The strange case of Louisiana and helmet-no-helmet-helmet…

We return now to helmets since they are, beyond a doubt, the most often touted measure to increase motorcycle safety. In the next two entries, we will examine one state’s data over the same ten-year period we looked at in terms of crashing. What we will find illustrates many of the problems with motorcycle safety:

Louisiana is a unique case when it comes to motorcycle safety: Like almost all other states, a universal helmet law was passed in the 1960s (1968, to be exact) and then  modified it in 1976 to only apply to those under 18. Then legislators passed a universal helmet law again in 1982. Seventeen years later, the law was modified once again to require only those under 18 or those without coverage of at least $10,000 in medical insurance to wear a helmet and was in effect in August of 1999. Five years later, in 2004, the universal helmet law was reinstated.

During the same time frame that we examined crashes in terms of three kinds of crashes (fatalities, injuries and property-only crashes), then, Louisiana didn’t have a universal helmet law and then did have one. It is, then, a good state to see the effects of helmet and non-helmet use and the effect of a helmet law in terms of fatalities and injuries.  In this entry we look only at fatalities.

Louisiana in comparison to national picture

As in the rest of the USA, motorcycle fatalities increased from 40 in 1998 to 87 in  2006 or 117.5 percent. In 2008 fatalities were 77 or 92.5 percent and then to 92 in 2009. Overall, then Louisiana’s fatality toll rose 130 percent in eleven years. This is over the national percentage over the same time span.

As in the rest of the USA, motorcycle registrations were increasing in Louisiana during these years—though there are no publicly reliable statistics to document the increase—not even for NHTSA.[i] While the researchers who prepared the report on the effect of the helmet law repeal dismissed the importance of increasing registrations on crash rates, others would strongly disagree.  As we’ve seen in other states we’ve examined, registrations did not increase unilaterally in every state nor from year to year. The missing data, then, leaves a huge gap—if motorcycle safety is a puzzle, then this is information we need to solve it.

Observed helmet use over the ten years

In the years when the universal helmet law was in effect, between 87-100 percent of riders wore them. In the years without mandated helmet use, usage dropped immediately to 52 percent then rose to about 60 percent, dropped to 48 percent rose again to about 60 percent and stayed there until the universal helmet law was reinstated when observed helmet use appears to be 98-99%.

Unsurprisingly, when helmet use dropped unhelmeted fatalities went up[ii] and helmeted fatalities went down. And, unsurprisingly, when the mandate was reinstated, helmeted fatalities went up.[iii]

Studies were done, papers and reports were written to document the effect of the helmet law repeal—and then the reinstatement. Including NHTSA who released a report, “Evaluation of the Reinstatement of the Motorcycle Helmet Law in Louisiana”.

And the stats were astonishing—unhelmeted fatalities increased by 40% the first year and 42% the second year after the repeal and dropped 64% the year after the universal helmet law was repealed. It seems to prove the case—and is religiously held by helmet proponents: helmets save lives.

And, as helmet-proponents would expect, helmeted fatalities were under-represented compared to observed helmet-use:

And unhelmeted injuries were over-represented to non-use:

The helmet story seems to be justified.

However, if we look without preconceptions more closely at the actual numbers, that’s not the full story—and by not telling the full story, motorcycle safety researchers have not served riders well. The data in the following chart Data taken from the Louisiana State University Traffic Safety Research Group traffic safety data reports.

