Sunday, April 25, 2010

Questions about the Crash Study Pilot

At, we've been closely following the ongoing motorcycle crash study crisis.  Although the OSU study has been somewhat upstaged by the new MSF/VTTI naturalistic study, we are still interested in why the OSU study is such a basket case.  After being misinformed on various aspects of the finances, from OSU's estimates of up to $12M for a full study and a per-crash cost estimate of $8K to 9K per crash, we put in a Freedom of Information Act request for information on the pilot study, on which OSU seemed to be basing its own cost estimates behind their ever-greedier funding grabs.   These shennanigans presumably helped to persuade MSF to take its funding to VTTI's study, so we think the manner in which the pilot was conducted is critical to understanding why the OSU study disintegrated so spectacularly.   

We received the FOIA documents a couple of weeks ago, and we analyzed its detailed schedules, eight revisions and sparse money amounts.  We have our pilot study timeline analysis here.  The timeline just irons out a confused story containing four separate revisions of the project schedule, and ties things together a little.   It is a work in progress, but we think very accurate, as far as it goes.  We added some commentary here.  The contract was originally issued in September 2005 for a total of $467,103, with the work to be complete by February 8, 2007. In the event, the contract was amended eight times, the price rose to $994,201 and it was not completed until December 2009. This is a 112% cost overrun and a more than 200% time overrun.

Cost and Time Overruns

Odd things we noticed: Revision 5, was signed in April, 2008 when the cost was jacked up to $994K. The final contract amount was set at almost exactly the same amount as the 2006 funds allocated under SAFETEA-LU. As the Fed 2006 funding was presumably a known factor in April 2008, whereas we consider it unlikely that the Feds could have predicted in 2006 a 2008 contract cost down to the nearest couple of hundred bucks, we think it is reasonable to infer that Westat simply set the revision 5 price to match the funds available.

That's quite a trick. The contract payments were split into a fixed fee for Westat, and reimbursement for actual costs, and covered activities out to December 2009. Under FOIA section (2) (b), NHTSA redacted the amounts of the split, so we don't know how it was split. Apparently, Westat made a mistake in the split amounts and had to be changed in June 2008 under contract revision 6. That still required them to accurately estimate expenditure out 18 months, quite a feat for a crew that made a half-million dollar error in the overall project cost and an almost three year time overrun. A case might be made for tailoring expenditure to consume the available funding. 

How the money was spent

One more point that arises from Revision 5. They specified that they had spent $150,440 of the contract funds up to February 29, 2008. As the following step, C.4.5, was still due under revision 5 - April 25, we infer that this $150,440 covered only the steps C.4.1, C.4.2 and C.4.3, which were the to read the OECD methodology, host a kick-off meeting and prepare a work plan. We don't see any other deliveribles from C.4.5 onwards that could have been completed before the revision 5 signing in April 2008. This means that over 32% of the initial contract amount went to reading a few documents, having a meeting and preparing a work plan. As the work plan went through more revisions after 2008, we don't think the original work plan could have been very good. This might be a good place to start looking for the reasons for the huge cost and time overruns.

It seems that Westat was almost miraculously good at predicting how to wring the last few bucks out of this cash cow, and very bad at planning and budgeting a project. Simultaneously. An amazing feat of self-serving.

Is there enough here to get the Westat guys in front of the Transportation Committee to answer some tough questions about the use of our tax money? We would point out that over 13,000 motorcyclists died in crashes during the three year project overrun.  And the cost estimates may have been responsible to some extent for the funding flight. 

The role of Dynamic Science in performing much of the data collection work is not revealed in these documents.  Their competitively-bid contract with Westat is not public knowledge, so all we can say is that they presumably charged at least for eight weeks of training and about three months of data collection for their team of three people, which are documented in the timeline.  This might be about 2500 hours assuming 21 40-hour weeks, but we don't know this.  We can't tell anything about the cost structure of the case-gathering work.  But it is getting a little clearer what questions remain to be asked.
The timeline is a work in progress.  There are more external, documentible facts that we are adding to the timeline, and the anticipated technical report, due out from NHTSA by May 1st, will yield more information.  We'll bring it to you.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Motorcycle Crashes and Deaths down in 2009

News from the State Governors Assoc., (see new York Times article here, article here) that motorcycle deaths were down in 2009.   The numbers are incomplete, based on three quarters of complete data and partial numbers for the fourth quarter, but they are predicting minimum of 10% reduction over the macabre record of 5290 in 2008.   It might be even lower than the 4762 estimate, as the drop over the first nine months was 16%.

