Statistics vs. Useful Information
by Thomas Day
A while back, on Minnesota WCCO television’s “Good Question” news segment, the question was, “Drivers have to wear seat belts to stay safe. So why don’t all motorcyclists have to wear helmets?” The program came up with two answers: “The motorcycle lobby in Minnesota is well organized and very vocal in its opposition to helmet laws. Since there are far fewer motorcycles on the road than cars, helmets are not considered a big public safety issue compared to seat belts.” Accurate answers, but poor justification.
The program also stated that “Last year, there were 70 motorcycle rider deaths in Minnesota; a 200 percent increase from a decade ago. Some of the increase is due to more riders.” Any time you use the word “more,” you’re making a statistical claim. If you’re out on the road observing traffic patterns, the “more riders” claim could be hard to prove.
Mark Twain had an opinion about statistics, “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” Not everyone who quotes statistical data is lying, but many are providing misleading information. A useful reference would be “miles driven.” A really useful reference would be “miles driven and where.”
Many motorcyclists are proud of the fact that they are unwilling to ride on freeways, commuter highways, or even venture out on the road on weekdays. These weekend garage candy bikers only ride rural roads; avoiding traffic, intersections, and any practical purpose for burning fuel . In 2005, over 20% of the motorcycle crash deaths occurred between noon and 9PM on Saturday! Comparing that kind of highway use to conventional highway users is distracting, at best, and total B.S. in reality.
In the WCCO program, a DPS spoksperson provided the following statistical claim, “As you might imagine, seat belts are far more effective than helmets at preventing injuries and death . . . Drivers are 60 percent less likely to be killed in a crash if they’re wearing a seat belt but bikers are only 35 percent less likely to die if they’re wearing a helmet.”
Really? Where did the data for that claim come from?
I don’t know where that dubious “35 percent less likely to die if they’re wearing a helmet” data comes from, but I’d be amazed if helmets don’t prevent death and injury considerably more effectively than seatbelts. Watch a motorcycle race crash and make your own estimate of how many racers would have survived without helmets. Almost every crash I’ve ever experienced began with a mild or major face plant. Since buying my first full face helmet in 1982, face plants have been scary, but bloodless events. We all know how that story changes when you remove the helmet.
I think the motorcycle injury statistics fall into the “incomplete” category and provide considerably less than useful information. If you crash your car, the chances may be pretty good that you’ll be calling a tow truck and the crash may be reported, regardless of injury. I suspect that the majority of helmeted riders—who run their bike off of the road in a corner, drop the bike at a slick intersection, slide out on spring sand and salt on a freeway entrance or exit, and all of the other low-to-mid-speed crash scenarios—get back up, dust themselves off, and wobble back home, shaken but unharmed and unreported. I’d also bet crashing involving un-helmeted riders is a different story. If you run your bike off of the road, but you can wrestle it back to pavement and get back home where you can privately bandage your wounds, nobody recording data is going to hear about it. If you were wearing a real motorcycle helmet and protective gear, you probably don’t have any wounds to bandage.
Which brings up another important aspect of helmet crash statistics: there are helmets, and there are helmets. DOT will put a sticker on a Tupperware bowl held in place by a pair of shoestrings. Those stupid looking plastic, yarmulkes that folks wear to cover their bald spots are barely more protection than Snoopy’s aviator cap. Including those funny-looking hats on the “helmeted” side of a crash statistic is an insult to protective gear designers.
The one number we should all be able to agree on is the percentage of motorcyclists involved in deaths. Injuries may or may not be reported, but deaths rarely go unrecorded. In 2005, there were 559 Minnesota crash deaths; 59 (10.6%) were motorcycle/motor scooter related. In 2006, 70 motorcyclists were killed (14%) out of 494 total highway deaths. One thing is obvious about motorcycle deaths; there are too damn many.
The demographics of motorcycle deaths are also fairly reliable statistics. Minnesota men were 90% of the motorcycle fatalities. Half of the women killed on motorcycles were passengers. Our two biggest age-group lumps in motorcycle deaths were ages 20-29 (19 deaths) and 40-49 (21 deaths) followed by 50-59 (12 deaths). 53 of 70 fatal crashes (76%) occurred in small towns (<25,000) and rural roads, which contradicts the argument that urban commuting is “too dangerous”; or the “safe” weekend ride is beyond the skills of many Minnesota riders.
Attempting to correlate deaths and reported injuries to disparate and misleading numbers like motorcycle registrations or licenses issued, is a waste of resources. I know guys who have a dozen registered bikes in their garage and, maybe, one of those vehicles is ridden a couple dozen miles in a given season. Supposedly, there are almost 200,000 Minnesota motorcycle licenses. Is there anyone vision-impaired enough to believe there are 200,000 motorcycles on our roads on any given day of the year?
The lack of useful data does not justify using worthless data to either defend or attack motorcycle training, motor vehicle safety, or even the continued access to public roads. For example if you’re a stupid-statistics-user, you could conclude that November through March are the safest months to ride in Minnesota (no deaths during those months in 2006). What we need to defend motorcycling and improve motorcycle safety are good, useful numbers and the means to consistently obtain those numbers without the distraction of disingenuous statistics.
Any reasonable person will look at the high contribution motorcycling makes to traffic deaths, and the nearly non-existent contribution our vehicle makes to traffic, and wonder if there is a reason to allow motorcyclists access to public roads. The fact is, motorcyclists die on the road at a much higher rate (per mile, per vehicle, per motorist, per accident, etc.) than other motorists. We need to do something about that if we hope to retain our highway privileges. If protective gear dramatically lowers that mortality rate, the motorcycle industry needs to admit that and do whatever it takes to put a helmet on every rider. If our current training and rider licensing system isn’t working, riders, trainers, and the industry need to fix it. We are allowed on public roads by the permission of the larger society. If motorcycles don’t provide a useful, safe alternative to conventional transportation, our vehicle will be banned from public roads as were the horse and buggy and the rest of the long list of no-longer-allowed equipment and vehicles. We must make motorcycling more practical and safer. There is no other option.