Military Pushing for Rider Safety

124 killed on motorcycles in 2008

Top U.S. military officials are aggressively collaborating to reverse a well-publicized trend in motorcycle safety.

While there have been far fewer combat-related deaths than in previous eras, unwelcome statistics from motorcycle accidents have been spiking.

In fiscal 2008 (Oct. 1, 2007 - Sept. 30, 2008), the Department of Defense (DoD) reported 124 motorcycle riders killed. The Army lost 51, the Navy lost 33, the Marine Corps lost 25, and the Air Force – the only branch reporting an improving record – had 15 motorcyclist fatalities, its fewest since 2001.

A public affairs officer for the Coast Guard, which operates under the Department of Homeland Security, was unable to supply hard data. It is said, however, that Coast Guard officials share motorcycle safety concerns with the four larger military branches.

And while the DoD numbers may not seem staggering for a worldwide population of approximately 1.4 million active duty members, they stand out in other ways.

Military officials are saying motorcycle safety is their top non-combat safety priority this year.

For example, the Navy losses represented a 49 percent jump from 2007. And both the Navy and Marine Corps had more motorcyclists killed than drivers of automobiles or in combat. Likewise, the Army death toll was up 24 percent.

Most of those killed were riding sportbikes. The military loosely defines a sportbike as any faired or un-faired motorcycle with a forward leaning position, rearset footpegs, and high power-to-weight ratio.

Keith Code's Panic Brake Trainer. A rider learns on a specially modified ZX650R to recover front wheel slides from overbraking.
The California Superbike School's Lean and Slide Bike Trainer is used to correct common rider errors.

Last year, among Navy and Marines killed in motorcycle crashes, 88 percent rode sportbikes. Now is the time of a traditional “spring spike” and last year the DoD reported 50 riders killed during the “101 critical days of summer,” between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Military officials have owned their problem however, and are tackling it head on, saying motorcycle safety is their top non-combat safety priority this year.

Too many new initiatives are underway to list, but these include print, TV, radio, and Internet news stories, features, and ad campaigns. New training is also being rolled out, and new ideas are continually being looked at.

This is described as a departure from past military policy. As one Pentagon-based official noted, a pervasive anti-moto bias was symbolized in the 1982 film, “An Officer and a Gentleman,” when Louis Gossett, Jr. told Richard Gere, “officers don’t ride motorcycles.”

But these days, top officers are speaking from a new script.

According to Maj. Gen. William T. Wolf, commander of the Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center at Fort Rucker, Ala., motorcycling is a “wonderful” pastime within limits.

He and fellow leaders are “putting our arms around” riders to motivate them toward safer practices. Others have more cynically noted that personnel also represent a sizable investment in recruiting and training resources.

And military legal penalties remain a threat that could be imposed, including loss of benefits if a crashing rider is found on the wrong side of a ”line of duty determination.”

While acknowledging these facts, officials say the whole picture is that they really do care, and ultimately caring is part of force preservation and morale.

“I’ll tell you flat out,” said Air Force Chief of Safety Maj. Gen. Frederick F. Roggero, “the reason we are so engaged in this is all about saving lives and preserving combat capability.”

Others echoed this, including Hector Eide, lead instructor for Cape Fox Professional Services, the contractor which administers the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) based training courses for the Army, Navy and Marines.

Eide also spoke of the double-edged reality that the military fosters and encourages a “high risk operator” who may naturally gravitate to motorcycles. It’s estimated at least 10 percent of military personnel own motorcycles.

But unlike in the civilian world, military leaders have extra leverage in “changing behavior.”  And they are quickly adapting what they know about “risk management” and applying it to motorcyclist training. As its own society under centralized command, the military is subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Regulations mandate regardless of state law, the use of helmets, safety gear, training, and other measures. And beyond this, top officers have been setting precedents, including opening lines of communication with the powersports industry, and among themselves.

On Jan. 15, the Pentagon for the first time hosted representatives from Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha, and Suzuki in a meeting with its top safety chiefs. A month later the Navy’s highest ranking safety commander, Rear Adm. Arthur J. “Blackjack” Johnson, flew to the Dealernews International Powersports Dealer Expo, held Feb. 13-16 in Indianapolis, on behalf of his fellow safety chiefs.

According to Johnson, he is encouraged that Navy motorcyclist fatalities are already fewer this April compared to last April. Roggero likewise spoke optimistically of efforts to garner further cooperation even at the dealer level, including a proposed “code of ethics” that would take safety issues into consideration when selling to military personnel.

