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Keynote Address to the ​National Association of State Motorcycle Safety Administrators, Burlington, VT
Christopher A. Hart
Burlington, VT

​Good morning, and thank you, Brett [Robertson], for inviting me to speak here today on behalf of the NTSB. It is an honor to share the head table this morning with Governor Scott and Commissioner Ide. So much in motor vehicle transportation safety happens at the state level, and it is particularly reassuring to hear state executives championing motorcycle safety.

I am Christopher Hart, and I am a Member, and the former Chairman, of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Many people hear “NTSB” and immediately picture the big yellow letters on our jackets at plane crashes. But we also investigate accidents in all other modes of transportation. We gather the facts, determine what causes accidents, and make recommendations which, if followed, will help prevent them from happening again.

Although we cannot require anybody to follow our recommendations, it is a testament to our world-class staff of investigators and analysts that 4 out of 5 times, our safety recommendations are implemented. I always say they do all the hard work, and we Board Members get the credit.

I would like to add one caveat: Some of what I am about to say might go beyond Board positions, so what I say will be informed by NTSB positions and findings, but I will be speaking for myself.

I would like to begin by discussing the recent tragic crash in Augusta, Maine, during a charity run. A pickup truck struck two motorcycle riders, taking their lives, and several other riders were injured. The driver of the pickup truck and his passenger sustained minor injuries. On behalf of the NTSB, let me say that our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of those who were lost.

We opened an investigation into this tragic crash to learn as much as we can.

This crash is just one of many examples of the harsh reality that riders are the most likely type of motor vehicle user to die in a crash, and they are a disproportionately large percentage of the fatalities on our streets and highways.  More specifically:

  • Only 3% of registered motor vehicles are motorcycles,
  • Only 0.6% of vehicle miles are traveled by motorcycle,
  • But a staggering 14% of all motor vehicle crash deaths involve motorcyclists.

And unfortunately it’s getting worse. Motorcycle crash deaths increased by 8% from 2014 to 2015.

This increase is not just a result of more riding. The rate per mile traveled increased by more than 10% from 2014 to 2015.

In 2015, the motorcycle crash fatality rate per mile traveled was almost 29 times the rate in cars, and more than 5,000 people died in motorcycle crashes… more in one year than died in the entire Iraq War in nine years.

That is our challenge, and the question is what are we going to do about it.

The vast majority of motorcycle crashes have their roots in human error, either by the motorcyclist, or by the driver of another vehicle. Not many crashes are due to mechanical failure. So the most effective solutions will have to focus primarily on the human issues. For what it’s worth, the human issues predominate in most of the accidents we investigate in all modes of transportation.

So I wondered whether a very successful safety improvement solution from aviation, namely, collaboration, might be helpful here.

In the 1990s, the Federal Aviation Administration, airlines, air traffic controllers, airports, and pilots – in other words, everybody with a “dog in the fight” – began a collaborative effort to reduce the fatal accident rate. It worked so well that the fatality rate was decreased by more than 80 percent in only 10 years, and the last fatal crash of a U.S. airliner was in 2009.

But collaboration is just beginning in motorcycle safety. I know that the many government agencies are working together. Who else should be involved in this collaboration? I don’t know, but you might.

However, I’m not confident that the effect can be as dramatic.

There was a clear impetus for airlines to collaborate. The fatal accident rate, while very low, was stubbornly resistant to improving further, but the volume of flying was projected to double. That would result in twice as many airline crashes.

In the airline world, anybody’s accident is everybody’s accident, so the concern is that accidents discourage people from flying at all – people don’t just avoid the airline that crashed. So while the airlines compete vigorously in many ways, they collaborated on safety.

Motorcycle accidents happen in ones and twos and don’t arouse national attention. Recent history has demonstrated that when the rate goes up, people do not stop buying motorcycles.

And airline pilots fly for their airlines, while riders ride for themselves. So collaboration might help to reduce fatal crashes for motorcycles, but it probably will not have as dramatic an effect as it did in aviation.

I also wondered whether a safety improvement program from the larger motor vehicle world might be helpful here, namely, the grass-roots efforts by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, to stop drunk driving.

MADD resulted from the grief of losing sons and daughters because of the carelessness of those who drove drunk, and they channeled that grief into action to prevent drunk driving. Motorcycle crashes, however, rarely kill or injure anyone other than the motorcyclist. Consequently there is no large population of parents who are aggrieved by someone else’s carelessness to initiate grass-roots campaigns that stir others into action.

