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May 25, 2021Episode 9. Half the Wheels and Eight Times the Danger: Roadways are safer these days, unless you ride a motorcycle.
FEATURING: Michael Manser
Passenger vehicle fatalities in the United States have declined recently, but not motorcyclist deaths, which total about 5,000 each year. Some reasons for that are obvious, as Senior Research Scientist Mike Manser notes, but the bigger picture is more complex. Advocates continue to prioritize robust safety programs targeting not only motorcyclists, but also those who share the road with them.
About Our Guest
Senior Research Scientist
Michael Manser is the manager of TTI’s Human Factors Program. He's worked in the area of transportation safety for more than 20 years. Mike has been involved in motorcycle safety projects for the Federal Highways Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, and at the Texas Department of Transportation. He's also a rider with experience on the street and at track events.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:15):
Welcome to Thinking Transportation, conversations about how we use our transportation system in everyday life. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
Bernie Fette (00:26):
In the past 40 years or so, passenger vehicle deaths have declined, and the same is true for overall roadway fatalities. Not so for motorcycle deaths, which total about 5,000 each year. In 1975, motorcycle fatalities made up 7 percent of all motor vehicle deaths. More recently, that number has doubled. Based on the number of miles traveled, motorcyclists are eight times more likely to die or suffer injury in a crash than someone in a car or truck. Some of the reasons are obvious. Motorcyclists face more risk because they aren’t surrounded by a protective shell with airbags. And motorcycles are inherently less visible to other drivers. But the full picture is a lot more complex. And that’s the topic of our conversation today with Mike Manser, a senior research scientist at TTI. Mike is an expert in motorcycle safety and he’s manager of the Human Factors Program in TTI’s Center for Transportation Safety. Thanks for being here, Mike.
Mike Manser (guest) (01:39):
Yeah, it’s going to be fun.
Bernie Fette (01:40):
As I was getting ready for our conversation today, I was recalling that part of your knowledge on this topic comes from personal experience. You rode motorcycles for a number of years for pleasure, right?
Mike Manser (01:52):
Yeah. Yeah. I rode motorcycles for, I don’t know, maybe a dozen years or so. A couple of years ago I sold it and I say I’m between motorcycles right now.
Bernie Fette (02:02):
Ah, okay. I understand that. It’s a little like being in between sailboats, so I totally get that. So, I was wondering how that experience might have informed your work in this area and maybe how it might even be influencing how you go about your research and related work in this area.
Mike Manser (02:23):
Yeah. My interest in the area really started when I was riding. I would hear stories about riders getting into crashes and I would talk to people and it was pretty clear that the riders felt that the motorists were at fault and the motorists felt that the riders were at fault. And being a researcher, I’m like, well, the truth has to be somewhere in the middle. And when I started to look into the data, it’s pretty clear that there was some truth on both sides. Each side was at fault for these crashes, but what was more alarming was just the sheer number of riders getting into crashes and the number of riders dying. And, and that then really sparked my interest. I was like, well, if there’s such a large number of riders getting injured and dying in crashes, certainly there’s gotta be something we can do about this. And that’s really what started my interest in developing ed and outreach programs to help improve safety for riders.
Bernie Fette (03:24):
Yeah. And it sounds like there’s certainly a lot of room for improvement in safety there. At the same time, there have been certain measures of road safety, it seemed, to have improved in recent decades. The number of overall crashes declining, number of fatalities overall on the roadways declining, but it seems fairly difficult to find any real positive trend in crash numbers specific to motorcycles.
Mike Manser (03:50):
I’ll say, you know, when I look at the numbers too, I’m a little dismayed. If there is a promising element, it’s the fact that the number of registrations for motorcycles has risen significantly over the past several years. As you know, the economy has changed as people look for ways to save money, you know, they’re looking at a motorcycle as a good alternative to that, and it’s also become a really popular leisure activity. The one good thing is that the number of fatalities have not mirrored the increasing rate in registrations.
Bernie Fette (04:24):
Mike Manser (04:24):
Now that really is about the only silver lining here. There’s very little beyond that, that we can point to as being like really positive. You know, the number of rider fatalities was going down for quite a while. And even in the last say three, four years ago, for example, here in Texas, the number of rider fatalities, it was getting down to just above about 400 a year, but that in the most recent reporting year has spiked again to just under 500 fatalities. So it’s difficult to even look at that one little positive sliver as like a great sign about the safety that riders may encounter out in the roadways. It really is a big problem.
