They say that two things you should never see being made are laws and sausages. So I was braced for the wurst when I traveled to D.C. this month to attend the first meeting of the new Motorcycle Advisory Council. (I needn’t have been; they won’t be making any new rules.)
The MAC’s a 10-person committee made up of traffic engineers and road-safety specialists — an advisory body brought together to provide information, advice, and recommendations to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) on “matters related to motorcyclist safety… and the implementation of noteworthy practices of highway infrastructure related improvements that will result in positive impacts on motorcyclist safety.”
Why the federal government is looking at motorcyclists
The meeting was opened by Beth Alicandri, the FHWA’s Associate Administrator for Safety and one of the senior federal officials working on the “Road to Zero” — a combined effort by the FHWA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and the National Safety Council (NSC), with the stated goal of ending fatalities on the nation’s roads within the next 30 years.
That’s audacious. For better or worse, it certainly means that those bureaucrats are going to pay attention to motorcycles. Alicandri cited recently released 2016 Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data, which counted 5,286 motorcycle fatalities out 37,461 overall traffic deaths.
The implication of those numbers is that on a per-mile basis, riding a motorcycle is at least 15 times as dangerous as driving. If the feds really want to improve road safety, we’re pretty much the lowest of the low-hanging fruit. Alicandri characterized the FHWA’s formation of a new Motorcycle Advisory Council as the desire to “Get the smartest people we could together in a room, and figure out how to ensure more people get home.”
That seems to be happening a lot lately. The MAC’s just one of several initiatives by federal and state agencies with broadly similar mandates: NHTSA recently encouraged motorcycle OEMs to form the Motorcycle Safety Research Consortium, and the National Association of State Motorcycle Safety Administrators has created a National Motorcycle Safety Task Force; and, several new crash studies have been funded in the last few years. Motorcycle safety may not exactly be a priority in D.C., but it’s more of a priority than usual.
I didn’t really know what to expect when I showed up for the meeting, which was held in a FHWA training room, in a blandly pleasant office building in Arlington, Virginia. The MAC is chaired by Michael Sayre, who is the AMA’s new Government Affairs Manager (On-Highway). Besides the 10 committee members, the public meeting was attended by a contingent of Department of Transportation officials who came and went over the course of the day. Other observers included a handful of industry technical guys (representatives from BMW, Bosch, and Dynamic Research), lobbyists (from the Motorcycle Industry Council and Harley-Davidson), and a small group from the Motorcycle Riders Foundation. They delivered a petition calling on the MAC to add three more seats to represent riders’ interests.
The meeting began with committee members’ introductions. Almost all of them are also motorcyclists, and several have obviously racked up some serious mileage. Sayre told the group he’s been riding for a decade and has owned several bikes. When he admitted that three of them had never run, I could immediately relate.
The first real presentation was an update on fatality data by Dr. Chanyoung Lee, who is a researcher with the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research. Lee reconfirmed something we’ve all heard a lot about: motorcycles’ share of road fatalities appears to be increasing both in absolute terms and relative to auto fatalities.
Some of that relative increase is likely due to cars, SUVs, and light trucks getting safer, thanks to airbags, self-tensioning seatbelts, and advanced driver assistance systems like lane assist and automatic emergency braking. Motorcycles have not, by and large, made similar safety advances, so we appear more dangerous by comparison. But Lee also pointed to the increase in deaths of older riders. More data — in particular data on the vehicle miles traveled by older riders, and the number of older riders who are either noobs or returning after very long gaps in experience — would make it easier to understand the significance of that bump.
MAC's mission: Focus on infrastructure
“Infrastructure” includes vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and various “Intelligent Transportation System” technology, and two MAC members have specific expertise in those areas. Shane McLaughlin is the Motorcycle Research Group leader at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. He discussed VTTI’s work in the area of naturalistic motorcycle studies, and connected motorcycle research.
Craig Shankwitz teaches at Montana State University, where he’s on the staff of the Western Transportation Institute. He gave a talk on a “smart license plate” that he’s taken most of the way through proof of concept. The plate uses off-the-shelf technology to communicate Basic Safety Messages on the DSRC radio frequency, which would communicate motorcycles’ position and vector to other vehicles with V2V systems.
Shankwitz chose to build the technology into the license plate because we replace plates every few years. His “V2VLP” system doesn’t require anything to be wired into the motorcycle, works on bikes of any vintage, and uses an ingenious system to generate its own power from waste heat produced by the exhaust. If all that sounds too good to be true, it is; the university in Bozeman counted on federal funding to develop a prototype, and that’s dried up.
No one from the DOT wanted to come right out and say that the “DSRC Mandate” (requiring vehicles have the ability to communicate with each other to avoid crashes) has been killed by the current administration, but the FHWA’s Mike Griffith made it clear that Trump’s team really is committed to the stated principle that, for every new regulation imposed, two old regulations have to be killed. For practical purposes, that means that the federal government probably won’t force automakers to include V2V systems as standard equipment.