The pundits speculate several possible factors, but nobody knows how much ridership was reduced last year.   We are obviously pleased that fewer bikers are crashing, but until we see the ridership estimates later in the summer, no-one can say that riding is any safer. 

Some suggested causes for the reduction:
  • Reduced ridership due to leisure riders taking fewer trips.  A lot of riders sold their bikes for economic reasons.
  • Reduced commuter riders due to more attractive gas prices and possibly weather issues in some areas
  • Fewer new bikes sold.   There are more crashes in the first year of ownership of a new bike.
  • Fewer new riders.  New riders are more at risk
  • Greater awareness of bikers due to cage drivers paying more attention.  Would be nice, but we'll see.  Bikers might possibly be benefiting from DOT's focus on distracted driving, but is seems early for these fairly weak efforts to have borne fruit.   It is also possible that more cage drivers know riders personally and might have been influenced by bike awareness campaigns.  Every rider should make a point of discussing bike visibility with their cage-driving friends.
  • Some states claim results from enforcement efforts aimed at motorcycles.  There were several enforcement efforts in California especially, but the general word is that a lot of jurisdictions don't try to stop bikes, because of previous fatal results from bike traffic stops.  We are dubious about this claim.
  • Better training.   That's be nice, but any results from better rider training would probably be mostly seen in the military, where there were new courses from Lee Parks and MSF aimed chiefly at younger sportsbike riders.  It is way too early to see any good effects from rollout of the ARC-ST and the new MSF curriculum.
  • Some states claim that the 2008 and previous accelerating death rate has caused states to emphasize motorcycle safety more.   MSF doesn't keep statistics on riders trained, the only people who would know about that would be the individual training centers and the state DOTs they report to.  The general climate of increased attention might have also been affected by news about the OSU study.  We are dubious about the self-serving nature of this sort of hard-to-verify claim, but we'll be looking to follow up on these issues.   Our bet is that fewer riders were trained in 2009 that 2008, as we'd expect basic rider course enrollment to be down with the drop in motorcycle sales.
  • Weather issues are cited in some quarters.
As it always seems to be the case with motorcycle safety issues, the sound of one hand clapping resonates throughout the land. We are happy for the 528 or more bikers who are still alive, but if it is because they stopped riding then we are just talking about the risks we accept when we throw our leg over the saddle. 

If we are saying that it is good that people rode 10% or 15% less, and 10% of 15% fewer crashes happened, then we are just saying riding is a bad thing, and we at are not ready to go there. If the ridership was down more than the death rate, the numbers could conceal some very bad trends.  It's not time to break out that bottle of vintage Irish single malt we've been saving to celebrate a major safety improvement. 


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

More on the MSF/Virginia Tech 'Naturalistic' Motorcycle Study

We followed up on the MSF announcement that it is sponsoring a study of motorcycle crash causations at Virginia Tech, using VTTI's novel naturalistic technique.  Our page offers links and information on what VTTI has been doing with the 'naturalistic' technique, which revolves around placing a battery of electronic sensors on a vehicle, then following a number of vehicles for a while, recording not only an crashes they become involved in, but also evasions, near crashes and minor crashes that the police are not called for. 

The technique, though rather new, is real and has a lot of work and development behind it.  Of course, there are obvious problems with reducing a 20 lb footlocker sized installation down to something that is small enough and tough enough to survive on a bike.   Although there are riders who ride the approximately 20K miles per year that the 100-car study participants drove, we think that most motorcyclists ride much fewer miles, and the 20K bikers are pretty much a breed apart. 

We are still digging around and looking for someone that knows about the new study to talk to us, but, for now, this looks like a real study, with real funds and researchers who could know a but more about bikes but who bring useful skills in this type of study to the table.  The VTTI guys have a rep in the academic and traffic safety worlds, and we don't think they would lend their names to provide a fig-leaf for the MSF.  


