The Government’s Policy on Motorcycle Antilock Brakes is Based on Junk Science

Federal regulators canceled their plans to mandate lifesaving motorcycle-safety equipment after churning out a low-quality, industry-friendly study

Photo credit: Flickr user Eric Schmuttenmaer

As I reported earlier, government regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) dropped their plans to mandate antilock brake systems (ABS) on all motorcycles sold in the United States after releasing a 10-page report in 2010, mysteriously concluding the technology didn’t offer any real safety benefits.

That report flew in the face of a tall stack of studies by reputable scientists from around the world, not to mention research the agency had been conducting on its own since 2002. All of them arrived at the same findings, more or less: that ABS definitely helps motorcyclists stop more effectively, and that a nationwide mandate on the technology would save the lives of scores of American bikers. Data from the U.S. insurance industry suggest the figure could be as high as 1,500 a year, comparable to the number who would be saved if helmet use were mandatory.

After the NHTSA released its anti-ABS final report, unbiased observers called the agency out for publishing flawed science and demanded it reinstate its planned mandate on the technology. Harley-Davidson and other big motorcycle companies had to be pleased, though; they sold ABS as an expensive luxury option and didn’t want a government mandate on the technology to kill their cash cow.

I believe lobbyists hired by these companies convinced NHTSA to stop its research on motorcycle ABS, and that the agency’s 2010 report was manufactured as an excuse for doing so.

Today I’ll be taking a closer look at ABS studies that have been conducted around the world over the last 15 years and comparing them with the questionable findings in NHTSA’s 2010 report.

Evaluation of Motorcycle Braking System Performance and Characteristics Relative to Current Regulatory Standards
This study tested five motorcycle models from different manufacturers and in different categories, with and without ABS. It found the “touring” category bike “did consistently stop in a shorter distance” when equipped with ABS, providing “additional rider confidence.”

Review of Motorcycle Brake Standards
This study “demonstrated reduced stopping distances with the ABS enabled” on the motorcycles it examined, both in straightaways and in turns.

Performance Evaluation for Various Braking Systems of Street Motorcycles
This study found ABS eliminates “any possibility of crashing because of locked wheels.”

Motorcycle Brake System Comparison Tests
This study showed motorcycles experienced “an improvement in braking performance with the use of ABS, even compared with the best stops obtained without ABS.” Without the technology, the study’s riders “required numerous trials to approach the maximum performance capacity of the motorcycle,” but riders with it were “able to quickly obtain consistent maximum deceleration results.”

A Comparison of Stopping Distance Performance for Motorcycles Equipped with ABS, CBS and Conventional Hydraulic Brake Systems
This study concluded motorcycles “equipped with the anti-lock braking system provide all riders with the advantage of a high level of braking performance at the time of need.”

Effectiveness Evaluation Of Antilock Brake Systems (ABS) For Motorcycles In Real-World Accident Scenarios
This study examined hundreds of past accidents involving motorcycles and concluded half of them could have been prevented by ABS.

Final Report for Phase 3 Motorcycle ABS and CBS Testing
This study found “greater average Mean Fully Developed Deceleration … was nearly always achieved with motorcycles having ABS” and that a rider can use it “to ensure limit or near limit braking performance in an emergency situation.”

Effectiveness of Antilock Braking Systems in Reducing Motorcycle Fatal Crash Rates
This study examined motorcycle crashes that occurred between 2003 and 2008 and made note of whether or not the bikes involved were equipped with ABS. It found there were 37 percent fewer incidents involving ABS-equipped bikes.

Comparison of Motorcycle Braking System Effectiveness
This study examined braking performance by motorcycles equipped with different combinations of standard brakes, independent ABS, and integrated ABS. It concluded motorcycles with integrated ABS “generated the highest values … of the total negative acceleration provided by locked tires.”

Effects of Antilock Braking Systems on Motorcycle Fatal Crash Rates: An Update
This study supplemented previous research on motorcycle crashes between 2003 and 2008, adding accidents from 2008 through 2011. It found “ABS was associated with a 31 percent reduction in the rate of fatal motorcycle crashes per 10,000 registered vehicle years,” concluding the technology is “highly effective” in preventing deadly crashes.

Effectiveness Of Antilock-Brakes (ABS) On Motorcycles In Reducing Crashes, A Multi-National Study
This study examined motorcycle crashes in countries across Europe and found ABS reduced their rate by as much as 42 percent. It concluded there are “more than sufficient scientific-based proofs to support the implementation of ABS on all motorcycles.”

The findings of NHTSA’s 2010 report, detailed below, are at odds with all of the ABS researched described above.

Motorcycle Antilock Braking Systems and Crash Risk Estimated from Case-Control Comparisons
NHTSA’s 10-page report summarizes the agency’s examination of 356 motorcycle crashes that occurred between 2001 and 2008. It concluded there are no “statistically-significant results to suggest that ABS affects motorcycle crash risk.”

NHTSA staffers with no motorcycle experience tried defining the control group strictly as crashes in which a motorcycle was stationary, being pushed or moving slowly. They were unable to draw any conclusions from crashes like these, which are virtually nonexistent in real life.

They tried a “relaxed” control group, including crashes where the rider wasn’t at fault and another driver was. This was a strange choice, because experts agree that 35 percent of all motorcycle crashes happen when a second vehicle turns left in front of the two-wheeler, violating its right-of-way. ABS would clearly come into play in accidents like these.

Even though the study’s authors warned that their results “should be treated with caution because of the small numbers of control-group motorcycle crashes available,” NHTSA used it as an excuse to abandon its ABS agenda.

It’s also worth noting that this highly questionable report was rushed to publication. It was placed on the agency’s ABS docket only 10 days after its completion, while other NHTSA-reviewed studies (like the pro-ABS Final Report for Phase 3 Motorcycle ABS and CBS Testing) had to wait for up to 18 months before the agency released them.

One of the NHTSA staffers who signed her name to the report left the agency soon after its publication, and she now works for a nonprofit group calling for a global mandate on the technology. Her former superior at the Department of Transportation also left public service, but he took a very different route: He now works as a lobbyist for a law firm Harley has hired in major products-liability litigation.

Did Harley or other motorcycle manufacturers pressure the agency to throw together its shoddy report and kill its ABS mandate? I’m doing my best to answer that question, but NHTSA isn’t helping. I have sent the agency multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in connection with the issue, but it has so far refused to provide me with a response.