UnHelmet Fatalities Year-to-Year ChangeUnH Estimated Non-Helmet Use Total F Fatality Increase from prior year Observed Helmet Use Year-to-Year Change HEL Helmet Fatalities
1999 15 3% 40 14.2% 97% 25
2000 21 40% 48% 50 25% 52% 16% 29
2001 36 42% 41% 53 6% 59% -41% 17
2002 41 14% 58% 58 9.4% 42% 0% 17
2003 55 34% 40% 77 32.7% 60% 29% 22
2004 36 -34% 40% 68 -11.6% 60% 45% 32
2005 13 -64% 2% 70 -2.9% 98% 78% 57
2006 8 -38% 2% 87 24.2% 98% 38% 79
2007 14 43% 73 -16% -25% 59
2008 19 36% 77 5.4% -1.7% 58
2008 15 -21% 91 18.1% 31% 76
Totals 258 653 395

The NHTSA report doesn’t note that once the law was reinstated,

helmeted fatalities went up 45% then 78% then 38%. Iow, equally scary percentages are found on both sides of the Louisiana Experiment.

In fact, in 2004—the year of reinstatement—unhelmeted fatalities dropped 23—but helmeted fatalities rose 25. It’s almost as if it was simply a trade-off: unhelmeted deaths became helmeted deaths. This is the first indication that even though helmets save lives, their absence doesn’t drive the increase in motorcycle deaths.

While it is true that unhelmeted fatalities increased every year, however helmeted fatalities also increased 8 out of the 10 years—and that included two years when helmet use was depressed. This is the second indication that helmet use is disconnected from the rise or fall of fatalities in essential ways.

Ultimately this is the scariest thing of all: During these years, Louisiana’s motorcyclist death toll soared and helmeted fatalities tripled while unhelmeted fatalities in 2008 returned to exactly what they were in 1999.

The large point is this: the issue isn’t helmet effectiveness. Focusing merely on helmet use or encouraging riders to wear them simply doesn’t address why those fatal crashes are occurring more and more often. In this way, the increases on the helmeted side of the equation are more troubling since the additional protection helmets offer were insufficient in preventing deadly injuries.  We’ll return to this point in the next entry.

In reality, small numbers

But the focus on helmet use disguises something that is also essential to really understanding what’s happening with riders: small numbers make for big—but misleading—percentages on both sides of the equation. And in Louisiana, the numbers are sometimes very small:

2000: Helmet use was 52%. Fatalities increased by 10 riders.

Unhelmeted fatalities up by 6.

Helmeted fatalities up by 4.

2001:Helmet use: 59%. Death toll increased by 3.

Unhelmeted fatalities went up by 15.

Helmeted fatalities down by 12.

2002: Helmet use: 42% fatalities. Fatalities up by 5.

Increase was solely accounted for by unhelmeted deaths.

2003: Helmet use 60%. Fatalities up by 19.

Unhelmeted fatalities up by 14.

Helmeted fatalities up by 5.

2004: Helmet law use 60%. Fatalities down by 9.

Unhelmeted fatalities down by 19.

Helmeted fatalities up by 10.

2005: Helmet use was 98%.[iv] Death toll increased by 2.

Unhelmeted fatalities down by 23.

Helmeted fatalities up by 25.

2006: Helmet use 98%. Fatalities increased by 17.

Unhelmeted fatalities down by 5

Helmeted fatalities up by 22.

2007: Estimated helmet use 98%. Fatalities decreased by 14

Unhelmeted fatalities up by 6.

Helmeted fatalities down by 20.

2008: Estimated helmet use 98%. Fatalities increased by 4.

Unhelmeted fatalities down by 5.

Helmeted fatalities up by 18.

Small numbers yield large percentages—but skew the interpretation

There’s several things to observe: If  fatalities can legitimately be expected as a function of the numbers, some kind of increase could be—and maybe should be—expected because motorcycle registrations were increasing. But even as the pool of motorcyclists was growing fatalities increased by 5 or less in four of the ten years.

And 5 or less are surely small numbers—and yet they can loom large and appear to be more important than they perhaps are. For example, a decrease of unhelmeted 5 deaths in 2005—the year after the helmet law reinstatement—resulted in a decrease of 38% and an increase in 5 helmeted deaths results in a 29% increase. Using percentages to make a point without including the numbers can lead to inaccurate analysis and, in this case, exaggerate the supposed effect of the reinstatement when the reality is that people who might have died without helmets died with them on.

