Harry Hurt looks at ‘the other half of the equation’ in motorcycle crashes

by Jeff on February 28, 2009

By Jeff Cobb
Motorcycles Safety News

American motorcycle enthusiast coalitions and transportation officials have said the U.S. motorcycle safety culture has something in common with the latest presidential election: “change” is badly needed.

The exact details of some of these changes, however, are at this point up in the air.

While many eyes are focusing on a new crash causation study to take place in Oklahoma with hope it will provide refined answers, much is already known, according to Prof. H. Harry Hurt, Jr., who spoke with Motorcycle Safety News yesterday.

Hurt is a professor emeritus with the University of Southern California, and president of the Head Protection Research Laboratory (HPRL) in Paramount, Calif. He was the chief researcher behind the first crash causation study released in 1981, and transportation researchers have said the example set by Hurt, and fellow researchers Dave Thom, and Jim Ouellet, is what all crash causation researchers since have been trying to follow.

The methodologies behind the “Hurt Report” were copied by the Europeans in 1999-2000 to conduct the Motorcycle Accident In-Depth Study (MAIDS) which examined 921 “powered two wheeled” vehicle crashes in several countries.

As largely adopted by the international Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Hurt’s methodologies are expected to be at least partially followed by the presently stalled Oklahoma crash causation study.

But while new data may prove helpful, Hurt already has strong views on the subject, based on decades of experience.

Hurt said several studies show traffic accidents boil down to human error in a large percentage of cases. While surely road conditions and occasionally mechanical failure can put a rider down too, it is often a case of rider or motorist error or both.

But in too many cases, aside from rider error, Hurt said society should have provision to focus more accountability on drivers of cars when it can be shown they were at fault.

The “other half of the equation,” Hurt said, is that he does not believe the responsibility of drivers of the “adverse vehicle” in motorcycle crashes is being sufficiently addressed.

Statistics show that “the cause is at least a third and probably close to a half” a result of the fault of drivers of the adverse vehicle in motorcycle collisions, he said.

A problem has been a no-fault bias in analyzing these accidents, or too much focus on one half of the equation, Hurt said.

In short, the court of public opinion too often comes down against riders, he said. On the other hand, Hurt is quick to acknowledge where riders are at fault whether untrained, riding past their limits, impaired, etc.

But, he said, some in government and society are all too quick to simply demonize and crack down on motorcyclists while not seeing the full weight of responsibility that should be held by other motorists.

Instead, the response to readily perceived problems in how motorcyclists ride and handle their vehicles has led to demands for more aggressive law enforcement and some officials are quick to point out the many ways riders are at fault.

“But wait a minute, that’s only half of the damn problem folks,” Hurt said, adding that the whole picture is that it is clear that America is too lenient on blithely unaware, or negligent drivers whose behavior can prove deadly when crossing paths with a motorcycle.

As operators of automobiles, each person is driving what could become a killing machine if it collides with or violates the right of way of a motorcycle or scooter rider.

And SUVs, he said, can be even worse because they often present a barrier the dismounting rider may smash into.

It is commonly believed SUVs cause far more critical injuries and death in more cases because a crashing rider cannot launch high enough to clear the roof as he would a standard-height car.

Because of these realities, Hurt said, drivers need to accept a greater sense of personal responsibility to watch out for and respect smaller vehicles like motorcycles and scooters.

Hurt decried the numbers of times he has heard of drivers backing out of driveways without looking, or failing to “see” riders that really were in plain sight. He said too often crashes happen because a driver violates a rider’s “legal path,” and these could have been easily avoided if only the driver had been paying better attention.

His opinions come as someone still very much in the safety industry. The HPRL is contracted with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and others to test helmets, and is to be a subcontractor participating in the pending crash causation study.

It is Hurt’s hope to reverse a problem that is getting worse.

While American motorcycles and scooters represent less than one half of one percent of vehicle miles traveled, the latest data available from 2007 showed they represent 12.55 percent of all traffic fatalities.

NHTSA reported that per vehicle mile traveled in 2006, when compared to passenger car occupants, motorcyclists were about 35 times more likely to die in a motor vehicle traffic crash and eight times more likely to be injured.

