Government & Politics

Gridlock on antilock brakes baffles motorcycle safety advocates

Anti-lock brake systems, a standard feature on lots of passenger vehicles since the 1990s, have been touted for years as a potentially powerful tool to cut motorcycle deaths. But in the United States, companies are not required to use the systems in all their motorcycles.
Anti-lock brake systems, a standard feature on lots of passenger vehicles since the 1990s, have been touted for years as a potentially powerful tool to cut motorcycle deaths. But in the United States, companies are not required to use the systems in all their motorcycles.

After a long downward trend, U.S. traffic deaths are on the rise again, and a key factor is the stubbornly high fatality toll among some of the most exposed people on the road: motorcyclists.

Nevertheless, federal regulators have balked at requiring a safety measure that many experts say could save hundreds of bikers’ lives every year.

Antilock brake systems, a standard feature on lots of passenger vehicles since the 1990s, have been touted for years as a potentially powerful tool to cut motorcycle deaths. The technology, known as ABS, works by preventing the wheels from locking up during hard braking and improving control amid emergencies or slippery road conditions.

In the U.S., major law enforcement agencies, including the California Highway Patrol and the New York City Police Department, require that all motorcycles in their fleets have ABS. Around the world, ABS-equipped motorcycles are fast becoming standard. All new large bikes sold in Europe must now have ABS. On a phased-in schedule, Japan, India and Brazil are following suit.

“It is hard to come up with something else that has the potential to be as important for motorcycle safety,” said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which estimates that nearly one-third of all fatal crashes from motorcycling every year, and many injuries, could be prevented by a federal ABS mandate.

Regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the officials who would be in a position to do something, have been criticized for taking an ambiguous, even mysterious stance. The agency has been something of an ABS cheerleader — praising it as a life-saver in the case of BMW Group, a leader in selling the technology — even though the safety agency fails to require it as a standard safety feature.

In 2009, the agency appeared close to mandating ABS on motorcycles. But within a couple years, it shifted gears. The bottom line was that officials decided there was insufficient proof that the benefits, measured by lives saved and injuries avoided, would outweigh costs to manufacturers.

And given that the traffic safety agency lacked the political clout and scientific muscle to require ABS during the Obama administration, there appears to be practically no chance it will happen under the regulation-averse Trump administration, even with the annual death toll among motorcyclists close to 5,000. In a statement to FairWarning, the agency said its latest study on the issue, conducted in 2010, “did not demonstrate clear evidence to support regulatory activity and the agency currently does not have plans to pursue a new federal mandate to require ABS.”

The group typically is slow to take action, when it acts at all. As FairWarning reported, since at least 2011 the agnecy has been considering a crackdown on the sale of novelty motorcycle helmets that are nearly worthless in a crash. In May 2015, it finally took a preliminary step, issuing a notice of proposed rulemaking, but the agency still has not issued a rule.

In the absence of action on ABS, motorcycle manufacturers gradually have been offering the technology. BMW Group introduced the first motorcycle with ABS in 1988 and made them standard equipment on all of the bikes it sells in the U.S. in 2012. According to the Insurance Institute, BMW remains the only major manufacturer to do so in the U.S.

Harley-Davidson, the nation’s largest manufacturer with about half of all domestic sales, began offering ABS on police motorcycles in 2005, and then as optional equipment on some civilian bikes starting in 2008. By 2014, according to a court filing, Harley-Davidson offered ABS as optional or standard on all of its models. The company declined to comment for this story.

Yet even though sales of ABS-equipped motorcycles are increasing, they still accounted for no more than about 15 percent of the more than 7 million motorcycles registered in the U.S. in 2015, according to figures from Exponent Inc. The Menlo Park, Calif., consulting firm provided the data for Harley-Davidson in connection with a lawsuit the motorcycle company was defending.

Much of the opposition to ABS has come from rider groups. The American Motorcyclist Association calls ABS “a powerful safety feature” but says riders should be free to choose whether their bikes have it.

