That's crazy talk!
Flawed report raises bike-ban THREAT
You probably saw the headlines in newspapers across the country several weeks ago:
“High-Performance Motorcycles Contributing to High Death Toll.”
“Supersport motorcycles lead the pack in death rates and claims costs.”
“The New Motorcycles: Bigger, Faster, Deadlier.”
And underneath those headlines, you—like many other Americans—read dire warnings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that sportbikes are much more dangerous than other types of motorcycles on the road.
Indeed, the IIHS claimed it had conducted research showing that three types of motorcycles—those that fit in categories it calls “supersport,” “sport” and “unclad sport”—are so dangerous that serious action is required to deal with this issue.
What type of action? Here are the IIHS’ own words on the subject:
“Short of banning superport and sport motorcycles from public roadways, capping the speed of these street-legal racing machines at the factory might be one way to reduce risk.”
That’s right—this powerful Washington-based group is talking about either banning or restricting entire classes of motorcycles. And when we hear words like that, we—like you—take notice.
Never mind, for a moment, that the alleged “research” behind this report doesn’t stand up to critical examination. What matters is that mainstream media outlets, which are unlikely to give this report a hard look, are already parroting the IIHS line, which means that we all need to be very concerned.
“This kind of flawed report, passed off as scientific research, has the potential to do great damage,” says Ed Moreland, AMA vice president for government relations. “At the very least, it can create false perceptions we’ll have to fight for years. And at worst, it could lead to restrictive laws that have no basis in reality.”
So just what is the IIHS and what’s its agenda for motorcycling? Let’s take a closer look.
A Long-standing Bias
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a group funded by more than 80 automobile insurance companies, has been around since the ’50s, focusing mostly on issues related to safety equipment in cars. Its most visible work consists of a car crash-testing program conducted on dozens of new models each year.
The results of those IIHS crash tests are often cited in commercials for automobile manufacturers. And that has made the IIHS something of a household name among American car buyers.
You’d think a research institute that puts so much effort into automobile testing might have some useful insights into motorcycle safety as well. But over the years, the exact opposite has been true.
Back in the 1980s, the motorcycling community was focused on the most comprehensive study of the causes of motorcycle crashes ever conducted. That study, which became known as the Hurt Report, after lead researcher Harry Hurt, provided insights into everything from the dangers of left-turning cars to the effectiveness of safety equipment.
But instead of building on that solid research, the IIHS had a far simpler solution to the “problem” of motorcycle safety. Its senior vice president, Ben Kelley, suggested that one answer would be to just ban motorcycles outright. There—problem solved.
Years later, the IIHS had toned down its rhetoric only slightly. In 1987, it didn’t propose banning all motorcycles—just sportbikes. That was when the organization put together a study it said demonstrated that so-called “racing-design motorcycles” were much more dangerous than other bikes and needed to be eliminated. And it even convinced U.S. Sen. John Danforth to propose a law that would have mandated horsepower limits for bikes sold in America.
If you were around back then, you probably remember the Year of the Sportbike Ban, when the AMA looked more closely into the IIHS’ alleged “research” and discovered that it didn’t show what it claimed to show. In fact, the institute had done such a sloppy job of investigation that Hurt himself, the man behind that landmark study years earlier, pronounced it “fatally flawed.”
We beat the IIHS sportbike ban that year, and we even got Sen. Danforth on our side, saying that he recognized that the AMA had the constituent interest in motorcycle safety and that his IIHS-backed bill was a “dead-end street.”
History Repeats Itself
Now, 20 years later, the IIHS is back, with a report that is nearly identical to its “fatally flawed” study from 1987.
The report, released to the press in September, is no more than a summary of conclusions that doesn’t actually go into any details.
But a close look at it does indicate that, once again, the IIHS hasn’t done any new research—at all. It merely looked through existing data gathered through the national Fatal Accident Reporting System.