A pattern of wild fluctuations

Louisiana’s pattern is one of wild fluctuations where fatalities creep up or down by 5 or less or soar by 22 one year and plunge the next by 20 then rise to 18. This pattern of dramatic year-to-year shifts is not seen in states with large numbers of fatalities where they produce smaller percentages of increase.

Such wild swings raise the possibility that crashes have much more to do with random factors or at least factors that are not considered and therefore not accounted for than any crash causation study to date has considered.

While Louisiana’s motorcycle registrations are shrouded in mystery for some inexplicable reason, the state does provide data on injuries as well as fatalities—and that’s where we follow the helmet story next.


[i] Observed helmet use statistics interpreted from Evaluation of the Reinstatement of the Motorcycle Helmet Law in Louisiana, NHTSA, Number 346 May 2008.

[ii] The helmet law was repealed in August. The death toll went up by 5 but we don’t know if they were helmeted or not.

[iii] Evaluation of the Reinstatement of the Motorcycle Helmet Law in Louisiana.

[iv] Ibid.  According to NHTSA and quoted in other studies.

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28 Comments on “The strange case of Louisiana and helmet-no-helmet-helmet…”

  1. Warren Woodward Says:

    Good points all except it also needs to be pointed out that not all deaths are head injuries. In other words, whether or not someone was wearing a helmet at time of death is about as meaningful as whether or not they were wearing a wristwatch.

    Even when cause of death is listed, doctors can list just one cause which can then be misleading if death was caused by multiple factors. For example, head trauma may listed for someone whose head is cracked while at the same time their gaping chest wound goes unmentioned.

    Despite the absurd claims of NHTSA, NTSB, Hurt, et al, it is a fact that helmets can cause neck snaps and basal skull fractures in some situations. Because of that, helmet use must be an individual decision regardless of any statistical analysis.

  2. Randy Oswald Says:

    I have been following this series with interest, and I appreciate the work you have done to compile a rather impressive set of figures.

    I have had one recurring thought while reading the series. That is, one variable seems to be missing – does helmet type figure into the overall picture in any way?

    The (limited) statistical data I have seen indicates that helmet type is in fact important, so much so that one might conclude a half-helmet, while fulfilling legal requirements for helmet use, does little else.

    Anecdotal evidence suggests that when bare-headed riders are forced to helmet-up they more frequently than not opt for the most minimal option that keeps them legal.

    It would be interesting, but I suspect impossible, to correlate the injury and fatality data with helmet-type. I might be the missing link, or utterly irrelevant…

    Please note that I do not advocate one choice over another, I am just curious. I respect every rider’s right to choose for themselves.

  3. wmoon Says:

    Warren–small world category–as I was working on the next entry about the injuries, I had just typed that very thing–as I’ve said in other entries, head injuries are only one of the three leading causes of ALL road traffic deaths, not just motorcyclists. However, I don’t agree with your next statement as head injuries ARE a leading cause of death and there are many head/brain injuries that are prevented or minimized by helmets.

    Your next point is true as far as it goes. The most serious injury will be listed as the cause of death–the one that would’ve killed ’em had there not been other wounds. The other wounds would be listed in the medical report. There simply isn’t evidence of a conspiracy to blame it on head wounds–and thus helmets. Particularly since helmeted injuries are so very high, it would be counterproductive. At any rate, the exact same thing happens with passenger vehicle occupants, bicyclists and pedestrians and the very rare bus and large truck deaths–head injury will be listed even if they have chest trauma. And, in many cases where the road user lingers for up to 30 days (that’s the limit for the death to be associated with the crash), the cause that’s actually listed is heart attack or pneumonia or something else that the body got afterwards but couldn’t fight off because of the injuries suffered in the crash. I doubt that there’s a national medical conspiracy to attribute rider’s deaths to head injuries rather than other ones–particularly when the same causes are listed as driver/passenger, etc. deaths.