Harley-Davidson’s business approach has enabled it to sell ABS as an expensive safety option, while not offending the libertarian sensibilities of rider groups. Nelson Roach, a Daingerfield, Texas, plaintiffs lawyer who brought an unsuccessful lawsuit against Harley-Davidson, related to its failure to use ABS throughout its product lines, likens the company’s approach to the way automakers once resisted seat belt requirements.

“In the 1970s, car makers fought mandatory seat belts for two reasons. They wanted to continue selling them as a luxury option, and they were afraid a mandate would discourage people from buying cars,” he said.

For the last decade, Harley has “been doing the same thing with antilock brakes,” said Roach, who accuses the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of kowtowing to the motorcycle industry.

Even when Harley-Davidson offers ABS, it has run into trouble. The traffic safety agency announced last summer it was opening a preliminary investigation into reports of sudden ABS failures on Harley models. Up to 430,000 ABS-equipped motorcycles for model years 2008-2011 are potentially affected. Harley-Davidson has said it believes the problem lies with riders not servicing brake fluids regularly.

Studies have shown that most riders instinctively slam on the brakes to avoid accidents. But if the brakes are applied too hard, the wheels can lock, sending the bike into a tailspin or down to the ground. Braking on a motorcycle can be particularly tricky for less experienced riders and in poor weather, because bikes have separate brake controls for the front and rear wheels, and either one can lock up. ABS anticipates lockup and modulates pressure on the brakes until traction is restored.

“It’s one of those things silent in the background until you need it, and then it has your back if the rider makes a mistake, panics or the road surface changes,” said Stacey Axmaker, who runs, a web-based membership organization for riders who pledge to wear protective gear and take other crash-prevention measures.

Less than a decade ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration seemed close to mandating ABS on motorcycles. Citing “potentially large benefits for braking improvements,” the agency put ABS on its regulatory agenda in July 2009, with plans to launch a rule-making process the next year. By then, a significant and growing body of pro-ABS research had emerged.

More recently, in a 2013 study, the Insurance Institute found that motorcycles equipped with ABS were found to be 31 percent less likely to be involved in fatal crashes, signaling the potential to save more than 1,500 lives a year if all bikes had the feature. In all, motorcycle deaths totaled 4,976 in 2015, up 8.3 percent from the year before though below 2008’s record high of 5,312.

At the traffic safety agency, however, engineers questioned whether it was the brakes or other factors leading to lower crash rates, and the safety agency decided to launch its own study. Yet the research was criticized for making questionable judgments about the kinds of accidents that ABS brakes would likely prevent. For example, according to an analysis by the Insurance Institute, the study excluded some crashes where a vehicle turned left in front of the motorcyclist, on the debatable theory that there was nothing the biker could have done to prevent the collision.

The conclusion was a muddle. In one scenario, the agency found that ABS bikes were actually slightly more crash-prone; in another, it said the data were too thin to provide answers. “Using this methodology, we did not find statistically-significant results to suggest that ABS affects motorcycle crash risk,” the authors concluded.

Critics considered the study an outlier. Nonetheless, in March 2011, the agency dropped motorcycle ABS from its regulatory agenda. David Strickland, the agency’s administrator from 2010 to 2014, said in an interview he remains enthusiastic about the possibility of ABS saving lives. But he said the agency faced a Catch 22: Too few motorcycles with ABS were being sold to give the agency enough crash data to conduct a thorough analysis that could justify a new rule.

Yet the agency was enthusiastic when BMW became the first manufacturer to offer ABS as standard equipment on its entire line of motorcycles. “It’s time for all of us in the motorcycle industry to embrace the benefits of ABS,” Pieter de Waal, a vice president in BMW’s U.S. unit, said in an April 2011 news release announcing the company’s ABS plans.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration cheered the initiative. “We commend BMW for taking the lead to improve motorcycle safety,” Strickland stated in the same news release. “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.”

This story was reported by FairWarning (, a nonprofit news organization based in Pasadena, Calif., that focuses on public health, consumer and environmental issues.