And on the basis of deaths per 10,000 registered vehicles, the IIHS claims that “supersport” motorcycles are about three times as dangerous as all bikes, and that “sport” and “unclad sport” motorcycles are about 1.4 times as dangerous.
The problem today—as it was in 1987—is that the IIHS didn’t consider any other factors that might account for those differences in fatality rates. It only went looking for a problem with loosely defined styles of motorcycles.
Good research, like the Hurt Report, involves looking at the entire picture—finding out who’s riding the bike, how old they are, whether they’re licensed or not, how many miles they ride, what type of roads they’re on—and putting all of that together to determine what factors might make one rider more likely to crash than another.
For instance, previous research has consistently shown that younger, less-experienced operators represent a higher risk factor—whether they’re in cars or on motorcycles. And the IIHS’ own summary notes that riders involved in fatal crashes on supersport and sport bikes had the lowest average ages among the groups it looked at.
In fact, the IIHS lists supersport motorcycles as the most dangerous, followed by sport/unclad sport bikes, cruiser/standard bikes and then touring bikes. Even by the IIHS’ own numbers, that tracks exactly with the average age of the riders involved in fatal crashes on those bikes, from youngest to oldest.
So is it the style of the bike that’s the problem or the age of the rider?
That’s an important question, because you’d approach those two issues from completely different directions. Unfortunately, the IIHS didn’t bother to find out. It just decided the motorcycle was at fault and started talking about bans and restrictions.
The same problems appear throughout the IIHS report. Is the average sportbike ridden more miles every year than the average cruiser? Are sportbikes more likely to be ridden in congested urban environments than touring bikes, which are likely to accumulate miles on lightly traveled rural roads? Are younger sportbike riders less likely to be licensed than older touring-bike riders? What percentage of these crashes were caused by the rider, and what percentage by the operator of another vehicle?
All of that, and a lot more, would be extremely useful if you were actually trying to get at the causes of motorcycle crashes. But the IIHS didn’t bother with any of that. It had already found its target: sportbikes.
‘You Have to Question the Results’
Dave Thom, one of the co-authors of the Hurt Report who now works as a consultant in helmet design and performance, admits that getting the additional information needed for good research isn’t easy. In the case of that massive study in the ’70s, it involved recruiting a corps of motorcyclists who would travel to accident scenes in the Los Angeles area, where the project was based, and gather information directly.
That independent network of researchers tracked down the answers to questions regarding safety equipment, licensing status, riding experience and the cause of the crash. But researchers also returned to the scene to gather data about how many motorcycles typically used that road during the time period when the crash occurred. And that added vital perspective to the Hurt Report.
“Registration data alone (like that cited by the IIHS) is not necessarily an indication of the riders actually on the street,” Thom says. “Having data about the population at risk is critical to saying anything meaningful. And if you have questions about the risk data, then you really have to question the results.”
It’s perhaps telling that the IIHS would release this report now, since it comes at a time when the federal government, the motorcycle industry, the AMA and individual riders (through our “Fuel the Fund” program) have committed funding to the first comprehensive study of motorcycle crashes since the Hurt Report nearly three decades ago. The AMA worked for years to get congressional approval of that multi-year study, which is expected to begin within the next few months.
In other words, for the first time in a generation, we’re on the brink of getting the type of detailed research that can truly help motorcyclists stay safer on the road. And the IIHS chooses this moment to muddy the waters with a bunch of predetermined conclusions in search of some supporting data.
A Bike-classification Shell Game
All this would be bad enough if the bikes on the IIHS hit list were confined to actual supersport motorcycles, since it would indict an entire class of motorcycles. But the reality is even worse, because the IIHS can’t seem to tell one type of motorcycle from another. And that means there are serious implications for riders on touring bikes, sport-tourers, standards or even low-power learner bikes.