Most of the conversation was focused on mundane issues like the availability of crack sealers (“tar snakes”) that provide better grip than the usual asphalt-polymer mixes. The implication of that two-regulations-removed-for-each-one-added isn’t just limited to new vehicle technology either; Griffith made it clear that the MAC can recommend those high-traction alternatives, but there’s no chance we’re going to get a rule made.
The group took deep dives into arcane issues ranging from the design of accident reporting forms (they leave out information we’d like to know, but if we add too many data fields, cops won’t fill them out at all) to the differences between diamond grooving and asphalt milling.
MAC Vice Chairman Joel Provenzano is a traffic engineer with the Florida Department of Transportation. He talked about high motorcycle accident rates in construction zones, particularly where those milled grooves abut regular asphalt. That prompted a discussion about construction warning signs. Everyone nodded in agreement when one engineer intoned, “If it looks dangerous, it isn’t,” meaning that motorcyclists will slow down and negotiate a chaotic construction zone at a safe speed.
Traffic in D.C. is notoriously bad, which may explain why any Chairman worth his salt strives to bring meetings to a close early. On the way out, I chatted briefly with Michael Sayre (he told me he reads Common Tread almost every day) and then we spoke again by phone a few days later.
Although Sayre’s relatively new to his current job at the AMA, he spent a few years as the organization’s “grassroots” coordinator. He’s decades younger than the average Council member, but he has a Master’s degree in Public Policy, so he knows what he’s getting into. He struck me as a guy who is already sanguine about how long it takes to get things done in government, and when it comes to what motorcyclists can hope for, given our limited political clout.
We talked about bicyclists’ activism, which might provide a model we could follow. Sayre bemoaned motorcyclists’ tribalism, and pointed to the Bay Area Riders Forum as an example of a grassroots group that amplifies and helps to unify riders from the San Francisco area. He expressed optimism that lane-sharing would gradually spread, first up to Oregon and Washington and then east.
“One challenge in promoting lane-sharing,” he told me, “is that motorcyclists themselves aren’t united on it, but we should present it as a rider’s choice.” Maybe Sayre can frame the legalization of lane-sharing as “removing a regulation” against it. That’s something he could then offer up to lawmakers in the Senate and House motorcycle caucuses.
MAC's impact is likely limited
At the end of the day, I was left with the sense that the committee’s made up of a bunch of thoughtful and experienced motorcyclists who, between them, also bring serious academic and career experience to the table. And, some of the federal bureaucrats in the room were also lifelong riders with a sincere interest in motorcycle safety. But the MAC simply can’t have a big impact on motorcycle safety any time soon.
As FHWA spokesman Neil Gaffney told me, “FHWA is not a road owner, per se. The federal aid program is federally assisted but administered by states... FHWA works with state and local partners to advance safety. We provide expertise and technical assistance to the state and local governments and encourage the use of proven safety countermeasures that can reduce fatalities and serious injuries on their roads.” Translate that into real-worldese, and you can see that even in a best-case scenario, the MAC will make recommendations to people who’ll make recommendations. Then, recommended changes to infrastructure will be built out over decades.
Even though the federal government is unlikely to mandate V2V or other Intelligent Transportation Systems technology, the voluntary adoption of V2V and other ADAS/ARAS tech still offers by far the fastest “hardware” route to improved rider safety. The MAC should definitely add motorcyclists’ voice to the FHWA, in the hopes that even without regulations, it can find a way to encourage the adoption of V2V, while protecting our interests as automakers introduce increasingly autonomous vehicles. The Motorcycle Safety Research Consortium will help those initiatives along from the OEM side.
There is also one important “software” solution. By that, I mean we can change the way riders are programmed.
The states’ National Motorcycle Safety Task Force could have a relatively quick and significant impact on motorcycle fatality rates by honestly evaluating new-rider training programs. One topic that came up in Arlington was that riders who get their motorcycle endorsement by passing an MSF course may even be more accident-prone than noobs who get their endorsement the old-fashioned way at the DMV. Taking the MSF course doesn’t appear to make new riders safer in any quantifiable way.
Around the time I was in D.C., I noticed that Pennsylvania joined California in adopting Lee Parks’ “Total Control” new-rider program. The Task Force should keep a sharp eye on novices’ accident rates in those states.
We’re not going to get to zero motorcycle fatalities any time soon — and we shouldn’t want to, because the only way we’d get there is by banning bikes altogether. Maybe it’s a good thing that “regulation” is a dirty word in today’s Washington, because it means there won’t be any regulations imposed on us, either.
Anything we do to improve motorcycle safety will result in more people choosing to ride. That alone will actually make us all a little bit safer because, as Michael Sayre noted, “The more motorcyclists that drivers see on the road, the more they’ll start to see us.”
The AMA still hasn’t filled Sayre’s old “grassroots” position, so he’s still monitoring his old email address. If you have ideas that can make riding a motorcycle safer — especially if they’re infrastructure-related, and might be appropriate MAC agenda items — send them to email@example.com.