Bernie Fette (05:07):
Yeah. And you mentioned Texas specifically. As you mentioned, nearly 500 motorcyclists killed in Texas in 2020. That was a 17 percent increase over the previous year at the same time that there was an actual 2 percent reduction in the number of motorcycle crashes. What’s behind that distinction?
Mike Manser (05:30):
Yeah. You’re exactly right. There was this real sharp increase in the last year and we’re still trying to figure out exactly why that is. I mean, we have some general ideas of what is the kind of the, what are the factors that are contributing to rider crashes. We need to go in and figure out why this sudden spike in crashes. We know that there are some pervasive issues in riding. One is alcohol involvement. So a significant number of fatalities involve alcohol in some way, shape or form. We see on a federal level, for example, half of all crashes that occur at night that are fatal involve alcohol to some degree. I mean, that’s a big, big problem that we have.
Bernie Fette (06:11):
That’s helpful to get into the reasons now. Because I noticed in the presentation that you gave not too long ago, you boiled a lot of this down to three questions: Who is crashing? Where are they crashing? And why are they crashing? So the alcohol factor speaks to part of the “why?” Can we dig a little deeper for a few minutes on each of those three questions that you answered in that presentation that you gave?
Mike Manser (06:36):
So yeah, we can dig into those three topics real quick. And those topics are really important for us because we use those ultimately to develop safety programs. So as we dig into them, we can pull out information that guides us as to where we really need to be focusing on rider safety. So the first one — who is crashing? — this one is interesting. From my perspective, we see a couple of really interesting trends right now. When we look at, for example, age groups where these crashes are occurring across the spectrum of riders for age, we see that it’s, it’s pretty well distributed except for younger riders. There tends to be more crashes in the younger rider age group. That’s essentially about age 30 and below. That’s interesting because it used to be that we had what was called a bi-modal curve. So we had a lot of crashes in the younger age group. And then we used to have a lot of crashes in say the middle-age age group, about 50 to 60 years of age, and over time that has essentially flattened out to where it’s much more evenly spread across the very young, the young, the middle-age and older riders across the board. And that’s just a change in demographics. It’s a change in the motivations for riding, the motivations for having a motorcycle and a few other factors that are in there. When we also think about who is crashing, we note that male riders tend to crash more than female riders. That’s what the data shows, but in reality, that’s more of a reflection of the fact that very few female riders are out there compared to male riders. So that statistic is a little misleading. The other thing I find interesting is in the past several years, there’s been a big shift in who is crashing when we look at it in terms of the size of the motorcycle. Now, technically that’s not a who; that’s a what, but it’s pretty important. It used to be that most of the crashes occurred with riders on bikes less than a thousand cc’s. So that’s kind of the mid- to bigger sport bike range that we see. But now we see the majority of crashes occurring in the 1500 cc size bike and larger. These are really big bikes. These are the cruisers that you see, uh, the really nice, beautiful, big Goldwing motorcycles, the large Harleys, et cetera. And in fact, that change is significant. That jump has gone from about 11 percent of total crashes in 2008 to 22 percent of crashes in 2017. So that represents a real shift in who is crashing and something that we need to pay attention.
Bernie Fette (09:18):
And it also kind of ties together, the who is crashing with the why. If we look at passenger vehicles, we see a lot of improvements in terms of seat belts, airbags, automatic braking, et cetera. One of the more conspicuous technology improvements for motorcycles has simply been in the size and speed of the bikes themselves.
Mike Manser (09:39):
Yeah. That, I don’t know if that’s necessarily an improvement, but it’s definitely a change. We do see improvements in motorcycles in other ways. It’s now becoming much more common to find traction control systems on motorcycles.
Bernie Fette (09:52):
Can you explain what that is?
