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Spinning our wheels is killing us motorcyclists

June 27, 2012 by Steven M. Gursten

SMARTER motorcycle safety group says let’s get serious about motorcycle safety and change our idea of what it means to be a motorcyclist

We’ve had many tragic motorcycle accident deaths in Michigan since the helmet law repeal in April, and in many of these cases, the motorcyclists were not wearing their helmets. A Ferndale man was recently killed on I-696. He did not have a helmet, but his passenger did, and survived.

Dan Petterson is a motorcyclist, a motorcycle safety advocate and president of the Michigan-based biker safety group SMARTER (Skilled Motorcyclist Association — Responsible, Trained and Educated Riders, Inc.). Dan is a contributor to our blog. Today I’m sharing a post from Dan about the challenge of obtaining motorcycle safety while many motorcyclists right organizations push for the opposite (like repealing Michigan’s nearly 40-year-old, lifesaving helmet law requirement this year).

Here’s what Dan had to say:

Motorcyclists are dying at record numbers while those with the power to effectively address the issue either continue their verbal sparring or remain passive. The effort to reduce motorcycle crashes and the resulting injuries and deaths is stymied by the continued squabbling about what approach is best. At the national level, the squabble is primarily between the Motorcycle Riders Foundation (MRF) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The same useless arguing is carried on at the state level between state motorcycle rights organizations (SMROs, mostly ABATE organizations) and state traffic-safety experts. While these voices argue, individuals and organizations that should care sit passively by and avoid getting involved for fear of controversy. The result is that comprehensive efforts to attack the problem are never implemented and riders get partial and confusing information. While the authorities continue to spin their wheels, motorcyclists continue to die.

Outdated voice – outdated culture – outdated role model

Currently, the voice of bikers-rights organizations is the only one being heard, so this is the voice that establishes the motorcyclist culture expected of new riders as well as the public’s perception of motorcycling. The SMROs mix a safety message with their freedom-of-choice lifestyle message. This approach promotes the image that to be a true motorcyclist you need to be a risk taker and a rebel and it sends a false and misleading message to individuals new to motorcycling and to the public. The old “biker” image needs to be pushed from the forefront. It does not represent the huge majority of the individuals who ride but it is the image that still prevails in the halls of legislators and in the eyes of the media.

It is long past time for the silent majority of motorcyclists to step up to the plate to remove this outdated biker culture from the forefront. The time has come for the hundreds of thousands of other motorcyclists who own a make other than Harley, wear conspicuous gear, including a quality helmet, and have no objection to helmet laws to stop standing on the sidelines and letting the minority biker groups be the voice and image for all of us.

What it means to be a motorcyclist: Change is needed

The image and culture of what it means to be a motorcyclist need to change. Individuals and organizations need to be models for this change and need to move into a leadership role. It is time for change and action. I am calling on others to become involved in the solution.

Here is the responsible action that needs to take place:

  • Bikers-rights organizations need to stop mixing their messages about “freedom of choice” and “motorcyclist safety.”
  • The AMA needs to change its position on mandatory helmet laws. AMA needs to stop being the voice and political arm of bikers-rights organizations. An AMA policy that would represent all motorcyclists is “The AMA recognizes that quality, proper-fitting helmets serve their function of protecting the head and brain in the event of a crash. The AMA recognizes that when helmet laws covering all riders are in effect more motorcyclists wear helmets. The result is fewer deaths and debilitating injuries.”
  • The media need to stop portraying the bad-boy-biker image as representing all motorcyclists.
  • Individual motorcyclists who wear quality, full, and conspicuous gear need to be proactive in modeling their riding-gear choices to new riders and in expressing their opinions to elected officials.
  • Motorcyclists’ organizations, especially the large ones like Gold Wing Road Riders Association and BMW Motorcycle Owners of America, need to step up and begin to publicly support “All the Gear All the Time!”
  • Rider-education professionals, including organizations that represent state safety programs, like the National Association of State Motorcycle Safety Administrators (SMSA), need to publicly and clearly address the helmet and helmet-law controversy. They need to strongly advocate the value of wearing helmets and need to acknowledge that mandatory helmet laws increase the percentage of riders wearing helmets.
  • Motorcycle dealerships, distributors, and other vendors need to stop displaying and selling novelty helmets. Obviously, novelty helmets are sold for only one purpose: to provide the means to circumvent helmet requirements. Sellers of novelty helmets are contributing to causing rider deaths and injuries.
  • Harley-Davidson needs to stop their promotion that in order to enjoy their products you must be a bad boy or biker babe. H-D marketing hasn’t been following the Harley mystic for a couple of decades, but has been driving it. It is time for H-D to start driving their customers to make better decisions about responsible behavior and quality gear.
  • Law-enforcement motorcycle officers need to abandon their outdated image and move forward to be a model for all riders. There is no need for law enforcement to continue wearing half helmets and dark colors. Uniforms can easily accommodate conspicuous colors, and open-face or modular (flip-face) helmets should be the norm.
  • Insurance companies need to provide more incentives for riders to make responsible choices. Insurance companies should develop a whole list of incentives that support riders’ making decisions that reduce the risk of riding. Being properly licensed, wearing a DOT helmet, wearing a full-coverage helmet, wearing conspicuous gear, adding lighting options, and taking training courses to learn more than the basic skills are just a few examples.
  • The non-riding public needs to start caring. All riders have fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins who can influence rider choices; however, most remain passive. Surveys indicate the public supports helmet laws, but state legislators making decisions about helmet laws only hear from the bikers-rights organizations. The non-riding public needs to speak up and become a part of the solution.
  • State governments need to implement comprehensive motorcyclist-safety efforts. Most states support only partial efforts. They sponsor rider training, but do not require individuals to have a special license or endorsement to register and get a license plate for a motorcycle. Some states require all riders to wear a DOT-compliant helmet, but are lax in enforcing the requirement. They support a curriculum that encourages riders to wear full, conspicuous gear, but spend money on posters encouraging license endorsement that show riders wearing all black, a half helmet, and no gloves. Inconsistencies abound. Likewise, opportunities for improvement abound.
  • Affluent individuals who have a forum and an interest in motorcycling can dramatically influence every above-referenced entity with their power and money. They could initiate and support comprehensive motorcyclist-safety efforts to help change the culture of American motorcycling, save lives, and reduce or avoid debilitating injuries. One can only imagine what might result if Malcolm Forbes Jr., Jay Leno, Catherine Bell, and Johnny Rock Page, for example, pooled their talent, voice, and a small bit of their wealth to direct efforts toward saving motorcyclists’ lives.

We send our sincere condolences to the families of the motorcycle accident victims who have recently passed away.

– Dr. Dan Petterson has been a motorcyclist for over 40 years. He rides street, off-road, racetrack, and dual sport. He currently owns 10 motorcycles, four of which are licensed and insured for street use. He has been involved in motorcycle safety since 1985 as a Motorcycle Safety Foundation instructor/RiderCoach and since 1990 as a RiderCoach Trainer. He is a graduate of several track schools, including all four levels of the California Superbike School. He holds a doctorate in education from Western Michigan University. Dan is a charter lifetime member of the AMA having earned his charter lifetime membership many years ago by being a continuous dues-paying annual member for 25 years. He is the founder and current president of the Skilled Motorcyclist Association-Responsible, Trained and Educated Riders, Inc.

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