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Interview With Harry Hurt

By David L. Hough

The only comprehensive motorcycle study ever completed in the USA was the famous "Hurt Report”, conducted by the University of Southern California under contract to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, back in the late 1970s. Motorcycle journalists continue to reference statistics from that study. But that report was released 20 years ago, and times have changed. A veteran moto-journalist decided it was time to track down the principle investigator of the "Hurt Report, and find out whether or not he felt the "old” motorcycle accident statistics were representative of today’s motorcycling.

The "Hurt Report”

Think back to 1979. There had been a big motorcycle buying boom in the 70s, and a lot of those new riders managed to get involved in accidents. That big rise in accidents and fatalities got the attention of the U.S. Department Of Transportation, and they decided to get into the act to protect us from ourselves. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration let a big contract to study motorcycle accidents, and the University of Southern California Traffic Safety Center got the job. The USC professor responsible for carrying it out was Hugh H. ("Harry”) Hurt, Jr. The Objectives of the study were to determine the causes of motorcycle accidents, analyze the effectiveness of protective gear such as safety helmets, and then figure out what countermeasures might help prevent accidents or reduce injuries.

Hurt put together a team of investigators who would dash out to every motorcycle accident scene, day or night, over two years. One of the important concepts was that all of the investigators were experienced motorcyclists. The team did an exhausting study of each accident, determining approximately 1,000 data elements. They took photos, examined the wreckage, measured the skid marks, and interviewed the survivors. They even returned to the same site at the same time on the same day of the week, with the same weather conditions, to measure traffic and interview motorcyclists who managed to get through the same situation without having a problem. The team collected data on more than 900 motorcycle accidents, interviewed 2,310 passing motorcyclists, and studied 3,600 police reports from the same area.

Then they studied the data from every angle for another two years, and published the final report in January 1981. The title was a little cumbersome: "Volume I: Technical Report, Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures, January, 1981 - Final Report” The motorcycle press found that title a little too techno-wacky, so they nicknamed it the "Hurt Report”, after Harry Hurt. The "Hurt Report” turned out to be the most comprehensive motorcycle safety study of the 20th century.

Flash Forward to 1999

Now, flash forward to 1999. Traffic is more intense, but so is motorcycling. We’ve got rider training available all across the country, and motorcycles are technically a lot better than the ones we rode in the 1970s. Is the "Hurt Report” still valid for today’s motorcycling? And is Hugh Hurt Jr. still around? It was time to find out.

We found Harry Hurt still working in safety research, still riding motorcycles, willing to talk with us, and sharp as a tack. Hurt is now President of the Head Protection Research Laboratory (HPRL), a new non-profit corporation formed to conduct research on motorcycle and bicycle accidents. HPRL also conducts accident investigations, and provides training.

Hurt stayed with the University of Southern California in Los Angeles until the end of June, 1998, continuing research and helmet testing. His team, including James Ouellet, David Thom, and Terry Smith, continued their interests in motorcycle safety, but the University ran into a budget crunch in 1998, and decided to close the department. Hurt had been in the business for half a century, and it was a good opportunity to retire.

But Harry couldn’t just retire to a condo at the beach. He has this personal drive to understand everything there is to know about motorcycle safety, and to drag the rest of the world along for the ride. So Hurt, formed the HPRL, and hired his associates to pack up their gear and move to new offices in Paramount, a few miles south of Los Angeles. Ever wonder who does helmet testing for the Department of Transportation? Who are the people who actually bash, stretch, and poke helmets to see if they comply with the federal FMVSS 218 ("DOT”) standard? These days, it’s the HPRL. They also have an impressive library of technical publications on motorcycle dynamics. More to the point, Harry Hurt is a living, breathing encyclopedia of motorcycle safety.

Harry agreed to an interview. All the way up to Paramount I wondered whether to refer to the NHTSA study by it’s official lengthy title, or just call it the "Hurt Report”.

Is The "Hurt Report” Still Valid?

My first question about the ...um... "Hurt Report” was, did Hurt think it was still valid after 20 years?

"We had no idea that study would last so long. We always assumed someone would commission another, bigger study. As it worked out, no one ever came up with a contract. Nobody wants to do any new research projects.”

Harry confided that he believes the report is still basically valid. It’s not just that nothing has come along to replace it, but that he has personally seen evidence that motorcyclists are having the same type of accidents today as they did back in the 70s.

"I still do consulting for police departments, and have investigated a number of police motorcycle accidents over the years. Police motor officers get some extensive training. I mean really good training. But even professionals make the same sort of mistakes as novices, and today’s riders seem to have the same sort of accidents as those in the NHTSA report.”

"For example, an L.A.P.D officer on a police Kawasaki had a pickup truck back out in front of him. We measured a perfectly straight rear-only tire skid 200 feet long, right into the side of the pickup. The length of the skid gives us a pretty good idea of his speed, something like 60 mph. But even at that speed he could have stopped short of a collision if he had just used the front brake. It’s the same mistake riders were making in the 1970s.”

I agreed with the importance of covering the front brake in traffic, but I questioned whether covering the brake is important on a deserted road with unlimited visibility. Harry raised his eyebrows and kindly reminded me:

"Remember, that most motorcycle accidents occur on a straight road, in good weather, when you don’t expect anything to happen.”

Hmmm. Good point. Maybe we’ll have to revisit our advice about covering the front brake lever all the time, not just in traffic or approaching blind corners. Harry emphasized the point:

"I’ve worked with police departments to reduce their accident rates. One key is to encourage motor officers to always cover the front brake lever. In some police training programs, any officer who is caught riding without covering the front brake lever must pay a $5 "donation” to a benevolent fund. Getting them into the habit of always covering the front brake has resulted in measurable reductions in accidents.”

But what about other evasive maneuvers, such as swerving? Did Hurt feel that riders today face the same risks as those in the 70s? And when we did encounter a sudden hazard, didn’t we resort to habits? Was there really any reason to practice "evasive maneuvers”? Hurt sliced through the questions like a hot knife through butter:

"Use the front brake. Use the front brake. Use the front brake.”

City vs. Country

According to the published report I had referenced for years, the "Hurt Report” had been done entirely within the city of Los Angeles. If all the research had been conducted in a big city, that left out a lot of back roads, and therefore a lot of country-type accidents such as deer strikes. I wanted to know how Harry felt about that.

"Actually, we didn’t limit our research to the city of Los Angeles. The statement in the report about "Los Angeles” refers to the accident reports we obtained from the city of Los Angeles. Our accident investigation teams went all over the Los Angeles basin, even up into the canyons and up on the Angeles Crest. So we did include "country” accidents in the study. Our data wasn’t limited to the city. And the data did include animal strikes.”

Uh Oh! I’ll have to change my tune on that one. The "Hurt Report” was apparently a lot more comprehensive than I had realized. Still, there must be some big differences in the risks faced by riders in country environments, compared to those in major metropolitan areas such as the Los Angeles basin. Hurt agreed, but explained that it’s a numbers game. Sure, a rider in say, Spokane, Washington might face a much different risk than a rider in Los Angeles. But there are lots of riders in a big city like L.A.—and therefore lots of motorcycle accidents. Research is expensive. It costs a minimum of $450,000 per year to maintain a research team, whether they investigate 5 accidents or 500. It just isn’t practical to base a team out in the country for a year, waiting for a motorcycle accident.

Reported vs. Unreported Accidents

One of the other questions I had over the years concerns reported versus unreported accidents. I’ve had this theory that collisions with cars almost always result in a police report, but if a motorcyclist crashes without involving another vehicle, the accident is likely to go unreported. That would make "single-vehicle” accidents look less frequent than collisions. As motorcyclists, it would be important to know whether accidents such as dropping the bike on loose gravel or edge traps were as big a hazard as the infamous "left-turning cars”. Did the "Hurt Report” include unreported accidents?

"We studied every accident we knew about, and that did include some that didn’t get reported to the police. In some cases, our investigators had to do emergency first aid before they could do the research, because they were the first on the scene. And we know that some accidents were never reported to the police. That wasn’t our job.”

Lane Splitting

We’ve had some very interesting feedback from our Proficient Motorcycling article on lane splitting. And some readers had suggested that the "Hurt Report” proved that lane splitting was "safe”. Hurt pointed out that the research from the late 1970s only hinted that lane splitting didn’t show up as a significant factor in accidents. Hurt adds that there has been no research and therefore no factual data on lane splitting.

"Everybody has their own ideas and opinions about this issue, but there are no recent factual data of any kind. No benefactor has supported any further research to investigate this issue. Hopefully, the future will bring help and financial support for these and other questions.”

Has Technology Changed the Accident Picture?

When you think about the technology of motorcycles, it’s pretty obvious that bikes are a lot better these days than back in the 70s. For instance, brakes today are powerful, progressive, and fade-free. We’ve got much better tires, better suspension, and stiffer frames. I asked Hurt whether he felt today’s better motorcycles changed the accident scenarios.

"The more time goes by, the less things look different. Riders today have the same sort of accidents as riders in the 1970s, except that today they crash much more expensive bikes.”

New Research Projects?

I asked Hurt if he knew of any plans to conduct any new motorcycle accident studies in the USA.

"Nobody wants to do any new research projects. There’s lots of hoopla, but not much meat.”

There are additional problem these days that would probably make it impossible to conduct another research project like the "Hurt Report”: In the old days, investigators and police cooperated, sharing information freely. Today, privacy laws make records searches a legal nightmare, and budget problems mean that record searches aren’t free anymore. The biggest problem is that accident investigators today can expect subpoenas from lawyers. Hurt estimates that if a motorcycle accident study were conducted today, the investigative team would receive 1,500 subpoenas, which would tie up the research team full time dealing with lawyers.

OECD Methodology

Not having any fresh US motorcycle studies on the horizon doesn’t mean that Harry and his associates are sitting on their hands. At USC, the Traffic Safety Center was a major player in developing a worldwide standard for motorcycle accident research, and HPRL is continuing that work. Until recently, different countries conducted motorcycle research in different ways, making it very confusing to compare data. A worldwide standard would allow research to be shared. The goal is to have what is being called the "OECD Methodology” adopted as a standard by the International Standards Organization (ISO).

Harry and the HPRL staff have been working on a document which he describes as a "whopper” which specified everything about what, how, when, and who of on-scene, in-depth motorcycle accident investigation. Research in one country could be compared scientifically with data from another country. In the US, data from the coasts could be compared to data from the Midwest, for example. But the US has been dragging it’s feet on research.

The first actual application of the OECD Methodology is in Thailand. HPRL is directing a major motorcycle accident research project in Thailand, funded by Honda, with Chulalongkorn University conducting the accident investigation.

As a motorcyclist, Hurt is very adamant that motorcycle accident researchers have motorcycle experience, even the psychologists, medical consultants, and pathologists. Motorcycle accidents are not like other vehicle accidents. Unless the researchers understand the peculiarities of motorcycles, they may not understand what they are looking at. This is just one of the issues which Hurt and the HPRL are trying to get included in the ISO standard.

HPRL has an impressive collection of motorcycle technical papers, and Hurt offered to share some of them with me, including a technical paper on "Motorcycle Cornering Dynamics” he presented at the Second International Congress on Automotive Safety back in 1973. I was especially interested in that one, because I hadn’t seen it before, and it included many of the same topics I had covered in Proficient Motorcycling over the years. It was a personal relief to find that Harry and I seem to have arrived at identical conclusions about how two-wheelers go around corners.

Copies of the "Hurt Report”

Harry pointed out that the Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures, January, 1981 - Final Report (what we usually call the "Hurt Report”) is available to the U.S. public through the National Technical Information Service, Springfield, VA 22161. The essential data is in Volume I, NTIS reference number PB 81-206-443. However, HPRL has found the NTIS copies to be of less than expected quality. HPRL will furnish higher quality copies for $30, cheap enough for a 425-page book. And if you mention you are a reader of MCN and would like additional information, Harry will throw in some other technical publications at no additional cost. Just write HPRL and send along a check.

Hurt, the Motorcyclist

I asked Harry if he still rode a motorcycle. He still rides regularly, but he had a little trouble remembering what bike he rode last. He said his Montessa 125 Cota had died of crank failure, but his 350 Bultaco Sherpa T still runs. He doesn’t ride his 1947 Harley, because it’s more of a "show” bike. He likes British bikes, such as his ’68 and ’79 Triumph Bonnevilles, and his ’75 Norton Commando. Oh yeh, he also has a Honda 200X ATV, a Suzuki DR200, a Honda Hawk, and a Suzuki GS1100E painted in Blue/Orange flames. He thinks maybe he’ll sell that one.

Harry needed to run off to some research crisis, so I asked him if he could sum up his advice about motorcycle safety in one sentence.

"There is no magic bullet other than getting smart.”

Our thanks to Harry H. Hurt, Terry Smith, and the staff of HPRL for taking the time for an interview.

For More information contact:

Head Protection Research Laboratory
6409 Alondra Boulevard
Paramount CA 90723-3759
562-529-3295
fax 562-529-3297
e-mail info@hprl.org
 
David Hough is a long-time motorcyclist and journalist. His work has appeared in numerous motorcycle publications, but he is best known for the monthly skills series "Proficient Motorcycling” in Motorcycle Consumer News, which has been honored by special awards from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Selected columns were edited into a book "Proficient Motorcycling” published by Bowtie Press. He is also the author of "Driving A Sidecar Outfit”. A pocket handbook, "Street Strategiesis also on the market now.

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