Mike Manser (09:55):
Yeah. So if, for example, a rider is going along a surface, say a gravel surface or a slippery surface and the rear wheel starts to slip a little bit. The computer on board the motorcycle actually controls a power to that wheel to manage that slip. So it doesn’t happen to the degree it normally would. Also, if you’re going around a corner and the bike starts to identify that the rear is starting to slide out, which is also indicated by increase in rear wheel speed, it will begin to control parameters of the motorcycle to help prevent that bike from low siding, which is basically when the wheel slides out under you, or high siding, when you essentially get ejected off the top of the bike. So there, there have been some changes in the actual bike technology itself that have been beneficial, but I’ll say it hasn’t been enough to overcome the rise in fatalities and crashes in general. So we need to do a better job in implementing newer technologies. We also need to do a better job of educating riders. There are some promising activities going on in the, in the motorcycle technology front. There are some federal agencies, as well as a motorcycle manufacturers, looking at things like connected vehicle technologies, where the motorcycle would receive information from the infrastructure about the presence of other vehicles around them. And it can let the motorcycle have a little bit of control, like to start to slow down if it detects a vehicle in front of starting a slowdown. Or if there’s a crash up front, it can warn the driver of that. Some of those technologies are of course a ways away from being implemented, but they are on the horizon. They do offer some big promises for riders.
Bernie Fette (11:40):
And it’s encouraging to know that they’re being considered now, because I know that we can study a lot and read a lot about the work that’s being done at TTI and elsewhere on the topic of connected transportation. But I think what most of us think about when, whenever we hear connected transportation is passenger vehicles being connected to one another.
Mike Manser (12:02):
Bernie Fette (12:02):
I guess that’s not something that we would think about motorcycles being in that mix unless we were motorcycle riders.
Mike Manser (12:11):
One of the challenges with motorcycle technology is the packaging of the motorcycle itself, right? There’s not a lot of extra space to put on a radar system. Whereas in a vehicle you can hide that behind the grill of the vehicle.
Bernie Fette (12:23):
Mike Manser (12:23):
If you want to add sonar sensors to a car, they typically embed those in the bumpers. Well, a motorcycle doesn’t have bumpers. So the space allowed for these things is one of the constraining factors. I also say in a lot of cases, particularly on some of the sport bikes, smaller bikes, cost is the other issue, right? So the profit margins that the manufacturers experience with a motorcycle are not as big as the profit margins on a car. So if you want to go in and add a, an extra sensor suite, that’s really going to improve safety, it will really have an effect on the price of that motorcycle so much so that it may start to deter riders from buying it. So we do have some very real obstacles to implementing technology as a solution to improve rider safety.
Bernie Fette (13:12):
So those disincentives that the consumer might experience are going to be disproportionally seen with motorcycles as opposed to passenger vehicles.
Mike Manser (13:20):
Yeah, they definitely can be. Yep. Yeah.
Bernie Fette (13:22):
Okay. One of the other improvements is advancements in the design and manufacture of motorcycle helmets. Helmets are safer than the one that I was using about 40 years ago, but still there are those people who choose to not wear them. Of course, opposition to traffic safety laws did not start with a fight over motorcycle helmets. We know that. In the 1980s, a lot of people were vehemently opposed to wearing seat belts. The issue in their minds at the time was personal liberty, which is also in the minds of a lot of motorcycle riders. One state senator in Massachusetts, I read on this topic, at the time in the 1980s, that said those who opposed seatbelt laws wanted — this is a quote — “the right to be splattered all over their windshields.” So how do we bridge the gap between those two arguments, maybe in a way that will raise motorcycle helmet use to a level that we’re now enjoying with seatbelt use?
Mike Manser (14:33):
Yeah, that’s a great question. So there are a variety of factors that play into that. We do know that there’s a significant part of the motorcycle riding community that are fiercely independent, and they don’t want to be told what to do or what to wear, particularly helmets or jackets, et cetera. And those are the people where we really have to address. Now, the fundamental truth is that helmets save lives. There is no way around it, whether you’re pro-helmet use or against helmet use, the bottom line is that wearing a helmet will help you keep from getting injured to a greater degree and it’ll help you from getting killed. Then it becomes an issue of riding culture. So, there is this core segment of the riding community that are, like I said, fiercely, fiercely independent. They come up with all sorts of ideas of why you should not wear a helmet. For example, the field of view is limited. It’s hot. It obstructs my head turning. I can’t see.
