Reducing Motorcycle Traffic Fatalities

It only makes sense that local law enforcement should help find ways to help motorcycle enthusiasts, even veteran riders, ride more safely. The only viable option most law enforcement agencies can help with outside of traffic enforcement is rider education.

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Photo: Amaury MurgadoPhoto: Amaury Murgado

According to 2012 statistics from the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), about 5,000 Americans are killed annually while riding motorcycles. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that more than 100,000 people are treated each year for non-fatal motorcycle injuries. What's even more alarming is that motorcycle crashes and related fatalities have consistently risen since 2010.

In general, the highest death and injury rates are found among 20- to 24-year-old riders. That's not surprising. However, what is a surprise is that between 2001 and 2010, the 40-and-over cohort of riders experienced the highest increase in accidents. Over that 10-year period, the average age of motorcycle fatalities was 42.

Given these numbers, it only makes sense that local law enforcement should help find ways to help motorcycle enthusiasts, even veteran riders, ride more safely. Of all the suggestions made in the most recent "U.S. Department of Transportation Action Plan to Reduce Motorcycle Fatalities," the only viable option most law enforcement agencies can help with outside of traffic enforcement is rider education.

Local Training

I'm not talking about developing a program that competes with Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) classes found in 48 of the 50 states. Most MSF programs are used for licensing operators and lowering insurance rates. What I am talking about is refresher training for those already riding. MSF does a good job of initially getting people to ride safely on two wheels, three wheels, or even on dirt bikes. What most people forget is that it also offers advanced training as well. But MSF doesn't offer specific training based on the traffic crash data found in your area.

In preparing for a grant from the Florida Department of Transportation for DUI enforcement, our motor unit (Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office) created a motorcycle safety course based on local traffic accident data. The results have been positive, as evidenced by the fact that many who have attended our training have reached out and shared with us that something they learned helped avert an accident and subsequent injury.

My agency calls its new motorcycle safety program Safe Motorcycle and Rider Techniques (S.M.A.R.T.). The goal of the training is "to help students demonstrate safe motorcycle riding techniques by negotiating commonly found street riding situations in a controlled and skillful manner."

The Program

S.M.A.R.T. training is broken down into four key skill objectives. These skills are essential for enhancing the safety of motorcycle riding. They include:

• Proper use of head and eyes during turning

• Dipping the bike to facilitate transitioning

• Leaning the bike to make tighter turns

• Properly manipulating the clutch, throttle, and brake

S.M.A.R.T. training is held on a closed course and conducted by highly trained law enforcement motor officers using the very same techniques that place them in the top 5% of all riders.

One of the key components of the teaching system is that each student receives individualized positive attention, which reinforces the skills. If the students have paid attention and applied themselves, they will leave as safer riders than when they came in. They will also leave with an increased sense of awareness to the common pitfalls of motorcycle riding.

Raising awareness is really the most important part of the training as it helps create changes in behavior. And that makes the difference in the students' future riding and helps lower crash statistics.

Running S.M.A.R.T.

Students are asked to be at registration 30 minutes before class starts. They sign a waiver, have their driver licenses checked, and are required to wear appropriate attire and safety equipment. Their motorcycles are then given a cursory inspection for serviceability.

Following the personal and motorcycle inspections, the riders are allowed into the training area and asked to stage for the initial safety and course briefing.

After the briefing, they are organized into six groups of six students each. A walkthrough is then conducted of each of the six stations, which includes the instructors riding each course on their agency-issued motorcycles. The instructors are also prepared to demonstrate the maneuvers using the students' bikes.

This year we're using six stations for the instruction. They include the Friction Zone Board and Figure Eights (everyone does this at the same time), Braking, Offset Cone Weave, U-Turn, Intersection (Iron Cross), and Curve Negotiations. Braking and Curve Negotiation are included this year as a direct result of analyzing our traffic crash data. They are often the direct causes for accidents or contributing factors.

After a brief Q&A, the rotations begin. Each rotation lasts 45 minutes with a 15-minute break in between. During the break, a predetermined five-minute topic of interest is discussed for additional training in a group setting. No lunch is served and participants are told to be self-sufficient when it comes to water and snacks. At the end of the training day, we have a short debrief and pass out certificates.

The Truth Hurts

So does training really help?

I don't know of any scientific study that suggests motorcycle training helps reduce traffic crashes or traffic fatalities. The biggest safety factor is the attitude of the rider. If he or she is irresponsible in daily life, then that will carry over onto the streets. There are, however, measures instructors can take to help make the course more effective.

Instructors should explain not just the how-to of motorcycle manipulation but the why. Students also seem more receptive when the instructors talk about their experiences as motor officers and use them to illustrate points about motorcycle safety and crash data.

Good demonstrations are another key. When the students see the instructors manipulating their bikes, it leaves an impression. They soon realize there is more to riding a motorcycle than rolling in a straight line.

S.M.A.R.T. instructors emphasize to their students that motorcycle riders must contribute to their own safety. For example, the instructors stress the importance of wearing a helmet and what can happen when a rider doesn't. They also explain the importance of staying sober while riding. Finally, the instructors remind the riders just how dangerous motorcycle operation can be.

The training saves lives through the interaction between the instructors and their students. Critically, that interaction includes an honest discussion about how the students perceive their riding skills vs. reality.

Instructors in our S.M.A.R.T. program make their students aware of just how much there is to know, how much is going on all at once during a motorcycle ride, and what to look out for when riding. They hammer into the students that riding motorcycles, while fun, is serious business.

You can keep scraping people up off the roadways or you can make a difference by teaching motorcycle riders how to avoid deadly accidents.

Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. He is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, has more than 27 years of law enforcement experience, and has been a lifelong student of martial arts.

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