In 2007, according to NHTSA, 2,641 (50 percent) of all motorcycles involved in fatal crashes collided with another type of motor vehicle in transport

There were 2,332 two-vehicle fatal crashes in 2007  involving a motorcycle and another type of vehicle, according to NHTSA. In 40 percent (939) of these cases, the other vehicle turned left while the motorcycle was going straight, passing, or overtaking the vehicle. In 632 crashes (27 percent) of those crashes, both the motorcycle and the other vehicle were traveling straight.

Hurt also has opinions about riders who are injured because of their own negligence, and single-rider crashes are on the rise, he said. Further, his research has made him a strong advocate for full-face helmets, head-to-toe gear, riding responsibly, and lifetime learning. He acknowledged negligence by the rider in any one of these areas could be just as deadly as a distracted SUV driver.

But equally clear on Hurt’s radar are all those distracted drivers. Some drivers follow too closely or text message or talk on cell phones while supposedly in control of a vehicle that could weigh two tons.

But Hurt said policymakers ought to crack down with whatever it takes to effectively bring about positive change.

“Motorcyclists are not the bad guys,” he said.

With power comes responsibility, and in a collision between a car and motorcyclist, it is clear who holds the greater power, he said. So should not those motorists to whom this applies own up to their full responsibility?

Waking up American drivers so they are more on the lookout is a badly needed countermeasure, Hurt said, but he expressed doubt that it will be dealt with as much as it should be by those in government.

“How about, if you kill a motorcycle rider you go to jail for 25 years,” Hurt said.

Such legislation would mirror statutes already on the books in various states for other cases of vehicular manslaughter.

“If you kill a three-year-old pedestrian you do,” Hurt said. “Why is it different if you kill a motorcycle rider?”

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

fasthair 03.05.09 at 10:48 pm

Mr Cobb: It will never happen. Time and time again a person in a car or truck runs over and kills a rider and not so much as a ticket is issued. But let a motorcyclist hurt or kill someone and watch how hard and fast they come down on them. Don’t put your kid in a child seat. Ticket. Get caught speeding way over the limit. Ticket and child endangerment charges. Kill a motorcyclist. Oops.

Even if they did pass a law that would make prison time mandatory it will not slow or stop riders from dying. The problem is the way people are trained to drive. Everyone taught to looks for another car or truck not motorcycles. Until this type of thinking stops there always be the problem of “I didn’t see them” in the police report.

Nice blog.


admin 03.05.09 at 11:21 pm

Thank you fasthair,

No disagreement here. Thanks for your comment. My aim is to learn one day at a time the world of MC (and scooter) safety, and report news, spread the word, run features like this, review gear (coming soon), and so forth.

Working toward a better day for all of us. It is a battle, and I’ve already caught some heat for it, even from those who I thought would be friends, but it will be worth it …



Willie Stephenson 03.09.09 at 8:46 pm

Mr. Cobb,

I very much appreciate your article regarding motorcycle crashes and their causes. As a motorcycle rights and safety advocate, having spent over twenty years presenting motorcycle awareness classes to drivers education students and others, I am familiar with the work of Harry Hurt. His remarkable study is often cited in my classes.

I also thank you for writing on the subject. The issues you discuss in this article do need to be placed before the automobile driving public and accountability needs to be sought– if not demanded. May I use excerpts or portions of your articles on our web sites and in our newsletter? I would also like to place a link to this web site on our sites, as well.

Willie Stephenson
BPI Board Member

Jeff 03.09.09 at 9:09 pm

Mr. Stephenson,

Yes, of course. By all means. Thank you.

My site is new, and my goal is to add to the general understanding of all safety issues pertaining to motorcycles and scooters too. Links would be appreciated.

Best Regards,

Jeff Cobb

Bob Patria 03.14.09 at 10:44 am


Jeff: Nice talking with you. Your article on the motorcycle crash causation study is outstanding. I first read it from an e-mail Bruce Arnold sent out (his web site is listed above). If you haven’t already, you two should talk.
Keep up the good work.

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