BMW Motorrad USA announced today that it will be the first motorcycle manufacturer to offer ABS as standard equipment on its entire range of 2012 model year motorcycles. While most motorcycle manufacturers have various models equipped with ABS either in standard or option form, BMW is making a point of having its complete model lineup utilize ABS in order to showcase its latest safety technology. The company was the first to offer a motorcycle with ABS back in 1988, and is now on its sixth generation system of development.
“Plain and simple, being able to stop a motorcycle faster and more predictably helps prevent a rider from becoming a statistic,” said Pieter de Waal, Vice President, BMW Motorrad USA in a press release. “It’s time for all of us in the motorcycle industry to embrace the benefits of ABS. Extensive testing by safety experts, law enforcement authorities and journalists around the world consistently demonstrates that ABS reduces overall crashes and saves lives.” Naturally, the Feds are onboard with BMW’s move to an all-ABS lineup to help trumpet motorcycle safety. “We commend BMW for taking the lead to improve motorcycle safety,” said the NHTSA’s (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) administrator David Strickland. “Motorcycle fatalities and injuries have been on an upward trend for the past ten years and ABS and other safety technologies can help reduce these tragedies.”
The BMW announcement was apparently done to counter an analysis of motorcycle crashes from 2009-2010 released today by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) revealing that although motorcyclist fatalities are down for the past two years, they began to slightly increase in the third quarter of 2010. While it’s always nice to have the latest crash data, as usual with most of these industry or government-sponsored studies, the GHSA study doesn’t have enough detail (or isn’t presenting all of it) in its data collection process. For instance, the study itself states that it doesn’t have any explanations for the increase in some state's fatality rates. Because only some states had increases, while others had substantial decreases, there is a big gaping hole in the data that needs to be explained. Many theories are bantered about, such as weather, increased motorcycle usage as the economic recovery gains momentum, less motorcycle helmet use, etc. But these are all basically nothing more than conjecture. This is why the more comprehensive studies being undertaken by the MSF-sponsored Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the competing government-sponsored Oklahoma State University's Oklahoma Transportation Center study will offer a much more thorough understanding of the causes for any rise or fall in motorcycle fatalities.
The slight uptick in fatalities during the third quarter of 2010 in the GHSA study rang some alarm bells with the organization. “We are concerned that motorcycle deaths may be on the rise again,” said GHSA Executive Director Barbara Harsha. “ABS and other safety technologies and programs can help continue the progress that has been made in motorcycle safety.” The IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) also jumped on board, trumpeting its somewhat flawed study in March 2010, using it to conclude that an ABS-equipped machine is 37 percent less likely to be involved in a fatal crash. “I commend BMW for taking the lead in making ABS standard across the board,” said Adrian Lund, IIHS president. “Our research results show ABS on motorcycles saves lives, and riders are taking note, too. A recent survey found that a majority of riders said they would look for ABS on their next bikes.” Interestingly, the AMA released a statement on the GHSA study praising the overall drop in fatalities, despite the GHSA’s alarm at the upward trend towards the end of 2010.
While we don’t doubt that ABS can help the vast majority of riders and that they will help reduce the number of fatalities, many of the flawed conclusions the IIHS (which is funded and sponsored by the insurance industry) gleans from its “studies”—at least when it comes to motorcycles—should always be looked at with a wary eye. Using only the perfunctory follow-up investigations from insurance claims as the basis for any sort of full-blown motorcycle crash analysis is ham-fisted at best, and the conflict of interest present by having insurance industry backing is undeniably prevalent. For instance, one press release from 2007—which interestingly is now no longer available on the IIHS website—stated that supersport motorcycles have a death rate that is "four times higher than the death rate for motorcyclists who ride other types of motorcycles." Despite numerous contradictions and flaws in the study, there were inflammatory statements from Anne McCartt, "senior vice president for research" at the HLDI (“Highway Loss Data Institute”, which is basically an arm of the IIHS) stating that, "Motorcyclists presumably buy supersports and sport bikes because they want to go fast, and manufacturers are happy to oblige." McCartt then went on to make a call for, "Short of banning supersport and sport motorcycles from public roadways, capping the speed of these street-legal racing machines at the factory might be one way to reduce their risk." If we’re all going to make conjectural conclusions based on hazy and incomplete data, then we can state with an good degree of certainty that the insurance industry wanted this “study” released simply because their losses from replacing sportbike bodywork were getting too difficult to swallow, and they were hoping to influence politicians with it.
It’s definitely commendable for BMW to include ABS as standard equipment on all its motorcycles for 2012, especially since it can be switched off on many motorcycles that may encounter situations (such as racetrack or off-road) where it can be more of a liability than an asset. But it should also be noted that there are cost and weight issues associated with ABS on a motorcycle that aren’t present with an automobile, which is the primary reason why the technology hasn’t been embraced more whole-heartedly by the motorcycle industry.