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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Joan Claybrook and the "Safe Motorcycle"

If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know that I am an automotive enthusiast. Well prepare yourself for another interesting story about the history of vehicles as we tell the story of Joan Claybrook, a bureaucrat that crusaded for a "safe motorcycle".

First of all....who is this Joan Claybrook? Well Joan Claybrook was the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) during the Carter administration. Claybrook was a disciple of Ralph Nader, the man that killed the Chevrolet Corvair with his 1965 work "Unsafe at any Speed". A decade after Nader, new regulations had made American cars safer with things like padded dashes, impact absorbing steering wheels, dual circuit brake systems, and standard seat belts. However, the bike you bought new off the showroom floor was essentially the same as it was for decades in terms of safety. Some advances in disc brake technology made stopping more efficient, but it was more a market driven need since performance had increased immensely by 1980. A fast motorcycle in 1965 might have 45 horsepower, however by 1980 many were hovering around 100 horsepower. More Americans were buying bikes and Claybrook saw more people dying in accidents. She decided to do something about it.

Enter the product of a person who never rode a bike.




As you can see this does not resemble a motorcycle whatsoever. First of all you will notice it has a roll cage. Second you will notice the layout of the components is completely different. The reason for this is because the motorcycle is front wheel drive and rear wheel steer. The engine lives directly in front of the rider, who sits in an actual car seat equipped with seat belts and a pressure switch that shuts off the motor if you are not sitting down . You will also notice that the bike has outrigger style wheels to prevent tip over. Yes...it essentially has training wheels. So what was the result of this bike? Well it certainly was safe. Why? Because no one could really ride it. It was that flawed at its core. Indeed a few magazines took some of these ideas and tested them. The results of these tests were utterly comical and Joan Claybrook became a laughing stock in the world of motorcycle journalism. Administrations changed soon after and Claybrook was replaced at the NHTSA before she had a chance to mandate any of this madness....much to her chagrin I am sure, but much to the rejoice of riders everywhere.

So what is the lesson to be learned here? Sometimes the people who try to write regulations concerning technology have no clue how that technology actually works.

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