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The Passing of a Modern Renaissance Man

2009-12-04

Earlier this week I learned that Professor Harry Hurt of the University of Southern California passed away due to complications from surgery in Pomona, CA. He was 81.

Harry Hurt is well-known in the motorcycling community because of the Hurt report, an early-80s study of motorcycle safety in Southern California that dispelled many of the myths about motorcycle safety. Important conclusions from the Hurt report included the safety value of full-face helmets, the criticality of motorcycle driver training, the importance of motorcycle visibility and the role of alcohol in motorcycle accidents.

Dr. Hurt was also a naval aviator, an acclaimed textbook author and an expert in a wide range of transportation safety issues. His contribution to the safety and quality of modern transportation is almost incalculable.

I’ve read the unabridged Hurt report almost line-by-line, and I think it makes clear that there is no cheap shortcut to knowledge. Hurt,  his assistants and students performed extensive crash reconstruction on more than 900 accidents; investigator training alone took six months. Hundreds of accident survivors were interviewed and their motorcycle skills were evaluated on a test range. They analyzed thousands more police reports to provide a baseline to their detailed analyses. In a world of punch-card computers, they performed correlation analysis to determine the factors that were associated with accident and injury in the crash data.

We like to think of great scientists and engineers as ivory-tower eggheads who sit in a library all day and study books. The reality is far different. True knowledge is hard-won, and Dr. Hurt taught us that success requires getting down with a tape measure among the blood and glass and sirens.

A new motorcycle safety study has been in the making for more than 3 years, but the lead researcher and the donors can’t agree on funding issues. But if it happens, it will be done with the same investigative techniques established by Dr. Hurt.

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