Motorcycle Safety Pioneer Harry Hurt, 81,Dies

The motorcycle grapevine is a small network, so when big news unfolds, the info travels fast. This past weekend, the lines were buzzing all over the country; one of motorcycling's biggest champions passed away. Sources close to the family say Dr. Hugh H. ("Harry") Hurt, Jr. died Sunday, November 29th -from what is being reported as a heart attack. Dr. Hurt had recently undergone major back surgery. He had back problems since being rear-ended years ago in his automobile.

Dr. Hurt was the originator of the first comprehensive motorcycle accident causation study. The Hurt Report was a motorcycle safety study conducted in the United States, starting in 1976. When the results were published in 1981, many described the report as "the most comprehensive motorcycle safety study of the 20th century." The full title was Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures, Volume 1: Technical Report.

The study was launched by the Department Of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which contracted with the University of Southern California Traffic Safety Center, where USC professor Harry Hurt ultimately conducted the work. Hurt later became President of the Head Protection Research Laboratory (HPRL), of Paramount, CA.

As Wikipedia states, "the Hurt Report findings significantly advanced the state of knowledge of the causes of motorcycle accidents, in particular pointing out the need for more rider training."

Because he knew Harry Hurt well and had the chance to work with him a number of times, we asked Art Friedman, former editor of Motorcyclist and Motorcycle Cruiser magazine for some of his thoughts and memories of Harry. Art was happy to oblige.

The following are excerpts:

" Back in the 1970s, when we heard that the NHTSA was going to conduct this (safety) study, we were slightly alarmed. At the time the agency was headed by Joan Claybrook, who was perceived as being very anti-motorcycle. We feared this study would simply conclude that motorcycles were so dangerous that they should be illegalized. So we were suspicious when we learned that it was about to be released and decided to interview the egghead professor at USC who was in charge. Professor Hurt immediately won us over. "

"He was obviously very smart. His approach to accident investigation made tremendous sense, even to doltish motorcycle journalists. We were also surprised that he was a real enthusiast. He rode a Kawasaki 750 Mach IV two-stroke triple, among other things. He insisted that his investigators be motorcyclists too, so that they could really understand what happened in motorcycle crashes.

"His study was thorough, unbiased, and enlightening. Sure, it confirmed stuff we already believed, such as the fact that DOT helmets really do work. But we also learned that a cheap helmet was as effective in preventing head injuries as a pricey lid and that all the imagined downsides of helmet use (neck injuries, failure to perceive other vehicles, etc.) simply weren't issues. We learned that we were doing a poor job of making ourselves visible in traffic, that we need to keep our skills sharp if we are going to escape the dreaded left-turner, that "laying it down" was more dangerous than staying upright, that failure to use the brakes effectively would likely end in a crash from either stopping too slowly or losing control, and that even a single beer impaired us significantly.

Though it was hard to pin him down on the topic, he actually didn't seem to favor motorcycle helmet laws. He apparently took a Darwinist approach to the matter -- if you were too stupid to wear something so clearly effective, you deserved to be taken out of the gene pool.

Although he is best known for his work in motorcycles, he was an equally bright light in aviation, having been a pilot since his teens. His book, Aerodynamics for Naval Aviators, published in 1960, is still the standard work on the topic. As a grad student at USC, he was involved with a project to develop a crash helmet for the military which lead to the basic design -- a hard shell lined with EPS -- that forms the basis for helmets we use today.

One story gives some sense of his enthusiasm for motorcycling: He'd broken his leg and wasn't supposed to ride. Then one day in his garage, he realized that if he could sit on his Triumph, he could start it by rolling down his driveway and popping it in gear. He could then shift awkwardly with his casted leg. Soon he was breezing along on a desert road...maybe a bit too fast. The red lights came on in his mirror but he just pulled over to the edge of the road and slowed down. The cop pulled up and yelled for him to stop. "He shouted back. "I can't." The cop let him go.

I don't think his contributions to motorcycle safety can be overstated. Back in 1990, when I was editor of Motorcyclist, we picked a Motorcyclist of the Decade (the 1980s) through a reader poll. Readers, not surprisingly, chose multiple-time World and National Champion Kenny Roberts, but using my prerogative as editor, I wrote a column naming my choice, which was Harry. After all, Roberts had thrilled us, but Harry Hurt had helped save many of our lives and limbs and continues to do so. Mostly I remember him for his considerable intellect, his reluctance to suffer fools, and his tremendous enthusiasm for motorcycling and making it safer."

Ride in Peace, Harry.

- Art Friedman

Motorcycle Safety Pioneer Harry Hurt