to reduce impairment-related crashes. At the end of tomorrow’s technical panels, we will ask several leaders in the motorcycling community and in government to summarize what we have heard and to give their opinions about what we need to do now and in the future to reverse the rising trend of motorcycle fatalities.

Because this forum has raised a great deal of interest in the motorcycling community, the NTSB has received a significant amount correspondence, as well as a number of requests for participation on the technical panels. We are limited to two days for this forum, and as you can see, we have a very full agenda. The time constraints necessitated our making some difficult choices about who should be included on the panels. We believe we have assembled a group of panelists who are most representative of the important aspects of motorcycle safety. The NTSB will carefully review the additional information already received through correspondence, as well as any information we receive in the next 30 days.

There are a few more things I would like to mention before we get started. First, there are a variety of interesting exhibits in our foyer and in the rooms adjacent to the conference center. These displays are pertinent to the discussions in the forum and I encourage you to visit the exhibits when you have a moment. Second, I want to note that all of the presentations you see today will be available on our website after the forum, and the forum is also being webcast at www.ntsb.gov for those who are not able to attend in person. I ask that all of you silence your cell phones and other electronic devices you may have with you. Please also make a mental note of the exits from this room that you would need to use in the case of a fire.

I will end with a quote by Dr. Harry Hurt, who led a pioneering motorcycle crash causation study in the late 1970s, which continues to be referenced today. In an interview when Dr. Hurt was asked to summarize his advice regarding motorcycle safety in one sentence, he replied, “There is no magic bullet other than getting smart.” I believe this simple statement captures the goal of this public forum. We want to take advantage of the tremendous expertise we have in this room to gather information about ongoing motorcycle safety research and initiatives, as well as safety countermeasures that could reduce the number of motorcycle accidents and fatalities.

My thanks go out to all of our presenters for joining us in this forum, as well as to our staff and our audience participants. I am looking forward to the discussions that this public forum will generate, and more importantly, the ideas for improving motorcycle safety that will come from it.