Harley-Davidson, in an act of branding that bears comparison with Philip Morris's Marlboro man, has, for decades, sold the idea that a simpler, more real existence can be lived on the back of a heavy motorcycle. By riding a Harley, the advertising suggests, consumers can share in a collective dream of rugged individualism lived on the open road. Yet, long after the hazards of smoking were public knowledge, the Marlboro ads were directly responsible for selling billions of cigarettes that contributed to the deaths of millions of people . These exercises in branding are so successful because as President Reagan said: “Americans believed about the West not so much what was true, but what they thought ought to be true.”
Unfortunately, for all the joys of riding an adult version of a kid's bike with playing cards snapping in the spokes, heavy bikes are really very unsafe. The fatality rate is 30 times that of automobiles and heavyweight bikes and superbikes are arguably the most dangerous vehicles on the road. Yet, health and safety issues are largely ignored by the industry. This is partly because the ethos of the heavy motorcycle use includes an explicit hyper-individualism, a value that makes issues of health and safety irrelevant. Of the potentially 1,000 people that will die riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles this year many share either a magical sense of invulnerability or a fatalistic approach to safety that includes resistance to helmet wearing.
For others, heavy bikes are assumed to be as safe as cars which over the last fifty years have benefited from greatly improved safety design and engineering. The primacy of the driver for car safety issues (reflected in the excitement surrounding the development of the driver-less car) disappears when the discussion turns to motorcycle safety. Fortunately, a decline in the emotional significance of car driving for young adult males will slowly translate into lower super-heavyweight bike sales for H-D.
Although we cannot know in advance who will die in motorcycle accidents each year, we can predict that approximately 4,600 people will do so, no matter how avoidable each of those crashes may be understood to have been. Yet the only real pro-safety action by industry groups has been the marketing of remedial-level rider courses.
Groups involved with dangerous products, such as the NRA and the tobacco industry, have historically spent millions of dollars to keep regulation to a minimum. For motorcycles, much of the battle has been fought around helmet laws. A safety device that would save hundreds or thousands of lives annually has been portrayed as an annoying intrusion into the free-spirited existence of motorcycle riders and motorcycle related head injuries and fatalities continue to be portrayed as mere side-effects of motorcycle use.
The industry continues to rely on consumers ignoring the safety risks built into the design of a heavy or super-heavyweight motorcycles. Fortunately for Harley, there is just no way that consumers can test the crash characteristics of heavy bikes.