Award-winning author Professor Hugh H. "Harry" Hurt set the benchmark for motorcycle safety research in 1981. The title was a little cumbersome: “Volume I: Technical Report, Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures, January, 1981 - Final Report.” The motorcycle press found that title to be unwieldy, so they nicknamed it the "Hurt Report," after lead researcher Harry Hurt. The "Hurt Report" turned out to be the most comprehensive motorcycle safety study of the 20th century.
Hurt’s study was the most comprehensive ever published and is considered the benchmark for motorcycle safety study. Its findings helped establish better rider training methods, making new generations of riders safer. In addition to that groundbreaking study, Hurt is the author of dozens of publications in the fields of motorcycle handling, safety, crash analysis, and helmet performance.
Hurt was born in 1927 and grew up and began riding as a kid in west Texas. His first motorcycle was a worn-out old Cushman scooter that he brought back to life. He graduated from Texas A&M University in 1950 and became a Navy pilot during the Korean War. After the war, Hurt loaded up his 1947 Harley-Davidson 61 and headed west for California. He completed a Master’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Southern California and joined the faculty at USC. Hurt studied under Charles "Red" Lombard, who patented the modern energy-absorbing motorcycle helmet in 1953.
In the early days of testing and research, human subjects were often used to gauge the impact-absorbing characteristics of materials. Graduate students like Harry often donned helmets and were subjected to blows by pendulum weights. The student "volunteers" would then report the degree of disorientation and or other altered consciousness. This testing was part of the requirements for students to obtain their degree.
The motorcycle buying boom in the 1970s led to an increase in crashes. That rise in accidents and fatalities got the attention of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a contract to study motorcycle accidents. The University of Southern California Traffic Safety Center got the job. Hurt was the USC professor responsible for carrying out the study. The objectives were to determine the causes of motorcycle crashes, analyze the effectiveness of protective gear, such as safety helmets, and then figure out what countermeasures might help prevent crashes or reduce injuries.
Hurt, along with colleagues David Thom and James Ouellet, put together a team of investigators who would dash out to motorcycle accident scenes, day or night, over two years. Crucially, all of the investigators were experienced motorcyclists. The team did an exhausting study of each crash, determining approximately 1,000 data elements. They took photos, examined wreckage, measured skid marks, and interviewed survivors. They even returned to the same site at the same time on the same day of the week, with the same weather conditions, to measure traffic and interview motorcyclists who managed to get through the same situation without having a problem. The team collected data on more than 900 motorcycle accidents, interviewed 2,310 passing motorcyclists, and studied 3,600 police reports from the same area.
Issues arose in later years after the study that would probably make it impossible to conduct another research project like the Hurt Report. In those old days, investigators and police cooperated, sharing information freely. Today, privacy laws make records searches a legal nightmare, and budget problems mean that record searches aren’t free anymore. The biggest problem is that accident investigators today can expect subpoenas from lawyers looking for information.
As a motorcyclist, Hurt is very adamant that motorcycle crash researchers have motorcycling experience, even the psychologists, medical consultants, and pathologists. Motorcycle crashes are not like other vehicle accidents. Unless the researchers understand the peculiarities of motorcycles, they may not understand what they are looking at. This is just one of the issues which Hurt is trying to get included in the ISO standard.
Even though the researchers were motorcyclists, they didn’t let their enthusiasm prejudice them. Some of their conclusions in the Hurt Report weren’t popular with motorcyclists. For example, it offered that some cheaper helmets offered as much protection as more expensive models, anti-lock brakes would prevent accidents, bright upper-torso garments helped prevent people from turning in front of you, as did riding with high-beam headlights on during daylight hours.
Hurt emphasized the importance of keeping a finger or two covering the front brake at all times to cut down on reaction time in an emergency situation. He also pointed out what many racers already knew, and that was the effect of counter-steering and how sometimes riders unwittingly steered into an accident by instinctively pointing their front wheel away from a collision. Among the study’s other findings was the fact that full-face helmets offered better protection than open-face versions.
These conclusions proved that Hurt was more interested in finding the truth of motorcycling safety than worrying about whose toes he might step on.
He also found that although wearing certain gear could lower the odds of a crash or reduce the injuries if a crash happened, the best safety measure was a well-trained rider. Hurt sums up his advice about motorcycle safety in one sentence: "There is no magic bullet other than getting smart."
That perspective led to a focus on rider training and licensing standards that have made subsequent generations of motorcyclists safer.
Hurt received numerous awards for his studies of motorcycle safety. In 1977, the Society of Automotive Engineers cited Hurt with the Outstanding Presentation Award for his "Human Factors in Motorcycle Accidents, 1977." In 1989, he was given the Key Award from the Motorcycle Industry Council. He was named Motorcyclist of the Decade by Motorcyclist magazine in 1989 and in 1997 he was presented with the Chairpersons Award from the National Association of State Motorcycle Safety Administrators.
"The most satisfying experience for any research scientist is to see public acceptance and wide application of their research results. We were thrilled that the public and industry so widely accepted and used the 1981 report of "Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures", Hurt said. "As the years passed by without further studies to update the 1981 findings, we were proud that our research was so durable, but it was apparent that current information was needed and the 1981 research was being stretched to the point of desperation. What are the effects of many years’ changes in motorcycle riders, motorcycle design, training and licensing, law enforcement, etc.?"
A lifelong motorcyclist, Hurt owned and rode everything from Harley-Davidson touring bikes to small two-stroke off-road motorcycles. His office was decorated with a pristine 1975 Norton Commando, beautifully restored by his son, John.
Even in his later years, Hurt continued to ride. He favored British bikes, such as his 1968 and ’79 Triumph Bonnevilles, and his ’75 Norton Commando.
When inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2007, Professor Hurt was still conducting research and was president of the Head Protection Research Laboratory of Southern California and Professor Emeritus, Safety Science, USC.
Hurt and his colleagues made motorcycling safer not only in the 1980s but far into the future.