    Warren, I support the “helmet should be a choice”, but I have read the studies about neck injuries and helmets, but the times that a helmet “causes” a neck to snap are extremely few–and when they occur, the impact on the head from an outside force was so severe that it will almost inevitably cause death already. And you’re “dead” wrong on helmets causing basilar fractures. I’m not sure you understand the injury mechanism but it’s not from the helmet itself: a force hits the outside of the skull so hard that the energy is dispersed throughout the skull and ultimately causes a fracture. A basilar fracture is the result of the migration of the skull fracture to the base of the skull. The only way a helmet could cause that is if it had been shot out of a cannon and hit you in the head. Rather, the helmet lining absorbs some of the energy at the point of the hit so that it’s not transferred to the skull and migrates to the base of the skull. While the majority of basilar fractures are caused by road user crashes, they are still only 4% (and that’s including ALL road users) of head injuries. And a basilar fracture doesn’t mean there’s spinal injury and it certainly isn’t a certain death sentence.

    If you don’t want to wear a helmet (and it’s legal in your state), knock yourself out (play on words intentional). But when the reasoning for NOT wearing a helmet is based on a misunderstanding of how injuries are caused and what causes them, it weakens your case, imho.

  4. wmoon Says:

    Randy, helmet-type is important. For example, studies find that more than 40% of impacts to the head are on the chin–David Hough’s wonderful Proficient Motorcycling has a terrific diagram of where most impacts hit the head. And you have to remember that it’s very common that the typical crash involves more than one impact–the head or helmet may be hit two or three or even more (each successive impact would be less “hard”). A DOT-compliant half-shell helmet does a great deal–as long as the rider doesn’t impact his/her chin first.

    Warren just brought up basilar fractures–which are very often caused by injury to the chin (and in more than traffic crashes, btw)–if the blow was to the chin, a half-shell would do no better than being unhelmeted while the helmeted rider might be unhurt or have a headache. But basilar fractures are extremely rare–and even more rare as fatal fractures.

    It would be possible in many cases to correlate injury and helmet-type. The problem is that police mark whether there was a helmet used or not but not what kind of helmet–and sometimes not whether it was DOT-compliant. But police won’t say a helmet was used if it was not still attached to the head–so if it flew off because of the force of the injury or was removed by a bystander, it’s marked as no helmet or unknown. So these kind of things murk-i-fy–how do you like that word ; )–the issue.

    The problem is that helmets can only prevent or reduce some kinds of traumatic brain injuries–some of the worst (coup contra coup, diffuse axonal, hemotomas, lacerations caused by the brain scraping the inside of the skull) are not able to be prevented or reduced because the helmet simply cannot absorb the enormous energy and delta of the impact. In those cases, a helmeted rider might live but be disabled while the unhelmeted rider dies.

    Anecdotal evidence is of limited value and a great deal depends on the subculture–the half-shell, for example, is extremely rare in the sportbike crowd while common in the cruiser crowd. Erving Goffman’s work (among others) has a lot to offer those who would convince others to ride ATGATT. Otoh, many of the hell-no-no-helmet riders I know have a full-face that they wear when it’s cold, or rainy or they’ll be traveling through helmet law states–but damned if they’ll let their friends see them in it!

    I, too, respect a rider’s right to choose–and I choose to ride with a helmet. Then again, I tend to cover up all the parts of me I want to keep. : ) The point is–the helmet story we’re told doesn’t hold up in essential respects and if we don’t get the whole truth how can we figure out what’s really going wrong and save our lives?

  5. Warren Woodward Says:

    I did not say there is a medical “conspiracy” to list a particular cause of death when there are multiple choices, only that head injury can be picked when the person would have died from something else anyway; this despite your assertion that the “most serious injury will be listed as the cause of death”. My dad died from emphysema but heart failure was listed as his cause of death. Writ large, what does that do to stats? Garbage in; garbage out.

