easyRiding tall

February 2015

More fatal motorcycle crashes necessitate improved training and safety


In 1969, with the release of Easy Rider, many baby boomers were exposed to the allure of the open road for the first time. They bought motorcycles and rode around with their hair whipping in the wind. However, by the 1980s, most of those who reveled in the countercultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s had moved on, trading in Harleys and leather jackets for sedans, minivans and tailored suits.

Now, as those same baby boomers find themselves in middle age, many of them are deciding to jump back on their motorcycles, causing issues for motor vehicle administrators, law enforcement and, most importantly, other motorists.

“There has been an increase in motorcycle crashes for operators with invalid licenses,” says Karen Morton, program director of driver licensing for AAMVA. “It’s those of us going through a midlife crisis; it’s the people who might have been licensed years ago and gave it up, and now they’re retired or they want to re-enter the motorcycle arena. Unfortunately, they are frequently involved in crashes,” she says.

In fact, crashes involving operators with invalid licenses nearly doubled over the decade beginning in 1998, increasing from 668 deaths per year to 1,261 in 2008. AAMVA’s initial response to this trend was to partner with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to create the Guidelines for Motorcycle Operator Licensing. After that document’s release in May 2009, AAMVA and NHTSA partnered again to address this topic, this time through an update to the standard Motorcycle Operator Manual (MOM), which was originally developed by NHTSA in 1978.

Increasing motorcycle safety across North America in response to these tragic statistics is a key goal of this update. Additionally, it’s paramount that safety training materials be updated as the motorcycle becomes an increasingly popular mode of transportation. According to Transport Canada data, motorcycle (including moped) licenses and registrations in Canada grew from 337,000 to 661,000 between 1993 and 2012.

Members of AAMVA and NHTSA formed a working group that studied the motorcycle operator manuals currently used by states. In their review of these materials, they found sections that needed more detail, as well as wholly new topics that needed to be addressed.




NHTSA recommends that a comprehensive motorcycle safety program cover a variety of topics, from pre-ride preparation to carrying passengers or cargo, and everything in between. Beginning with preparation, the agency recommends that jurisdictions address helmet compliance, protective gear and pre-ride inspections.

Once on the road, riders should know how to observe roadway conditions properly, particularly in poor weather, as well as respond to traffic conditions. Visibility is a key issue for motorcycle riders, particularly at night. A comprehensive safety plan will inform riders about how to scan their environment and maximize their visibility in different conditions.

Spatial awareness is also an important component of safe motorcycle riding, so NHTSA recommends that motor vehicle agencies include lane positioning and space and speed management information in their motorcycle safety programs. While proper visibility ensures riders will see other operators on the road, proper spatial awareness helps to prevent riders from causing problems for the other operators out there.

Beyond these recommendations, one important topic that the working group found underrepresented in current manuals was three-wheeled motorcycles. Because these vehicles handle so much differently than traditional motorcycles, the working group felt they deserved their own section to cover safety issues such as body positioning (i.e. where you should be sitting on the motorcycle and how to lean properly), how to turn and corner, stopping, and more.

Additionally, an entirely new section was added to the MOM on cornering, because improper cornering has the potential to cause accidents. The new information on cornering developed by the working group speaks to different types of motorcycles and how they handle in various road conditions, as well as how to lean during turns depending on the circumstances. New information was also added on risk awareness, time and space management, visibility, riding with passengers or cargo, and distracted driving.


Ultimately, the plan for this update to motorcycle safety resources is to distribute the new MOM to jurisdictions across the U.S. so they can use it as a basis for their state motorcycle licensing programs. Before releasing it widely, however, AAMVA worked with the Georgia Department of Driver Services to implement a pilot program of using both the new manual and a new knowledge base of test questions.

For the pilot, which ran from August 2013 to February 2014, Georgia made both versions of the MOM available in racks at DMV locations throughout the state, so people who were planning on taking the licensing test had a choice of which manual to use to learn about safe motorcycle operation. Once they came back to the DMV to be tested, they were asked which manual they used and were then tested based on their answer.

“What we found was a 30 percent higher pass rate on the test that was developed from the AAMVA material,” says Rob Mikell, commissioner of the Georgia DDS. “If you look at the pass rates and do the math, we had about 1,200 people who probably would have flunked the old test pass this one using the new, improved materials we worked on with AAMVA. They didn’t have to come back again [to retake the test], so it was good for them and good for us. We feel confident, based on the materials, that they know what they’re doing and know how to ride.”

Putting the program into place wasn’t very difficult for the state. The biggest challenge they had was adapting the manual for Georgia-specific safety concerns.

“There was definitely work involved, but it wasn’t unduly burdensome,” Mikell says. “If another state wanted to update its manual and test, we would definitely recommend it.”