I’m sure most of you who read this blog have already seen this, but I just had to sound off on the worst case of bad reporting I have ever seen regarding helmets and their supposed necessity. I found this article on Foxnews.com. You may have seen it elsewhere, but just for the record, here it is:
Fatalities Have Soared in Florida Since Repeal of Motorcycle Helmet Law
Monday, June 19, 2006
MELBOURNE, Florida — Motorcycle fatalities involving riders without helmets have soared in Florida in the nearly six years since Gov. Jeb Bush repealed the state’s mandatory helmet law, a newspaper reported Sunday.
A Florida Today analysis of federal motorcycle crash statistics found “unhelmeted” deaths in Florida rose from 22 in 1998 and 1999, the years before the helmet law repeal, to 250 in 2004, the most recent year of available data.
Total motorcycle deaths in the state have increased 67 percent, from 259 in 2000 to 432 in 2004, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics.
Records, though, also show motorcycle registrations have increased 87 percent in Florida since Bush signed the helmet law repeal on July 1, 2000.
The debate over motorcycle helmet safety resurfaced last week when Pittsburgh Steelers football quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, an advocate of helmet-free riding, broke his jaw, nose and several teeth in an accident. He underwent seven hours of surgery.
Physicians and insurance companies say helmets are crucial safety gear.
*Sigh!* Where should I begin? Well, this sublime piece of journalism starts off by quoting an increase in “unhelmeted deaths.” You don’t even have to look at the numbers to know that this is a meaningless figure to use in an argument. No more helmet laws = more people riding without helmets = more people dying “unhelmeted.” Duh! If laws suddenly changed so as to effectively encourage people not to wear shoes, then of course, of all the deaths that occur in a given period, you are obviously going to see a higher percentage of those deaths by barefoot people! Oh and by the way, 2 + 2 does actually equal 4.
The only figure with any meaning when discussing helmets and traffic safety is the total number of deaths, which the article does state increased 67%. However, in the very next line the article itself states that motorcycle registrations increased 87% during nearly the same period! i.e., the rise in motorcyclist deaths is trailing the rise in the total number of motorcycles on the road by a substantial amount, 20 percentage points, to be exact. This is where the article really shoots itself in the foot, because what do these findings tell you?: that the proportion of motorcyclist traffic fatalities has actually gone down!
The article omits some crucial figures, like the total number of motorcycle registrations during the time given timeframe, but thanks to the world wide web, I was able to track these figures down and do some meaningful arithmetic:
According the sources I was able to locate, there were 219,486 motorcycles registered in Florida right before the repeal of the helmet law (i.e. 2000). If this increased by the 87% quoted in the article, then the figure in 2004 was approx. 410,439. Now then, taking the article’s figure of 259 deaths at the beginning of this timeline, we can calculate that total motorcyclist deaths accounted for approximately 1.2% of the motorcyclist population at that time. Four years later, we had 432 deaths (again according to the article), which, as a proportion of the 410,439 total motorcycles on the road, works out to approximately 1.0%. This is pretty simple math here folks: the percentage of motorcyclist deaths during the period cited in the article fell by 0.2 percentage points! (or approx. 17% (1 being approx. 83% of 1.2)). So much for soaring fatalities.
My advice for the authors of this article (and Foxnews.com was definitely not the only place that ran the story): Go back to school!
Now, let me make this disclaimer: I’m not an anti-helmet law fanatic. I have ridden helmetless for very brief distances in Japan as well as for hundreds of miles in Utah and Arizona (where helmetless riding is legal), and I’ve found these to be incredibly pleasurable experiences. However, I’m also a pragmatist. If you ride, for christ’s sake, wear a damn helmet, especially if you ride in the city. But if you’re on an extended length of road that’s pretty much a straightaway to the horizon with no traffic lights, no intersections, no pedestrians, no kids liable to dart into the road, and hardly any other traffic for that matter, and assuming it’s a sunny day (Hokkaido’s Ororon Line comes to mind): Go ahead! Liberate yourself from that shelled constraint! Feel the wind in you hair! Let loose!
That’s what I say anyway.
When it comes down to the argument, I’m all for the “my helmet, my choice” lobby. I don’t buy the argument that non-motorcyclist taxpayers shouldn’t have to carry the burden that “irresponsible” helmetless riders place on the healthcare system. This is bullshit for many reasons already covered by Big Ben. But the list just goes on and on and gets increasingly ridiculous. Obese people represent a burden on the healthcare system. So do smokers, so do junk food addicts, so do couch potatoes. How come no-one complains about footing the bill for them when they’re hospitalized for nobody’s fault but their own?
Yep, “let those who ride decide,” but let’s exercise some common sense in making that decision, right? And if you’re going to chime in on the argument―as whoever wrote the article I’ve just been critiquing did―get your facts and figures straight!