Bernie Fette (15:36):
And this is not necessarily a predictable demographic group because if you visit the Texas state capitol, for instance — seems it’s the same way in other state capitols — whenever those laws are considered, the people who come out to testify don’t necessarily fit a stereotype. Yes, you’ll see some people that you might imagine, you know, wearing the leather jackets, et cetera, but you also have other people wearing business suits, high heels, whatever it might be, very passionate about personal freedoms.
Mike Manser (16:11):
Yeah. And that’s definitely true. We see riders from all walks of life. There’s the ones that we typically associate with being a rider. They’re wearing, you know, jeans and leather jackets and tattoos and all this, but that’s really just a small portion of the overall riding community. There are individuals in all socioeconomic levels, in all professions. We see doctors and lawyers. Good friend of mine who races a motorcycle in addition to riding on the street — he’s a surgeon. I can’t think of a more challenging environment for a surgeon to risk getting your hands beat up in a motorcycle crash. But that’s just an example. And it is interesting. And that makes it challenging. When we go to address rider safety, it’s like, how do we devise a message that can reach all of these people? Well, we can’t. So we have to try and break it down and focus our messaging on certain topics. It’s really a challenging issue to address. The other topic that’s really challenging is rider licensing, and associated with that, rider training. So we know that a significant portion of the riding community is what we call riding dirty, which means they’re not riding with an “M” endorsement or a motorcycle license. They may have a driver’s license, but they don’t have one specific to riding a motorcycle. So they’re out there kind of doing it. It’d be like you or I having our license lapse or not even getting a driver’s license and driving our car everywhere. It’s the same thing for a motorcycle.
Bernie Fette (17:38):
Mike Manser (17:38):
That is pervasive. A very high percentage of riders in Texas and nationally don’t have a motorcycle license, which means they probably didn’t get the basic training on how to operate a motorcycle or get the basic training on hazard perception or some of these other really critical elements that you need to learn about and develop as skills in order to be safer as a rider. So that that’s been a really challenging topic to address.
Bernie Fette (18:09):
Is that number growing?
Mike Manser (18:09):
I don’t know if it’s growing, but it is significant.
Bernie Fette (18:12):
But it’s not falling either.
Mike Manser (18:14):
It is not falling. So nationally, unlicensed, fatally injured riders represent about 31 percent of all riders. So we compare that with vehicle drivers, and that’s only about 16 percent who don’t have a license.
Bernie Fette (18:29):
Mike Manser (18:30):
It’s huge. And in Texas, it’s even bigger than that. About 48 percent of all riders who are fatally injured, do not have an M endorsement. So…
Bernie Fette (18:42):
Mike Manser (18:42):
Almost half. So this is what we would consider low-hanging fruit, but it is a really challenging thing to address. You know, we have a lot of riders in rural areas, right? If you’re going from farm to farm or ranch to ranch, you don’t necessarily need your pickup. Well, out in those rural areas, you may decide, well, it’s not worth it getting a motorcycle license. And it’s also more challenging because they may not have a motorcycle training facility in those rural areas. So you may have to travel. You know, if you’re kind of in northwest Texas, you may have to travel to Dallas and Fort Worth to take your class. Well, it’s not worth it, if you’re just going to make a half a dozen trips to the next ranch over or something, but it doesn’t ignore the fact that it’s still risky to ride a motorcycle. And without taking that training here, you probably don’t get the fundamentals of hazard perception, the fundamentals of handling a motorcycle, the fundamentals of what to do in critical situations.
Bernie Fette (19:38):
Yeah. In those critical situations, we’re taught in how to avoid crashes or weather a crash sometime if we find that we’re about to be in one, but that the same need exists when, if you’re on two wheels.
Mike Manser (19:50):
Yeah. And like in driver’s ed, you know, on the on-road training portion, we’re taught how to recognize hazards in the environment.
