Helmets and stuff…

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 Jeb Bush repealed the state’s mandatory helmet law, a newspaper reported Sunday.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!

The Stinger

8 thoughts on “Helmets and stuff…”

  1. Another interesting thing about the article is the timing. Notice that these are the 2004 stats? I remember arguing about these stats on another blog last summer when the report came out. The only reason they’re bringing it up again is that the high profile Big Ben accident gives the government-knows-best control freaks more ammo to use for helmet laws. Not that I expect any better from Fox News.

  2. Pingback: Riding Sun
  3. Stinger,

    I responded to your critique on Riding Sun, though I probably should have come back to the original source. I won’t repeat myself here.

    I will comment on your “burden to the system” argument. This is a current topic in Michigan because the legislature recently passed (and the governor is threatneing to veto) a partial repeal of Michigan’s helmet law. Michgan has no-fault insurance. If you are involved in a motor vehicle accident, your insurance pays your medical bills without regard to which driver was at fault. But that is not true for motorcyclists. If a bike is involved, then the biker’s medical bills are paid by the insurer of any car or truck involved. Under any other rule the insurance premiums for motorcycles would have been through the roof. So bikers are subsidized by non-motorcyclists.

    In addition, Michigan no-fault provides unlimited lifetime medical for injuries related to motor vehicle accidents. With head injuries those can be costs in the hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. The insurance companies actually only pay the first $250,000 of those expenses. Above that limit they get reimbursed by the state of Michigan through a fund paid by all motorists as a supplement to their car insurance. So motorcyclists in Michigan who “choose” to exercise their freedom do so with a major subsidy by those who don’t.

  4. Tag,
    Please read this post. I think it solidly refutes your point about the healthcare burden. Every choice people make puts a burden on everyone else. Unless you’re going to make it illegal to get fat or to play contact sports, this argument doesn’t wash.

  5. Well, it looks like GB and Big Ben pretty much took the words right out of my mouth. My original point is it’s ridiculous to quote statistics when arguing about helmet usage and traffic safety unless the figures are for total deaths. Helmetless deaths in this case increased because there are more helmetless riders, not because the fatality rate increased. In fact it decreased as I have shown.

    I must admit that it does seem like there is a disproportionate amount of burden placed on automobile drivers in the case of collision with a motorcyclist in Michigan, but it seems to me like this is a case of the need for reform of Michigan’s insurance industry rather than a question of burden on the healthcare system.

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