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Remarks to the National Coalition of Motorcyclists, Charlotte, NC
Robert L. Sumwalt
Charlotte, NC

I want to sincerely thank you for inviting me to be here today.

I read the transportation-related news clips each day, and stories like the following, are, unfortunately, not unusual. Here is an article from just a couple weeks ago:

It is entitled, “1 weekend, 2 motorcycle crashes, 3 deaths” April 22, 2007

CONCORD, N.H. --Three people died in two unrelated motorcycle crashes on New Hampshire highways this weekend. State Police say a woman and two men died of their injuries in crashes Saturday. The first crash happened after 3 p.m. on Route 101 in Epping. Police say the motorcycle hit the median and the driver and passenger were thrown from the bike. Police identified the victims as a 40 male, of Exeter, and a 35 year old female, of Hampton. The second accident happened just after 9 p.m. on Interstate 95. State Police say the19 year old motorcyclist of Auburn, Maine, lost control of his motorcycle shortly after passing through the southbound side of the Hampton tolls. He was taken to Exeter Hospital then flown to Boston Medical Center, where he died early Sunday morning.

On average, each day we have twelve such stories involving motorcycles in the U.S.

When I met Doc last year, he told me, “Robert, I’m tired of going to funerals.”

I want to assure you that I personally, and the agency that I represent, share that sentiment with each of you.

Doc asked me if I rode motorcycles. I quickly replied that my greatest contribution to motorcycle safety is by my not riding. You see, when I was a teenager, I loved to ride, but it seemed that about every time I jumped on a bike, I had the tendency to end-up wrapped around trees and other fixed objects.

As Clint Eastwood said in Dirty Harry, “A man has to know his limitations,” and for me, I decided that for me, a limitation should be that I refrain from riding motorcycles.

Let me tell you a little about the NTSB. You probably know us as the agency that investigates aviation accidents. Well, we certainly do that, but we also investigate selected rail, marine, highway and pipeline accidents, as well as those that involve transportation of hazardous materials.

While aviation and rail accidents generally receive a lot of media attention, 95 percent of our nation’s transportation fatalities occur on our highways.

Last year over 43,000 people died on our nation’s roadways.

Let me put this into perspective. Look around the room to get an idea of the number of people that we are talking about. It is about 230 people, right? Well, that same number of people die every two days on our nation’s roadways. These just aren’t statistics – these are people just like you and me.

Improving safety on our nation’s roadways must become a political and social priority.

As it relates to motorcycles, in 2005 over 4500 motorcyclists died in crashes. That’s more than ten percent of all traffic fatalities. In fact, the number of motorcycle fatalities last year is more than double that of a decade ago.

Of course, that increase is partly due to the steady growth in popularity of motorcycling over the last decade.

Think about this: the number of motorcycle fatalities in recent years has been almost double the number of deaths in those same years from accidents in aviation, rail, marine, and pipeline combined.

Now consider this: Here we are in the heart of NASCAR country. Can you imagine how the American public would feel if 10 or 15 NASCAR drivers were killed each time we had a major NASCAR race. There would be outrage – the public outcry would be unbearable. And rightfully so!

Well, two months ago, there were at least seven Daytona Bike Week related fatalities.

And Daytona Bike Week 2006 was the deadliest on record for motorcycle riders, when there were 16 bikers killed in Volusia and Flagler counties and five more died throughout the state.

Is this acceptable? We should not treat these events as if there will always be some collateral damage or that a certain number of fatalities is a given.

That said, the NTSB is interested in reversing these disturbing trends. How are we going to do this?

First, let me tell you that we are an independent federal agency. Unlike the Federal Highway Administration and the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, we are not part of the US Department of Transportation. Our independence is crucial. We call it the way we see it and we don’t pull any punches.

While we play a major oversight role, we do not have regulatory authority. When we uncover a deficiency, we cannot enact a law or regulation to "fix" the problem. Instead, our job is to determine what changes need to be made, who can make those changes, and encourage them to do so to improve transportation safety for everyone.