Bernie Fette (19:58):
Mike Manser (19:58):
So approaching an intersection, watch out for this car, you look at the, you know. Is a wheel turning? Is a blinker on? You’re taught all these things by your instructor. And similarly in, in riding a motorcycle, you have a classroom portion as part of the basic rider course. And then you have a field test and field activities. Basically it’s in a closed course, you ride a motorcycle and they teach you about some of these things. Well, again, if you don’t take the course, you’ll probably not get this really valuable information. So getting more riders to get their rider license is really important. Uh, some states have done actually a pretty good job of it. For example, Michigan and Texas have put together education and outreach campaigns in which they find out the households who have a registered motorcycle. And then they find out, does that household have a rider with a license? And if it doesn’t, they send a little note card to that address saying, you know, we notice we’ve got a motorcycle registered at this household, but no people have a license. We would encourage you to get a basic rider course. Here’s the information on how to find it, et cetera. And they’ve had really good success with that program in getting more riders to enroll in the basic rider course and get their license that way.
Bernie Fette (21:15):
That’s encouraging to hear, because if someone receives a notice like that, there are those who might think, who’s been checking up on me?
Mike Manser (21:23):
Yeah. There’s a really fine line there. Particularly with the riding community. You know, like everybody, they need to be concerned about their identity and who’s getting access to their information. But both Texas and Michigan have done a really good job of making sure that those campaigns are, they’re very careful about how the campaign is worded, how the, the note is worded, et cetera. And it’s had a positive effect, at least in Michigan that we can see so far, the program in Texas is still being rolled out, but we have high hopes.
Bernie Fette (21:55):
I can see where that would require a certain degree of finesse.
Mike Manser (22:00):
Bernie Fette (22:01):
We talked a little earlier about when we see crash numbers coming down or safety statistics improving in certain areas, but not seeing any of those spots for optimism where motorcycle riders are concerned, what should be the main priority for motorcycle safety nationwide, not just in Texas, but elsewhere to hopefully bring about the most meaningful impact in the shortest amount of time?
Mike Manser (22:27):
That is a really difficult question to answer. The challenge with that question is that there are so many factors that feed into rider safety. So when we talk about, you know, why are riders crashing? We know there are some really big factors there. Alcohol is one, alcohol continues to be a major contributor to fatalities in riding. About 44 percent of all rider fatalities, at least here in Texas, involve alcohol to some degree. And the average BAC for fatal riders is 0.15, which is massive. That’s basically twice the legal limit.
Bernie Fette (23:07):
Mike Manser (23:08):
Yeah. And then we have other factors as well. So we have speeding is a significant contributor to motorcycle fatalities as well. And it’s not speeding on expressways and it’s not speeding in kind of residential urban-y, uh, kind of areas. It’s speeding on those mid-speed roads, like 50, 60 miles an hour, where riders are going significantly over that limit. These can be two fundamentally different types of topics that need to be addressed. Right? Alcohol is a cultural thing. It’s a strong cultural activity within the riding community to go out to a bar or a pub or somewhere, meet your friends, meet other riders, go on a nice long ride, enjoy that day, enjoy the weekend and then go back to a pub. And that cultural aspect really needs to be changed. And that’s, that’s a really difficult nut to crack. Now I’ll give you an example. I was at a motorcycle event about two years ago. And I saw as really, it was a couple on a motorcycle on this gorgeous motorcycle, all chromed out, this beautiful paint job. And it was an expensive machine. I’m betting. It was worth 50, $60,000 easy.
Bernie Fette (24:18):
Mike Manser (24:18):
And they pulled up and they got off their bike. They were gonna go into the rally and they went in their saddlebags first and pulled out a flask of alcohol and they just passed it back and forth. One person took a drink, they handed it to the other, to the other spouse and they took a drink and they kept going back and forth until the flask was empty. That pervasiveness of alcohol, it’s intertwined as sort of a cultural element of riders. It’s really difficult to pull that apart and help people identify that. Yeah, this thing that you do is sort of a strong social activity is a thing that’s contributing to fatalities in the riding community. So we have to find ways to disengage the alcohol part from the having fun part and riding part in order to save lives. And that’s not an easy task.
Bernie Fette (25:10):
So it’s the alcohol, it’s the training, the licensing, the helmets, speeding. So the only reasonable way to answer my somewhat unreasonable question about what’s the most important thing we can do, best answer here is “all of the above.”