    You wrote: “…the times that a helmet “causes” a neck to snap are extremely few….” It does not matter how rare an occurrence it is if you are the one it happens to! The fact that it happens at all from a piece of so-called “safety equipment” should be cause for alarm and is grounds for voluntary use.

    You wrote: “…when they [neck snaps] occur, the impact on the head from an outside force was so severe that it will almost inevitably cause death already.” This is not always true. Shannon Laughy had a 24 mph crash in which her head hit nothing yet she is now in a wheelchair because her helmet caused her neck to snap. See addendum #1 – Testimony of Shannon Laughy in Helmet Law Facts here: http://www.sbumaui.org/helmet_law_facts.pdf

    As for the basal skull fractures, helmets do cause them. Look into the deaths of Dale Earnhardt and other car racers before him. Those same dynamics that killed them can play out on riders. Admittedly, such occurrences are probably rare. But they are going to be really rare if people and institutions doing research never look for them and remain in denial.

  6. wmoon Says:

    Helmets don’t cause basilar fractures, they simply don’t. They aren’t exerting force on the skull–they are mitigating the force on the skull.

    I can understand why your friend blames the helmet–though I would like to hear a doctor and, particularly, a kinesiologist explaining the crash in terms of forces and angles and so forth. Nor is it clear what injuries would’ve occurred or not occurred had she not been wearing a helmet–for example, while she mentions that the helmet weighed 4 lbs (iirc), her head weighed between 7 lbs 11.45 oz and 13 lbs. 7.17 oz.—and the weight of her head–which was moving at the same speed as the helmet–may have been enough to break her neck had she not been wearing a helmet. Nor is it clear that if her head was bent enough for the helmet to dig in, so to speak, into her neck with enough force to break her neck that her head, without a helmet could have twisted that far simply by the forces and kinetics of the crash.
    Surely neither you or her would claim that her head inside the helmet was doing something other than the helmet was.

    I never said that basilar fractures don’t cause deaths, but Earnhardt’s death was not caused by a helmet–in fact, had he been wearing a full-face instead of an open-faced helmet he might still be alive today as the chin bar would’ve dissipated the energies rather than his chin–which directs it to the base of the skull.

    I’m not even going to ask you why you think that researchers don’t look for basilar fractures–there’s been a lot of research done on them. Including a brilliant paper by Harry Hurt. Have you read that? Harry gave me a copy himself and we had a very good and long talk about it one day. I suggest you read it and then we’ll talk.

    I understand that you want to believe what you want to believe but it’s like you’re arguing we shouldn’t live in houses because sometimes the roof collapses and crushes the inhabitants. In fact, there’s probably far more roofs collapsing than the kind of extremely rare incidents like your friend happening.
    W.

  7. Warren Woodward Says:

    Your analogy with a house roof is specious. A better one would be all the hype and brainwashing we are subjected to about the glories of seat belts when seat belts cause death as well as helmets and help only some of the time.

    Of course helmets cause basal skull fracture. That’s the whole point behind NASCAR & Formula 1 now requiring helmet restraint devices. Earnhardt (and other car racers) died from basal skull fracture caused by his helmet not being restrained.

    Hurt discredited himself by denying that helmets can break necks.

    Helmets can break necks. Period.

    The New York Department of Motor Vehicles did a study in 1969 comparing accident data from the years 1966 and 1967 in order to detect the effects of that state’s mandatory helmet law, which became effective Jan. 1, 1967. They found that while head injuries decreased after the helmet law, neck injuries increased.

    Here are their findings:

    In 1966 75.4% died from head injuries while 5.8% died from neck injuries.

    In 1967, after the mandatory helmet law, 45.9% died from head injuries while 37.8% died from neck injuries.

