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March 12, 2007 – A plea for help from the top

March 9, 2007
Filed under Features

By Neil Pascale
Editor
INDIANAPOLIS — U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters asked a gathering of powersports officials to help the government ease an alarming increase in the number of national motorcycle crashes and fatalities.
Speaking at the annual Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC) meeting held before the opening of the Dealer Expo, Peters focused on two safety issues: training costs and availability and the declining use of helmets by consumers. She even suggested manufacturers should fold the price of a new helmet into the final price of a new motorcycle, meaning consumers couldn’t buy one without the other.
In discussions with the media after the speech, Peters said that was merely an idea and she wasn’t there to “tell (the industry) what to do.”
Although Peters, a rider herself, told Powersports Business the industry was “very receptive” to hearing about the helmet idea, industry officials later did not signal any interest in exploring that concept.
Still, the relatively new secretary made it clear in the speech and before the event in a private breakfast with industry officials that the elevating level of crashes and fatalities was catching national attention. Peters told the Indianapolis gathering that Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, who heads the Transportation Appropriations Committee, expressed strong concern to her about the rising rate of fatalities involving motorcycle riders.
Peters cited some of those disturbing statistics during her speech, including the fact that motorcyclists represent 2 percent of the vehicles on the road, but account for 10 percent of the crashes. She also said motorcycle fatalities have been going up steadily, more than doubling since 1997.
“We could save, we know, more than 700 lives each year if everybody put a helmet on every time they got on a bike,” Peters said. “But right now, unfortunately, only 58 percent of riders wear their helmets and that rate is 13 percent lower than it was just four years ago.”
Peters implored the industry to look “at what you might be able to do” to turn that declining percentage around.
“You wouldn’t think of selling motorcycles that didn’t have the brakes or headlights,” Peters told a crowd of several hundred that featured a number of motorcycle company executives, “and I think we need to convince our customers that they shouldn’t take that bike out of the store without helmets being part of the package.”
MIC President Tim Buche said the industry generally agrees with that point, but doesn’t necessarily share the same view on how to reach that level of thinking.
“We might see differences somewhat in the tactics, but we certainly agree on the objectives,” Buche said, noting the MIC not only advocates the use of helmets, but all safety gear.
Buche said the industry believes the declining use of helmets isn’t tied to economic factors, but to personal choice.
“If you give it to them,” Buche said of manufacturers providing helmets with new bikes, “it doesn’t mean they’re going to wear them.
“We think the greatest opportunities lie in making sure training is available, which educates people on making all kinds of good choices, from gear, how they ride, where they ride, what conditions they ride in, focusing on skill and attitude improvements.”
Plus, the idea of having manufacturers supply new helmets means potentially cutting down on consumer choices as manufacturers would have to buy in bulk, meaning possibly limiting style, color and graphic choices.
“It’s best left to dealers and helmet manufacturers to help consumers make the right decision and wear the right helmet,” said Buche, noting even having bike manufacturers provide a dollar amount or “store credit” for a helmet would be difficult as Department of Transportation-approved helmets range in price from $80 to $750.
“What’s a magic number?” Buche asked of the range in helmet prices.
While Peters asked for help on encouraging helmets, she did not ask the industry to lobby for new state helmet laws. She did, however, inform the MIC meeting attendees of what the government was doing to address motorcycle safety. Mostly, she spoke about three issues:
• a motorcycle crash causation study: “This study will help zero in on factors contributing to crashes involving motorcycles, and to identify where we can best target our resources to affect the outcome and perhaps even prevent the crash altogether,” Peters said, noting the government was expected to begin a pilot phase of the study.
• government grants: “For the first time in September, we awarded more than $6 million in grants to help riders navigate more safely and to make other motorists on the road more aware of motorcyclists,” she said.
• advisory council: The Federal Highway Administration’s motorcycle advisory council started meeting last October with the goal of focusing on improving highway safety for motorcyclists through improved design, construction and maintenance practices.
Besides seeking help on the helmet issue, Peters also asked the industry“to take responsibility to recommend training and make sure it’s accessible for all returning riders.”

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