Friday, April 9, 2010

Motorcycle Crash Causation Study: New Documents submitted a Freedom of Information Act request back in December 2009, seeking information on the Westat contract.  We asked for the schedule of work, which includes the Pilot Study completed in March 2009, systems and methodology development and researcher training.   It can be downloaded here.

We are also looking forward to the publication of the Pilot Study Technical Report by May 1st on the NHTSA website.

We've jammed out this just as soon as we could get it scanned.   We are studying it very closely and expect to be able to hook it up with out other information to shed some light on the issues with the study.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Crash Causation Study Developments has suspended our Crash Study Petition.  We want to think the 524 people who signed it.

The situation has changed, and MSF has allocated its study funds to a new, 'naturalistic' study at Virginia Tech.  There is now little hope that anyone will fund the greedy and lazy OSU dons to complete the study as envisioned in SAFETEA-LU, which is what our petition asked for. The penny has pretty much dropped on the OSU 'researchers', and we think that, even if they produced a study, that it would achieve little traction, as Ahmed and Tree have lost all credibility in the motorcycling world. 

Although the 'naturalistic' vehicle study technique it totally untested in motorcycles, and is still relatively new in other vehicles, we think it has promise.   We are reading up on the '100-car study' and will be reporting back to you as soon as we can plow through the material.  The basic idea is that a bunch of vehicles have an array of sensors and video cameras installed, which the driver gets used to very quickly, and the electronics gather continuous data, on crashes, near misses and a collection of incident types which could be a crash precursor.   It's an interesting idea.   In particular, it might highlight ways to avoid problems and successful evasions, which are never caught in classical, Hurt-style studies.   We could potentially learn more about these techniques via this study than from the OSU study. 

It's early days yet, but we like both of MSF's new initiatives, which marks a major change at MSF.  They have been criticized for their course offerings and for various perceived policy problems, maybe this is MSF paying attention to riders and to the increasing biker death toll, and fixing their issues.  We welcome the announcements and await the outcomes with just a little skepticism. 

Like it or not, MSF is the 10,000 lb gorilla in the motorcycle training world, their problems affect us all, and we would all benefit from training and research improvements at MSF.  It'd also be good if they rode a bit more at MSF, several of their guys ride a few token thousand miles per year.  

We will continue monitoring both studies.  We have obtained the schedule of work on the Westat contract, which includes the OSU pilot study after a Freedom of Information Act request to DOT.  It's been delivered to the house, and I'll scan it up and publish it when I get back from my current road trip.  In addition, we are informed by DOT that the preliminary pilot study technical report should be published by May 1st, 2010 and we'll be looking for that and commenting on it as soon as we see it.  

These documents should help explain what happened to the more than two million in mostly tax money that has been spent so far, and shed some light on OSU's exorbitant demands for study cash. 

Stay with as we shed light on both studies. 

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Motorcycle Animal Crashes, new feature

At, we've been interested in bike animal crashes for a while. As spring brings balmy riding days, we dusted off some research we've been procrastinating over, and put out some new strategy pages for deer and other animal hazards.  

Every biker knows someone who's been brought down by a deer, and everyone at the site has had near misses with deer.  As David Hough notes in 'Proficient Motorcycling', (see our review), the problem is understated in the Hurt and other studies, which were done in cities.

Many bikers ride for pleasure, and we like the same twisties and forested areas that deer do.  We dug around in the stats, and focused on two reports on Minnesota in 2008, which suggest that, although deer/bike collisions are only a few percent of the overall vehicle-deer crashes, they account for 90% of the deaths and a third of the injuries.  A biker in a crash with a deer seems to have almost a 100% chance of being injured, and almost a 10% probability of being killed, which is a higher casualty rate than average for motorcycle crashes.

Our conclusion is that there are probably over 3000 bike/animal crashes nationwide, with almost 200 deaths and 3600 injuries. 

The Bikesafer article covers defensive strategies for deer, and there's a page on other animal hazards. We don't have any magic bullet for avoiding deer accidents, but we provide hints on when to be especially vigilant for critters, and best practices for evasive tactics if needed. 

Ride safe.