What the numbers show is that the challenge is ultimately about personal responsibility. Looking at single-motorcycle crashes:

- more than 40% of fatal crash victims had a BAC level above the legal limit;

- that number was more than 60% on weekend nights;

- 33% of the fatal motorcycle crashes involved speeding, as compared with 19% for cars; and

- 27% of the motorcyclists in fatal crashes did not have a valid license, as compared with 13% in cars.

This does not necessarily mean that riders are more likely to be impaired or speed than other motorists. It means that the ones who died were.

So what will work to drive down motorcycle fatality rates? What can give us hope?

Two possibilities come to mind. The first is new technologies. The second is you – state administrators and trainers.

First, new technologies. One crash type that the airlines have almost eliminated is mid-air collisions.

The solution resulted from new technology. Airliners now have Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems, or TCAS. TCAS sends aircraft heading, speed, position and other information to other aircraft to inform pilots where other aircraft are in plenty of time to avoid a collision.

As you manufacturers might know, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is presently working on a proposed rule to include something analogous to TCAS in motor vehicles. This system is called vehicle to vehicle communication, or V2V.

The NTSB commented on this rule to help ensure that motorcycles would have V2V as well – so that motorcyclists will know where the cars are and the drivers will know where the motorcycles are.

But that’s the future. The rule is still pending, and even if the rule becomes final, it might take years or decades to fully phase in.

And even then, it won’t help reduce single-motorcycle crashes.

That leads me to you, the state administrators, and you, the trainers.

Trainers, you are our first line of defense in motorcycle safety. And administrators, you can fight for motorcycle safety programs that reflect the disproportionate role of motorcycle crashes in our general highway statistics.

How can you trainers help prevent crashes?  Based upon the statistics that I mentioned previously regarding impairment, speeding, and licensing, you can encourage safer personal choices by highlighting the dangers of impairment, the dangers of speeding, and the importance of being properly licensed.

Then, because even your best efforts will not prevent all motorcycle crashes, you can make sure you emphasize the importance of a DOT-approved helmet, whether or not your state has a helmet law.

Why? If accidents occur despite the variety of prevention efforts, helmets save lives. State laws vary, but the laws of physics don’t. Riders and their passengers have no metal around them for protection.

Let your riders know they should choose safety.

Administrators: Is there time to address these issues in your state’s required training window? If not, are there creative follow-up possibilities? In addition, we must never forget the importance of ensuring that driver training helps increase driver awareness of the presence of motorcycles.

My mission is safety. I know that’s why you are here as well. For me, improving safety means reducing risk.

With riders, however, the question is how to develop a culture that reduces risk rather than a culture that tolerates and sometimes even encourages risk– such as we often see among the youngest riders.

There might be some answers in the military’s struggle to reduce motor vehicle crash deaths.

From 1999 through 2009, the military lost more soldiers in motor vehicle crashes than combat, and many of those were motorcycle crashes. But through concerted outreach, by 2012, their general highway fatality rate decreased by nearly half, from 25.1 per 100,000 person-years in 2004 to 13.2 per 100,000 person-years in 2012.

Yet this safety success was not universal: the fatal motorcycle crash rate was increasing even while the rate for all vehicles was decreasing.

So the military has also identified challenges in winning over riders to safer behavior. One size may not fit all, but if SMSA has not yet reached out to the military, you might want to consider doing so. You might be facing some of the same issues.

In 2012, Michigan’s Office of Highway Safety Planning determined that more than half of motorcycle crashes and fatalities in that state involved an unendorsed rider – although only an estimated 20% of riders were unendorsed.

Michigan’s OHSP acted on that knowledge and reached out to unendorsed (and therefore, untrained) riders. Most recently, Michigan passed and began visibly enforcing tougher laws against riding without the proper license.

Would we still prefer a strong helmet law along with strong endorsement laws? Most definitely. That remains the NTSB’s position.

But if you’re a trainer in Michigan, should you still take the time to urge helmet use? Absolutely. The tough endorsement law can amplify your voice, by bringing more riders into training.

Once you have the rider in training, we’re counting on you. And so are all those who are hoping to see a reduction in fatalities from better rider behavior.

In closing, motorcyclists face the greatest exposure of any motor vehicle operator.  Technology will eventually bring some improvements, and improving driver awareness of motorcycles may help, but most of the challenge is in figuring out how to encourage motorcyclists to make better safety choices.

So thank you again for inviting me to speak on behalf of the NTSB. We look forward to continuing to work with you in this very important undertaking.