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Federal Regulators Shelve Plans to Mandate Anti-Lock Brakes on Motorcycles

Traffic fatalities are rising again, following a long downward curve, driven in part by a high number of motorcycle deaths. Even though over 5000 bikers are dying on the nation's roads annually, federal regulators have taken an ambiguous position requiring a safety measure that could save hundreds of lives annually.

Since the 1990's anti-lock braking systems (ABS) have been a standard feature on most passenger vehicles. For years, the same technology has been shown to be a valuable method of preventing motorcycle deaths. ABS technology works by preventing the wheels from locking up during hard braking or slippery braking conditions, permitting better control of the bike.

Both the California Highway Patrol and the New York City police department require ABS technology to be integrated into every bike in their fleets. The technology is rapidly becoming standard worldwide. In Europe, all new motorcycles sold must have ABS. Japan, India and Brazil are close to requiring ABS in motorcycles.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), estimates that nearly one-third of motorcycle crash fatalities could be prevented by a federal highway ABS mandate.

"it is hard to come up with something else that has the potential to be as important for motorcycle safety," said Alan Lund, IIHS president.

Despite applauding the BMW group, a leader in offering ABS technology, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) failed to require it as a standard safety feature on motorcycles.

The NHTSA, in 2009, appeared poised to mandate ABS on motorcycles within a couple of years. The agency then back peddled, and pigeon holed the proposal, basing its decision on a lack of sufficient proof that the number of lives saved and injuries avoided would justify the cost to manufacturers.

The NHTSA who did not have the political and scientific power to go the distance during the Obama Administration is not likely to even enter the ring against the anti-regulation Trump team, despite the number of motorcycle deaths and injuries increasing significantly each year.

The NHTSA issued a statement to that its last study in 2010, did not demonstrate clear evidence to support regulatory activity and the agency does not have plans to pursue a new federal mandate to requires ABS on motorcycles.

Without a federal ABS mandate in place, motorcycle companies in the US are still moving ahead with offering the technology. BMW, who first introduced the available technology in 1988 has integrated ABS into all its motorcycles sold in the US since 2012. BMW is the only major manufacturer to do so in the US, according to the Insurance Institute.

The nation's largest bike manufacturer, Harley Davidson, offered ABS as standard or optional on all its models since 2014 according to court filings.

To date, only 15 percent of the 7 million motorcycles registered in the US are ABS equipped despite sales of the technology increasing, according to figures from Exponent Inc. a Menlo Park, California consulting firm.

Many rider groups are the source of much of the opposition to an ABS mandate. Although they agree that the technology is a 'powerful safety measure," they believe riders should have a right to choose which option they want. These are the same groups that oppose helmet laws for the same reason.

One of the positive notes for ABS technology advocates is the fact that police departments around the country have been adamant regarding the purchase of bikes equipped with ABS.

"We see that as an important safety feature and want to provide our officers with the safest possible equipment," said Steven Mills head of the California Highway Patrol fleet operations section.

Identified as a major factor in motorcycle crashes, Improper braking can be virtually eliminated by ABS, by anticipating brake lockup and modulating pressure on the brakes until traction is regained. With inexperienced riders or adverse road conditions ABS is particularly valuable.

Studies have shown that most riders instinctively brake hard to avoid a crash. Because bikes have separate brakes for the front and rear wheels, either wheel can lock up, sending the bike into a tailspin, down to the ground or catapulting the rider over the handlebars.

The NHTSA launched its own study which resulted in much controversy over its methodology.

The report's conclusion, published in June of 2010, was conflicting. One portion showed that ABS equipped bikes were slightly more crash prone. In another it said the data was too thin to provide answers.

In March 2011, the agency dropped ABS from its regulatory agenda, declaring: "Decision to evaluate with more data later." With the current regulation-averse Trump administration in place, "later" is likely to be a long way off for an already sluggish NHTSA.

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