Roggero said another positive outcome was a Yamaha print ad this year. Pictured above on a page were a tank, Humvee, and attack helicopter. A caption said: “Require Serious Training and Gear.” Below are pictured a sportbike, dirtbike, and cruiser motorcycle, and the caption said: “Just like these.”

But officials say these are still only first steps.

On March 16, the top safety chiefs for the four DoD branches and the Coast Guard further cemented their resolve to collaborate at the Joint Services Safety Council (JSSC) in San Diego.

“It’s really surprising,” said Roggero, “The more we talk and get together the more we see we have a common issue.”

In all, military leaders’ endeavors are a study in adapting and improvising for their latest challenge. Rather than confront riders, the effort is to further get inside the heads of motorcyclists, and lead them toward better decisions. That is, unless the riders are not already known to be flouting military law.

Peter Hill, a civilian senior safety engineer working for the Marines at the Pentagon estimated that as many as 30 percent of Marines who possess motorcycles could be defying regulations by not registering their bikes on base. Others have said all military branches have an undetermined number of “underground riders,” although Maj. Gen. Wolf said it was not a big issue for the Army. In any case, “They better fess up,” Hill said.

Also being focused on are inexperienced riders who may go for a 600cc, 1000cc, or similar displacement as their first or nearly first bike. Hill told of a young Marine who went with a buddy to buy a new 1000cc sportbike because their friends had them. The dealer asked about his experience, found he had none, and suggested a smaller model, or to come back when he was trained. But the Marine did not want to hear that.

“So they found a dealership who finally sold them the kind of bike that they wanted,” Hill said, “and they were dead in 48 hours.”

It’s these kinds of stories that have the Pentagon’s full attention.

Another issue the media has played up recently, is the idea of returning veterans who are psyched from having survived battle. The story goes they want to continue the adrenaline rush, so they get a motorcycle, then crash and burn in short order.

While several from the motorcycle training community confirmed this phenomenon, military officials denied it. The numbers do not support the allegation, they said. There is a refresher course for those who were “down range,” but otherwise the emphasis is on improved training for all.

For example, last year the Navy and Marine Corps worked with the MSF to create a one-day Military Sport Bike Rider (MSRC) class, which they made mandatory for sportbike riders. It remains optional for Army and Air Force personnel and the Navy’s Rear Adm. Johnson said “the Coast Guard is watching with interest,” but it is optional also for them.

The MSRC was partly inspired by the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command’s example. In 2007 they had grown frustrated that the MSF’s Basic Rider Course was all they had, so they developed their own sportbike course. But according to California Superbike School founder, Keith Code, when it comes to sportbike training, it’s the Marines – as their military reputation has long boasted – who are out in front, leading the way.

In 2006, the Marine Corps’ Assistant Commandant, Gen. James F. Amos flew Code to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and told him if he could get the job done, he’d have a contract.

“I did it,” Code said. “I did what I was asked.”

What he had been asked was to develop a sportbike course where riders were pushed past comfort levels. He called it the Advanced Motorcycle Operator’s School, or AMOS, for short.

“I named it after him, yeah,” Code said of Gen. Amos.

So far, none of the 400 or so graduates have crashed, Code said.

The California Superbike School and the Marine Corps have also been conducting “beta track day” testing at cordoned off courses at various East Coast air stations. On the West Coast, similar testing is being done by Lee Parks’ Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic.

According to the Marine’s Hill, the roughly 900 by 300 foot courses with twisty and straight sections are mini racetracks, but they are about training, not enjoyment. At least officially.

“We’ve had some lawyers tell us, ‘don’t use the word fun,’” Hill said, “’don’t call it play time, don’t call it recreation.’”

But in fact, a good rider will find it just this. A shaky rider, however, will be picked out, and coached.

Hill talked about “wow moments” where riders are enlightened by instructors who teach them new things about selecting a line, braking, suspension setup, tire pressure, and more. He also said just to show some riders where they were really at, an instructor will ride with a passenger on a 250cc sportbike, and smoke a rookie on his much more powerful 600cc, 1000cc, or similar bike around the tight course.

This project will be evaluated in May, and indicators are it will get a green light to keep going, but for now it will be only for the Marines.

Rear Adm. Johnson said the Navy has only gotten about 4,000 of its 12,000 sportbike riders through the required MSRC, and until that’s done, he cannot even think about rolling out another program.

Jeff Cobb is the editor and publisher of Motorcycle Safety News. Comments, and questions can be directed to [email protected].

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