Many groups which are considered reputable within the highway safety community have taken the position that motorcycle rider training and education contributes little to motorcycle safety. No you did not read that wrong. It is their position that rider education does not have a discernable impact on motorcycle safety, and that universal helmet laws are the only reliable method of reducing motorcycle fatalities. Do not take my word for it. Here is what the experts have to say:
“While basic rider courses teach important skills, the effectiveness of training as a safety countermeasure to reduce motorcycle crashes is unclear” (Traffic Safety Facts, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – March, 2010)
“There is no scientific evidence that motorcycle rider training reduces crash risk and is an adequate substitute for an all-rider helmet law” (Lethal Loopholes, Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety – January 2015)
“Laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear helmets are the only strategy proved to be effective in reducing motorcyclist fatalities”. (MOTORCYCLE SAFETY: Increasing Federal Funding Flexibility and Identifying Research Priorities Would Help Support States’ Safety Efforts, U.S. Government Accountability Office – November, 2012)
“Helmets are the only safety measure proven to save lives” (Motorcycle safety – How to Save Lives and Save Money, Center for Disease Control and Prevention – June 2012)
Before I start to get the angry emails concerning the value of motorcycle helmets, let me be clear that my purpose in writing this has nothing to do with riders wearing or not wearing motorcycle helmets. My purpose is to question a position shared by many within the highway safety community that dismisses the value of rider education. In my opinion this position is at best illogical, and at worst dangerous.
Let me use my oldest daughter as an example. She is twelve years old and loves motorcycles. She can’t wait until she is old enough to get her license. According to groups such as the Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety and the CDC, if I had to choose between having trained instructors teach her how to operate her motorcycle competently and defensively or putting a helmet on her head and sending her down the road, I should choose the latter. According to them, rider training and education is not a safety measure proven to save lives.
Admittedly, the previous scenario is not based on any researched data. It is meant to demonstrate the flawed logic of the position that only universal helmet laws impact motorcycle safety, and that rider education is of little to no value. However, we can and should look at the available data in considering the value of rider training and education.
According to the latest information published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), between 2005 and 2012, motorcycle registrations increased nationwide from 6,227,146 to 8,454,939. In 2005 there were 73.48 motorcycle fatalities per 100,000 registered motorcycles. By 2012 that rate had steadily dropped to 58.63. That means that between 2005 and 2012, motorcycle registrations increased 36% nationwide while fatality rates per 100,000 registered motorcycles decreased 20%. That is a significant and sustained decrease in fatalities in proportion to registered motorcycles.
We see an even more drastic drop in motorcycle fatalities when they are measured against vehicle miles traveled. According to NHTSA, motorcycle vehicle miles traveled increased from 10,454,000 to 21,298,000 between 2005 and 2012. In 2005 the motorcycle fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 43.77. By 2012 that number had decreased to 23.27. That means that between 2005 and 2012, motorcycle vehicle miles traveled increased 104% while motorcycle fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled decreased 47%.
What could explain this massive improvement in motorcycle safety from 2005 to 2012? We know that during that time frame there was an increased emphasis on rider training and education. More motorcycle training sites were opened. More rider training coaches were certified. More riders took courses. Currently, forty-seven states have state legislated motorcycle training programs in place; the other three have private training facilities. We also know that more public and private organizations launched motorcycle awareness and “share the road” campaigns during this period.
There is another important fact to consider in questioning the position espoused by groups such as the Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety and the CDC. Between 2005 and 2012 not a single state adopted a universal motorcycle helmet law. In fact, in May of 2012 Michigan repealed its universal helmet law. It is simply illogical to argue that universal helmet laws are the only proven safety measure when it comes to motorcycling. They certainly had nothing to do with the proportional decline in motorcycle fatalities between 2005 and 2012. No one will convince me that rider training and education did not play a significant role in that decline.
Rider education and training focuses on avoiding a crash rather than merely surviving one. Regardless of the effectiveness of any piece of gear, there is no such thing as a safe crash. The only safe crash is the one that does not occur. That is precisely the goal of training and education, to keep the crashes from occurring in the first place.
I will conclude by doing something that I have done in the past, but not often enough. I want to thank every instructor that gives up weekends and evenings in order to teach both new and experienced motorcyclists the skills necessary to safely and competently operate a motorcycle. You make the roads safer for all of us. I want to thank every person who has taken part in a motorcycle awareness or share the road campaign. You are making a difference. You are saving lives. For me this thank you is especially personal. After all, the life you save may be my daughter’s.
McGrath & Danielson
The Motorcycle Law Group