Our goal is to learn from our investigations how to prevent accidents from happening in the first place-but if we know they will continue to happen, we can then focus on reducing the severity of these crashes.

In the 40 years that we have been in business, we have issued over 12,500 safety recommendations. Overall, 82 percent of them have been accepted.

As it relates to motorcycle safety, last September we held a Motorcycle Safety Forum. The goal of that forum was to gather information about ongoing motorcycle safety research and initiatives, as well as safety countermeasures that might reduce the likelihood of motorcycle accidents and fatalities. As a result of that forum, here are three things that we are following:

First, NHTSA and the Federal Highway Administration are planning companion studies on motorcycle crash causation. The NHTSA study, which is expected to be out in November 2007, is titled “Pilot Motorcycle Crash Causes and Outcomes.”

It will be the precursor for the main study that will be conducted by the Federal Highway Administration called the “Motorcycle Crash Causation Study.” It is a joint effort with the Oklahoma Transportation Center and is expected to be complete in August 2010.

We at the NTSB provided comments to these agencies on the proposed study methods and will be following them closely. These studies have the potential to yield valuable information about crashes and the factors that may increase the risk of being involved in a motorcycle crash.

Secondly, motorcycle registration and data on vehicle miles traveled or (VMT) data provided by the Federal Highway Administration has been criticized as being inaccurate. For example, in spite of many indications that motorcycle use has increased – and we know this because there has been a major jump in recent years in sales and registrations among other things - the VMT data reported by the Federal Highway Administration has remained approximately the same for the past decade. Having accurate activity data for motorcycles is essential in terms of tracking accident and fatality rates.

Third, the National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety or (NAMS) study was completed in 2000. This was done by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, NHTSA and other groups. There were 82 recommendations in NAMS that touched on many important safety issues such as rider education and training, personal protective equipment, motorist awareness, and roadway design issues.

Some progress has been made on these recommendations, but many have not been enacted. NTSB staff is reviewing this report and considering whether it is appropriate for the Safety Board to comment further.

I realize that not all motorcycle accidents are caused by the motorcyclist. Indeed, many involve other drivers not seeing the motorcycle which leads to an accident. Distracted drivers is something that we have expresssed concern with as it relates to accidents involving cars, trucks busses. This is something I feel we should look at as it relates to motorcycle safety.

Let me shift my thoughts to alcohol-impaired driving. Each year we have about 16,000 alcohol-involved highway deaths involving cars, trucks, campers, or motorcycles.

As this relates to motorcycles, in 2005, 34 percent of fatal motorcycle accidents were alcohol-involved, meaning some level of BAC. That is compared to 26 percent for car accidents and 24 percent for light truck accidents.

I think we can agree that motorcycles are a wonderful display of freedom of the road, but I believe we can also agree that too many lives are being lost.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves.”

I think that says it well. If you don't like what you see in terms of numbers of mororcycle crashes, if you don't want the government telling you what to do, then perhaps the best way to make improvements, is for the people themselves to take precautions and enact improvements. We can all agree that people need to take personal responsibility and that common sense cannot be legislated.

That’s why I came here. I suspected that some may not be absolutely thrilled to have someone from the federal government here to talk about motorcycle safety. I came here to appeal to you to help improve the safety record of this great sport, this great means of transportation, this great expression of roadway freedom.

I know that many of you are absolutely committed to improving motorcycle safety. I applaud your efforts, especially in regard to educating the public on the safe operation of motor vehicles or rehabilitating vehicle operators that habitually drive impaired or recklessly. I challenge you to keep up the great work.

As Doc initially told me, we are all tired of going to funerals. I am here to say that we at the NTSB share the goal of reducing motorcycle accidents and the fatalities and injuries that result from them. We will continue to work toward that end in the future.

Thank you very much and I’ll be glad to try to answer any questions that you may have.