Part of the problem stems from the IIHS’ class designations: cruiser, dual-purpose, standard, sport, supersport, touring and something called “unclad sport.” Assuming that unclad sport is intended to match up with what we call naked bikes, that still leaves a couple of major omissions, including sport-touring and adventure-touring bikes, which left us wondering how the IIHS had classified those machines.
In an attempt to answer that question, the AMA requested a copy of the classification system the IIHS used in its analysis, and we found several significant anomalies.
For instance, although the IIHS report focuses on speed and acceleration as the factors that make its supersport category so dangerous, the two most powerful motorcycles you can buy in the United States—Kawasaki’s ZX-14 and Suzuki’s Hayabusa—are placed in the sport category.
And, since there’s no sport-touring class, Honda’s ST1300 and Interceptor, Yamaha’s FJR1300, Kawasaki’s previous-generation 1,000cc Concours, and BMW’s K1200GT and R1200ST all end up in the sport category, too.
It gets worse. Without an adventure-touring category, BMW’s R1200GS is listed in the dual-purpose class, but Suzuki’s V-Stroms are designated as unclad sport bikes, while the Buell Ulysses becomes a sport bike.
Odder still, the BMW R1150R is listed as an unclad sport bike, while the IIHS calls its successor, the R1200R, a standard.
But for just plain missing the mark entirely, it’s hard to beat two other bikes that also appear on the IIHS list of dangerous sport bikes: the BMW R1200RT and Buell Blast. Remember, these bikes fall into a category that the IIHS describes as “street-legal racing machines.” Do you figure anyone at the IIHS has ever seen these motorcycles?
Is the Battle Just Starting?
All of this would be kind of funny except for two important points:
First, the IIHS has staked its claim that sportbikes are dangerous based on crash results it categorized using this list. And if the list is wrong, notes Moreland, then the IIHS’ conclusions are, too.
“No matter what name you put on it, the Hayabusa, the ST1300, the R1200RT and the Blast are simply not in the same class of motorcycles,” he explains. “And if you’re claiming to rank fatality rates by category of motorcycle, it’s impossible to get meaningful results when you lump those entirely different machines together and declare them to be in the same class.”
Second, the IIHS is openly advocating an outright ban or restrictions on motorcycles based on its flawed report. And the last time it did that—20 years ago—it succeeded in getting a U.S. senator to introduce federal legislation targeting motorcycles.
Will history repeat itself in that way, too? Stay tuned.
© 2007, American Motorcyclist Association
Bikes Under Attack
Is your motorcycle on the IIHS hit list? Here are the bikes that the group has classified as “super sport,” “sport” and “unclad sport” motorcycles. And the group says that, short of banning them from public roadways, “capping the speed of these street-legal racing machines at the factory might be one way to reduce their risk.”
RST Futura, RS 250, RSV 1000 R, RSV 1000 R Factory
F800S, F800ST, K1200GT, R1200RT, R1200ST, K1200S, K1200R, R1150R, R1150R Rockster
1000DS, 620 Sport, SS800, 749, 749R, 749S, 999 Biposto, 999R, 999S, Monster S2R, Monster S2R 1000, Monster S4R, Monster S4R Testastretta
Interceptor 800, Interceptor 800 ABS, ST1300, ST1300 ABS, ST1300 Police MC, CBR1000RR, CBR600F4i, CBR600RR, RC51, 599, 919
Concours 1000, Ninja 250R, Ninja 500, Ninja 650R, Ninja ZX-14, ZZR600, Ninja ZX-10R, Ninja ZX-6R, Ninja ZX-6RR, Z1000, ZR-7S
Hayabusa, Katana 600, Katana 750, GSX-R1000, GSX-R750, GSX-R600, SV1000, SV650S, V-Strom 1000, V-Strom 650
Sprint ST, 955 Daytona, Daytona 675, Speed Triple
FJR1300, YZF600R, YZF-R1, YZF-R6, YZF-R6S, FZ6, FZS1000
Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety