NHTSA and the 2009 Crash Causation Study


A new Motorcycle Crash Causation study was authorized in section 5511 of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), federal law passed in 2005. This was a long-overdue update of the 1981 Hurt study$2,815,000 was authorized for the study as grants to Oklahoma Transportation Center, a part of Oklahoma State University.   The OSU provision was reportedly inserted as pork by Senator Daniel Inoye of Oklahoma.    NHTSA was deliberately left out of the picture because of its ill repute among motorcyclists and the industry.

It was to be performed by the Oklahoma State University Transportation Center in the School of Engineering at Stillwater. It is mandated to use the same OECD methodology as the European MAIDS study.

In the end, the $2,815,000 assigned to the study in SAFETEA-LU was reduced to $2.1M in Federal payouts, and NHTSA grabbed $1.8M of this, for a Pilot Study, leaving a paltry $300,000 for OSU.   The pilot study funds were largely wasted by NHTSA.  

NHTSA cut a no-bid contract with Westat, a Rockville, MD company with close ties to NHTSA and other DOT entities.   Westat turned around and sub-contracted the crash data collection to Dynamic Science Inc of Phoenix, AZ, who bid for and won the contract.  Westat’s margin was therefore the first wastage of public funds.

Deliverables from the contract included the training of three accident investigators for the main study.   Dynamic Science hired three temporary workers and trained them, but they were laid off at the end of the pilot and were unavailable to OSU.  Former NHTSA employee and safety expert Mike Ginocchi  told me that NHTSA had ample assets to perform this training in-house at the time.  A computer system was built during the pilot study, also unnecessary.   Dr Kasantikul of Thailand performed his study using similar methodology with only spreadsheets and the standard SPSS statistical software.

We obtained information via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) from NHTSA in 2010, including the Westat contract and a number of contract revisions.  The Pilot Study was eventually released in 2010.

The pilot study is awful.  Westat claimed in 2009 that they had collected 113 crash cases, more than the 37 called for in the contract.   The study claims 53 cases of which only 23 survived to the final report.   This is insufficient for any type of statistical analysis.   Samir Ahmed of OSU described the data collection in the pilot as having poor quality control, which was non-compliant with the OECD methodology.

The FOIA I received showed a pattern of overruns.  The contract started at $467,103 and the amount climbed until the whole $1.8M was consumed.   Per crash data collection costs were estimated at $7,500, although 23 cases at this cost amounts to less than ten percent of the $1.8M.    The only skill displayed in the whole episode is the uncanny ability of the Westat negotiators to predict how much would be allocated by the Treasury and they usually guessed within a couple of hundred.   Westat milked that contract for every available dollar, and the final cost of the pilot consumed 86% of the eventual federal funds paid for out of the SAFETEA-LU authorization.  They also failed to capture adequate control cases.

Samir Ahmed, PhD, of OSU was already out of his depth.   He had no experience with motorcycle studies, and, when challenged to take a MSF course and ride a bike, he refused.   He complained bitterly at the poor quality of the pilot study, and put out various estimates of from $8M to $12M for the eventual study cost, based on the 900 to 1200 study subjects initially targeted.   Previous studies, Hurt, MAIDS and Kasantakul, has used 900 or more test cases.   Ahmed reduce the scope of the study was quoted in the LA times as wanting 300 crash cases.

The Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF), a trade group owned by the motorcycle industry, had, in 2007, offered matching funds of $2.8M, the original amount assigned by SAFETEA-LU, but, in 2010, they dramatically took their ball and left the game, citing the 900 study subjects as a must-have for a good study.

MSF then funded a different study at Virginia Tech, and Samir Ahmed scrabbled around for chump change for his study.   After more than seven years, the main OSU study has not been released, and we’re not holding our breath for a scaled down taste of OSU and NHTSA’s ineptitude.   

The pilot study was finally performed in 2009.   We have seen, from previous posts,  that the issue of ABS was  also being bandied around by NHTSA and its population of lobbyists.   Mary Peters was DOT secretary at the time.   She was a motorcyclist and had a crash a couple of years before.   She adamantly maintained that the helmet she was wearing had saved her from serious injury. This caused consternation among the bonehead anti-helmet agitators at ABATE and MRF (The Motorcycle Rider’s Foundation).   She wanted to shift funding from state rider training to helmet enforcement.   Layer over this the hijacking of the long-awaited Crash Study and its destruction by NHTSA and throw in the disappearance of the mandatory ABS agenda item current in 2009.   We have chased down some of the strange bedfellows wandering the NHTSA corridors around this time.

  • Ronald Kaufman of Dutko Worldwide, a Harley Davidson lobbyist, had this otherwise undocumented meeting with DOT secretary Mary Peters on May 1 2008. Our FOIA to DOT produced this stray note, but not the official record of the meeting.
  • Don Young, chair of the House Transportation Committee, writes to Norman Mineta, asking for a Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) rep on the Motorcycle Advisory Council. MAC was authorized in the same 2005 SAFETEA-LU law and was supposed to work on highway furniture, but got involved in a host of motorcycle issues.   MAC was packed with Harley and ABATE people, as we discussed in our ABS piece.   Mineta granted Young’s request, appointing Kathy van Kleeck, who is a lobbyist for both MSF and MIC, the Motorcycle Industry Council.   Both these trade groups are dominated by Harley Davidson who ended up with seven out of 10 of the MAC members.  Information via FOIA from DOT.
  • Kathy van Kleeck lost no time wooing new DOT secretary Mary Peters, inviting her to the MSF annual meeting in February 2007. The letter mentions Peters‘ speech and talks about state training.   Peters, a helmet advocate, eventually reallocated state training budgets to helmet enforcement, which must have enraged the majority of the MAC folks, as did mandatory ABS.   Peters’ reply mentions Van Kleeck’s role in setting up the House Motorcycle Safety Caucus. (documents from DOT via FOIA).
  • As we have seen, Kathy van Kleeck played a leading role in setting up the Congressional Motorcycle Safety Caucus, which sprang into existence on June 26th, 2009, the year NHTSA was white-hot with the mandatory ABS lobbying, the OSU study which was in chaos, and Mary Peters’ helmet and enforcement agenda. Here’s a letter from Caucus members Giffords and Burgess, lobbying Mary Peters, DOT secretary, March 2008, obtained via FOIA.
  • Motor Sports Newswire soon reported MIC’s Duane Taylor “We are thrilled that Representative Griffin took the time to come to Orlando and participate in AIMExpo” after Griffin, MC Caucus co-chair, junketed at a motorcycle show in Florida, October 2013.   The Caucus was very active from 2010 to 2013 but has not had any press since then.   Duane Taylor is a MIC lobbyist who works with Kathy van Kleeck.
  • A 2010 letter to the newly appointed Ray LaHood, DOT secretary, signed by Jim Sensenbrenner Jr and 10 other congress members.  Sensenbrenner represents Milwaukee where Harley Davidson home operation is a big contributor.  The letter asks for the Mary Peters helmet enforcement initiative to be defunded in favor of Motorcycle awareness programs and the crash causation study, which is essentially the ABATE and MAC agenda.  (obtained via FOIA from DOT).
  • Kathy van Kleeck participated with George Soodoo in this 2009 NHTSA teleconference on motorcycle brake standards.  Soodoo was the author of the 2009 mandatory ABS proposal and the subsequent 2011 final document, killing the ABS proposal, from docket # NHTSA-2008-0150.
  • Letter from Kathy van Kleeck (with MSF hat) and Tim Buche of MSF to Mary Peters, from August 2008, complaining about the delays and cost overruns in the OSU study, and waving the club of MSF’s matching funds. (DOT FOIA).
  • Letter from Kathy van Kleeck to the newly appointed Ray LaHood from June 2009. Although the OSU study is not mentioned, the cost overruns and delays were approaching crisis point.  (DOT FOIA).

As we can see, a cocktail of motorcycle related subjects were in the mix in this critical 2008-2010 period:  the OSU study; the mandatory ABS agenda;  increased federal support of helmet and other enforcement; reductions in state training grants; and motorist awareness initiatives.

The writing was on the wall for the ill-fated OSU study, and, on March 31st 2010 MSF announced that they would instead be funding the Virginia Tech Naturalistic Study.   The OSU Crash Causation final report has not yet been published.

We only have partial public information and a couple of FOIAs – from DOT, who responded to our August request in a couple of weeks, and a 2010 NHTSA FOIA, from when NHTSA was still responding, albeit in about four months, to FOIA requests.    We still await the results of our 2016 FOIAs to NHTSA.

To summarize, we have seen a froth of lobbying at DOT and NHTSA, with the sinister Kathy van Kleeck playing multiple roles.   We have seen NHTSA’s hijacking of study funds earmarked for OSU and the profligate waste of almost the entire Federal budgeted funds for the study.   Worst of all, the cost of flubbing the once-per-generation opportunity for a new Motorcycle Crash Causation Study is to be counted in terms of  rider casualties.  We feel that the Mandatory ABS agenda, using the pretext of the dreadful Amoni ABS study may have been sacrificed as a token in the raging culture wars that were washing across NHTSA in the crucial 2008 to 2010 period.

We need a congressional committee to have hearings to determine if NHTSA violated SAFETEA-LU by hijacking the study funds earmarked for OSU.  And to determine if malpractice attended the wasteful spending of these funds and the dropping of mandatory motorcycle ABS from the NHTSA agenda.


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