Mike Manser (25:26):
Definitely all of the above. And it’s a little disheartening to say, we have to tackle all of this in order to make a difference, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I think, you know, what we do is we take some smaller areas within that wider range of topics and say, we’re really gonna focus on this for awhile and try and make a dent in this. So, for example, the, a motorcycle license topic that we talked about earlier, there are some successes there, and that’s really wonderful. We have a group of riders here in Texas who are trying to figure out ways to address the alcohol issue and the, and the proliferation of drinking and riding.
Bernie Fette (26:04):
That’s your motorcycle safety coalition?
Mike Manser (26:06):
Yeah. Yeah. It’s this really divergent group of riders. We have everyday riders called independents who are not, basically, not affiliated with a club or a group. We have club riders, group riders, basically anybody and everybody who’s interested in motorcycle safety. And at those meetings, it’s really cool. Because we might have a police officer sitting right next to a very stereotypical motorcycle rider, leather coats and chaps and boots and the whole thing. And they’re sitting right next to a researcher in a suit and tie. So they’re all coming together to try and figure out, okay, what is it that we can address? And that multidisciplinary approach is really necessary because the riders have some answers definitely on what they can do. And the researchers have data on where the problem is. Law enforcement may have a better understanding of things that can be done from their perspective. And policymakers have an idea of what laws could be changed. And when you bring all those people together, that’s really where the magic happens. That’s where you really understand the complexity of those issues and the complexity of the solution, or maybe the simplicity of the solution.
Bernie Fette (27:15):
Yeah. It takes a village.
Mike Manser (27:16):
Bernie Fette (27:16):
Last question for you. With your background, your experience, your training and knowledge, you could be doing a lot of different things. Why are you doing what you’re doing?
Mike Manser (27:30):
I’m doing what I’m doing, because I’d like to think that it’s low-hanging fruit. We have a big problem in the motorcycle riding community. Fatalities are markedly higher than what you would expect. And they’re certainly much higher than vehicle drivers. At first blush, it looks like low-hanging fruit. Like you can make a difference, but it turns out it’s a much more complicated problem. And it it’s a challenge. And that’s intriguing to me is that challenge. But second, what makes it worthwhile to me is that I think riders are misunderstood. Everybody looks at a rider and says, Oh, they’re out there. They’re just being risky. Right? They’re doing this. They’re a risk taker. You know, they’re not concerned. And, and as a driver of a car, maybe people are thinking, I’m not concerned so much about them because they’re a risk taker. They’re not concerned about themselves. Why would you ride a motorcycle if it’s so risky? But as we’ve talked about before, riders are just like everybody else. Riding is a leisure activity in many cases. It’s the same as a family going camping. We see other families that take a weekend to go motorcycle riding. We find people who go to work on their motorcycles. They use it as their commute device, just like other people use cars as their commuting device. So I think it’s a really misunderstood community. It’s, it’s not high-end risk takers. People who are inviting risk into their lives. They just really enjoy riding a motorcycle. And to help reduce the fatalities for this misunderstood demographic, I think is really important. And to get other motorists to understand that riders are just like they are, they just use a different vehicle for getting somewhere and they deserve as much help in reducing fatalities as anybody else.
Bernie Fette (29:18):
Well, thank you for the work that you do, and thank you very much for sharing your time with us. Mike Manser. Senior research scientist at TTI. Thank you, Mike.
Mike Manser (29:29):
You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
Bernie Fette (29:30):
Motorcyclists represent a varied set of population groups, but what they all share in common is a much higher risk of death or injury than what passenger vehicle occupants face. We have to look pretty hard to find any silver lining in the picture of motorcycle safety today. But this transportation mode remains popular, whether for the practical reason of a more affordable commute or the personal enjoyment of open air mobility and adventure. Two-wheeled motorized technologies have improved, though not enough to outpace the growing number of crashes. And so, advocates continue to prioritize robust safety programs intended not only for the motorcyclists themselves, but also for those of us who share the road with them.
Bernie Fette (30:23):
Thanks for listening. We hope you’ll check in with us again next time, for our conversation with Sue Chrysler, a senior research scientist and human factors psychologist at TTI. As an expert in understanding driver behavior, Sue’s work is focused on leveraging disruptive technologies to improve roadway safety.
Bernie Fette (30:52):
Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. See you next time.