  8. gymnast Says:

    Wendy,
    Excellent essay and analysis,
    as per usual. Your outstanding examples and explanations illustrate the simple as well as the complex problems common to interpretation of data when rare events and small numbers are involved. As pointed out above, that the data does not allow for controlling for helmet type in the collection of the administrative statistics relating to injury and fatal motorcycle crashes, is of considerable significance in my opinion. One can only hope that the Oklahoma State-NHTSA study, if carried out to completion, account for variables related to helmet type.

    As always, I look forward to your next entry, analysis, critique, review and comment.

  9. wmoon Says:

    Warren, you are free to make up your own mind, but not free to make up your own facts. I, too, hate people telling me what to do, hate mandatory anything. I see many weaknesses in the helmet argument–but we are worlds apart on the neck injury thing. You are taking a position that even a tiny number of helmet-involved injuries/fatalities would be enough to reject helmets and that kind of thinking is very distant from my own.

    The NY DMV study you refer to, “An Evaluation of Motor Vehicle Accidents Involving Motorcycles – Severity, Characteristics, Effects of Safety Regulation, Research Report No. 1969-12,” only examined two years and a total of 56 fatalities in one year and 31 the next. The major problem with this study is the same as we see in Louisiana–small numbers produce big–but misleading–percentages. The study is fatally flawed–and yet the point has been taken very seriously and examined over and over.

    You are very misinformed that neck injuries have not been studied–there’s a great many of them over the 41 years since the one you referred to. Study after study examining thousands of cases (one that comes to mind looked at over 25,000) did not find that neck injuries were associated with helmets–however many found that unhelmeted riders have worse head trauma and more neck injuries. Even so, neck injuries (in the absence of severe-critical head injuries is uncommon.

    Helmet studies–as most motorcycle studies–are flawed-I think we can agree on that. I can see a case for repealing helmet laws but not on the neck injury thing–it just isn’t credible–but I have a feeling that no matter if there was absolutely flawless research is, no amount of facts or evidence will convince you that anything good can come from helmet wearing.

    P.S. thanks for taking exception–most of the time I’m challenged by people who think I’m too anti-helmet…you prove that I am what I say I am–a moderate and thus open season for each side of passionate believer.

  10. wmoon Says:

    Thanks, Gymnast!
    W.

  11. Warren Woodward Says:

    You wrote: “…I have a feeling that no matter if there was absolutely flawless research is, no amount of facts or evidence will convince you that anything good can come from helmet wearing.”

    Please do not assume. I will admit that helmets can help in some situations. The problem I have is that many people will not concede the converse, that they can also kill, which they can.

    As for “flawless research”, from what I have seen, not just with MC studies but with any studies about anything, “flawless research” is a rare commodity indeed.

    While the number of fatalities in the N.Y. study are small as you point out, as I said previously, “It does not matter how rare an occurrence it is if you are the one it happens to!”

    The converse of the safety nannies’s mantra of “and if just one life is saved it’s worth it” is “and if just one life is taken it is not worth it”.

  12. wmoon Says:

    Warren, hey–I hear you on that–I absolutely hate it when I KNOW that I have part of the truth and someone denies all of what I’m saying–that drives me nuts. I also–as I’ve said over and over in the blog–agree that most motorcycle safety research is bedeviled by flaws–and many of them because riders are not involved to prevent them from making stupid assumptions or leaving out critical factors, etc.

    What I meant about the small numbers in the NY study, nothing can really be determined from two years and a such a small number. True, it sucks to be the ones hurt–but the study was incredibly flawed in many other ways. For example, it automatically assumed it was the helmets’ fault when the very mechanism we experience in ejection makes neck injuries more likely in frontal collisions. And the power-to-weight ratio (rather than cc.) speed–or rather the delta–the kind of bike and what we hit and all kinds of things can and do change the trajectory off the bike–and then there’s the kinetics and what our body hits. To say it’s just the helmet’s fault as that study did betrays an appalling ignorance of motorcycle crashes.

    That you take the converse of the safety nazi’s mantra does not seem to serve the greater good that I am dedicated to: to make riding safe for the most riders possible.
    W.

