Did Harley-Davidson Convince the Feds to Fake a Major Safety Report?

If regulators had followed through with a plan to mandate antilock brakes on motorcycles, nearly 10,000 deaths would have been prevented over the last six years

Photo credit: Flickr user Pat Pilon

The U.S government’s transportation regulators are supposed to ensure that automakers and other manufacturers sell vehicles that are safe for the nation’s roads. Today, as we begin turning control of many of those vehicles over to artificial intelligence, these officials are more important than ever. For drivers, passengers, and pedestrians, they now form the last line of defense against injury or death.

Unfortunately, the federal agencies that oversee transportation companies have always had a thoroughly lousy reputation when it comes to playing by the rules. Chief among them is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a division of the Department of Transportation that consumer advocate Ralph Nader once called “a consulting agency to the auto companies.” NHTSA officials have been criticized in more recent years for halfhearted investigations into Chrysler’s fuel-tank fires (75 deaths), Toyota’s acceleration problems (89 deaths), and GM’s airbag failures (303 deaths).

When it comes to the number of lives hanging in the balance, these issues pale in comparison to motorcycle antilock brake systems (ABS). The technology works much like antilock brake systems in cars: When motorcyclists slam on the brakes during an emergency stop, it prevents wheel lockup, which can be deadly on a two-wheeler. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), motorcycle ABS would save roughly 1,500 Americans per year if it were made mandatory, the same number of motorcyclists whose lives would be spared if all of them wore helmets consistently.

For a while, NHTSA appeared to agree: After conducting a decade’s worth of pro-ABS research, the agency announced in 2009 that it would likely issue a nationwide mandate on the technology sometime within the following two years.

That mandate never happened. In 2010, NHTSA shocked even its harshest critics when it issued a mysterious final report killing the effort. Though it offered scant evidence, that 10-page report boldly concluded that motorcycle ABS provides riders with no significant safety benefits. NHTSA then scrapped its plans for the mandate and appears to have abandoned its study of the technology altogether.

If NHTSA ever reveals what went into its final report, the public might get a glimpse of what the agency’s critics point to as its biggest problem: coziness with lobbyists hired by car and motorcycle manufacturers, many of whom once worked as government regulators themselves.

I am a motorcycle-safety blogger and have ridden an ABS-equipped Honda ST1300 since 2007. I recommend the technology to other riders as enthusiastically as I do helmets, because evidence shows it’s just as effective at saving lives.

The American motorcycle industry disagrees, at least publicly. Harley-Davidson and other manufacturers often bundle ABS along with other “luxury” features as part of an optional upgrade, and they mark its cost up steeply. A nationwide mandate on the technology would save lives, but it would kill one of the industry’s biggest cash cows.

I started chasing this story seven years ago, when I first wrote about an Oklahoma State University study that the American motorcycle industry set out to fund. NHTSA had begun conducting its own studies of motorcycle ABS in 2002 (research that drew objections from both Harley and a riders’ group supported by the company), and all of them showed the technology’s promise.

Though the rest of the domestic motorcycle industry probably lent a hand, Harley’s fingerprints were all over OSU’s study. It was called for by a provision Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe inserted into the same 2006 transportation bill that funded Alaska’s infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.” Inhofe was probably eager to please Harley; the manufacturer had recently hired a high-powered Washington lobbying firm that was one of his biggest financial contributors, and it was an opportunity to send some lucrative work to a university in his home state. Along with the new study, the bill also called for the creation of a “motorcyclist advisory council” to advise the Department of Transportation on matters related to motorcycle safety. It wound up packed with lobbyists from organizations Harley had long funded and representatives from groups that had already denounced motorcycle ABS.

OSU’s researchers ultimately left motorcycles with ABS out of their study, ensuring inconclusive findings when it came to the technology. I had no idea how far the opponents of ABS would eventually go, though.

When it came to influencing NHTSA in the years the agency spent reviewing motorcycle ABS, Harley definitely had an inside track. A quick review of lobbyists hired by the company during that time period shows just how deep the Washington, D.C. “swamp,” as critics call it, has become.

Harley retained the services of lobbyist Steven Palmer, who had once served as the Department of Transportation’s assistant secretary for government affairs. His firm also employed Simon Gros, who left his lobby practice for the same transportation position that Palmer had once occupied. Former NHTSA Chief Counsel Paul Jackson Rice worked at a different lobbying firm that trafficked ABS material between Harley and the agency, and another former NHTSA chief counsel, Jacqueline Glassman, handled regulatory relations for a law firm retained by the company. (Glassman would later appear in a scathing article in The New York Times about Washington’s “well-established migration from regulator to the regulated.”) Lawyer Kirk Van Tine actually went through the revolving door twice: He left a law firm hired by Harley in order to serve as the Department of Transportation’s deputy secretary, and later returned to that that same firm to manage federal lobbying for its clients.

As it turns out, Harley’s influence may have even found its way into President Obama’s cabinet. Ray LaHood, the secretary of transportation at the time, eventually left public service for a lobbying job at a firm that has defended the manufacturer in major products-liability litigation.

As impressive as its collection of lobbying talent was, Harley didn’t have to rely solely upon former public officials to make sure regulations went its way. One of the other key players appears to have been Kathy Van Kleeck, the longtime head of government relations for the Motorcycle Industry Council, the American motorcycle industry’s leading trade association. Van Kleeck was also a member of the advisory board that was put together when the OSU study launched, and she was one of the few people on the line in a high-level NHTSA conference call on motorcycle brakes within days of the agency’s announcement that it would consider mandating ABS.

A year later, NHTSA abruptly reversed course by issuing its final ABS report, concluding the technology made motorcyclists no safer. The mandate was cancelled, a decade of costly research supporting ABS was rendered pointless, and more than a thousand Americans would continue to die every year in preventable accidents.

The insurance industry has to pay claims related to motorcycle accidents, and it quickly attacked NHTSA’s final ABS report as “flawed,” arguing it did nothing to refute “earlier studies showing the benefits of antilock brakes.” The same insurance-industry group that found 1,500 U.S. riders would be saved by ABS every year officially petitioned NHTSA to reinstate its planned mandate, but regulators have yet to take action.

A few months after NHTSA shut down its ABS research, the agency staffer who signed her name to the final ABS report left public service — but not for a lucrative lobbying job, like so many of her associates. Ironically, she now works with a nonprofit group that is calling for a global mandate on motorcycle ABS in the name of public safety.

Earlier this year, NHTSA made another surprising move. It announced it was opening an investigation into Harley in connection with a rash of consumer complaints related to ABS-equipped bikes the company made during the same time period the agency was waffling on the issue.

Did Harley fight mandatory ABS for reasons other than simple corporate greed? Did it lobby the government because it knew its technology wasn’t working correctly? Is NHTSA simply trying to cover up for its past failures, now that it’s under different management?

I might know the answers to these questions if NHTSA would obey federal law governing the release of public documents. I’ve sent multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to NHTSA in connection with the agency’s final ABS report and other issues, but it has yet to send me a single document. Everything cited here came from the agency’s superiors at the Department of Transportation or was already available online.

If there was a corporate power-play behind NHTSA’s failure to protect thousands of American motorcyclists, then its bureaucrats are doing everything they can to keep that story quiet.