Millions for Motorcycle Crash Causation Study in Limbo

Reprinted from The Safety Record, V6, I1

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In 2005, Congress funneled $2.8 million to the University of Oklahoma as an earmark in the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Transportation Equity Act, a Legacy for Users, to conduct a motorcycle crash causation study. But a series of missteps have caused the study to languish and, ultimately, may result in its demise.

The Federal Highway Administration is now appealing to state departments of transportation for $1.5 million in contributions to resolve a funding deficit caused by the requirements of the study imposed by the University of Oklahoma and the outside funders, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) and the American Motorcyclists Association (AMA).

The motorcycle crash causation study is to be based on comprehensive on-scene, in-depth investigations of motorcycle crashes. The $2.8 million federal earmark required matching funds, which the MSF and the AMA pledged. The MSF’s donation, however, came with a stipulation that the sample encompass 900 crashes and be conducted using the common international methodology for in-depth motorcycle crash investigations developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The OECD methodology employs two investigatory strategies: an in-depth crash investigation that focuses on the sequence of events leading up to the crash, and on the motorcycle, rider, and environmental characteristics relevant to the crash and a case-control procedure, which uses matched control data to determine to what extent rider and driver characteristics, and pre-crash factors influencing motorcycles, are present in similarly-at-risk control vehicles.

Despite having gathered $3 million in funding, researchers at the University of Oklahoma have said that it is not enough to collect the sample, which should exceed 900 crashes. They have estimated that the study’s true price tag is upwards of $7 million. The FHWA proposed a Transportation Pooled Fund study to raise the money for the additional data collection to support the MCC study. To date, New York and Texas have pledged an additional $225,000 dollars, but that is far short of the total needed.

The University of Oklahoma, which is a National University Transportation Center, received the funding to conduct the study, even though its transportation expertise lies in road infrastructure research. The Federal Highway Administration was to oversee the project, even though road infrastructure is also its bailiwick.

Carol Tan, of the FHWA’s Office of Safety Research and Development and the study’s sponsor, couldn’t explain why this project on crash causation- normally within the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s area of responsibility – was mismatched to her agency and the University of Oklahoma.

We Don’t Need No Stinking Helmets

According to a 2007 news article in USAToday, the boondoggle can be boiled down to two words: no helmets.
The initial proposal called for NHTSA to conduct the study, but the AMA objected. Edward W. Moreland, the AMA’s vice president of government relations, was quoted in 2007 thus: “They want to focus on protective equipment.” (Read: helmets) The association, he said wanted “an independent third party” to run the study.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., according to USAToday, “rewrote the bill to force the DOT to hire the Oklahoma Transportation Center” because, a spokesman said, Inhofe “felt it was the right institution for the project.”

Oklahoma State University didn’t feel the same way. Samir Ahmed, who would have been the lead researcher on the study, told USAToday that “he never asked to do the research and didn’t know his organization was chosen until the study was approved in August 2005.” He also complained that the motorcycle industry pledged the money, but haven’t actually given the center any and predicted that the study’s chances of being completed were 50 percent at best.

In the meantime, NHTSA is currently engaged in a pilot study to investigate motorcycle crash causation. It is to test the data collection methodology for the FHWA effort. It will provide insight on the level of effort needed for a full-scale study. The trend lines for motorcycle fatalities have been going in the wrong direction for about a decade. The fatalities rose 127 percent from 1997 to 2006, during the same time that passenger car fatalities dropped.

Despite the urgency of the safety problem, any conclusions regarding countermeasures from this proposed project don’t appear to be in the offing. The study remains in limbo, with its federal funding in danger of disappearing if more funders aren’t gathered by August. Currently, the FHWA has one year of the funding to obligate to the study or else it will go back into the general DOT fund, and there is no guarantee that FHWA will be able to get that back for this specific project.

So, let’s review: Senator Inhofe and motorcycle lobbying groups force a study on an institution that wasn’t eager to take it on, insist that it be performed in a certain way to prevent the study from coming to obvious conclusions, such as: protecting your head in a crash is a good thing. This study that was so important to the industry may not ever be conducted.

Sen. Inhofe, who recently could be heard railing along with his fellow Republicans, about the “pork” and “ridiculous items” in the recently passed American Recovery and Re-Investment Act would no doubt be pleased.

Copyright @ Safety Research & Strategies, Inc., 2009