  13. DataDan Says:

    I’m not sure what to make of the assertion in the NHTSA report that “reliable” Louisiana registration counts aren’t available. I have 15 years worth, collected from Federal Highway Administration MV-1 tables. No footnotes or other disclaimers about LA appear. I looked over the data for signs of bogosity, and nothing stuck out. No wild gyrations, no even-thousands, no constant percentage of total vehicle regs, no suspicious straight-line trends, and regs/population is similar to nearby states. (The one state I know of with bad registration data is Colorado, which went haywire from 2001-2004. The impact on US motorcycle fatality rates of those errors is not insignificant.)

  14. vstromer Says:

    Regarding Dale Earnhardt’s death. One thing we can agree on, right? If he hadn’t been wearing a helmet he would have died anyway of head trauma. The helmet didn’t cause his death. It also didn’t save his life.

    I found an article. Here is a link:

    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2001/08/21/sports/main307408.shtml

    Briefly, according to one of the lead investigators of the crash, the basal skull fracture was caused by a blow to the BACK of his head, not his chin striking the steering wheel (which I had assumed and) which was reported immediately after the race. If you are interested, then read the article. However, it is interesting that Earnhardt was one of the last NASCAR drivers to use a 3/4 helmet. Now all NASCAR drivers use full-face helmets and a HANS device.

  15. wmoon Says:

    DataDan, Perhaps I wasn’t clear–I’m referring to what the NHTSA publication, “Evaluation of the Reinstatement of the Motorcycle Helmet Law in Louisiana” says: “Reliable registration data from Louisiana was unavailable to use in the analysis.”
    http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/staticfiles/DOT/NHTSA/Communication%20&%20Consumer%20Information/Traffic%20Tech%20Publications/Associated%20Files/tt346.pdf
    W.

  16. wmoon Says:

    VStromer–well-put: the helmet didn’t take his life, but it didn’t save it either. And that’s the point of these entries, right? That we’ve been told a story about helmets that have an implied saftey promise that can’t be delivered. A classic case of over-promising and under-delivering. They are effective in some cases but not effective enough.
    W.

  17. DataDan Says:

    Wendy–Your original post led me to that document. My puzzlement is about what the report says. Did the consulting group who did the LA study not know about FHWA motorcycle registration data, or did they consider it unreliable, and if so, why?

    Here is a chart that helps to understand (or not 😉 the strange effect of the LA helmet law: http://home.att.net/~datadan/charts/larates.jpg
    The fatality rate went ballistic after helmet law repeal, but it never came down after reenactment. Huh? Maybe the skyrocketing death rate simply coincided with repeal, but wasn’t caused by it. [Regs from FHWA, deaths from FARS–all motorcycle types, all occupant deaths, not just riders or number of fatal crashes.]

  18. Warren Woodward Says:

    Unfortunately I did not save any of the articles I found about Earnhardt’s death back when I researched that about 3 or 4 years ago, so I cannot cite anything specific. I read many articles, some from or about people with axes to grind (like the seat belt manufacturer who was wrongly blamed), some from more objective sources. I was left with little doubt that it was the weight of the helmet that gave him the basal skull fracture which killed him instantly. One article I read mentioned that his face would have been a crumple zone but that he probably would have lived. The interesting thing for me was that one or two of the articles mentioned similar, previous wrecks in which the same thing happened to other drivers. One tid-bit I recall reading was that Earnhardt’s wife would not release the autopsy report. It really seemed like NASCAR and her were trying to hide something.

  19. wmoon Says:

    Warren, I suggest you read the official report on the cause of Earnhardt’s death as the actual injury mechanism is quite different–i.e., the blow that killed him was to the back of the head because his helmet had slipped forward. Had he been wearing a properly fitted and fastened full-face helmet, he would’ve lived. You really seem to make a habit of reading things that have no real substance and mostly opinion. ; )
    W.

  20. Warren Woodward Says:

    “You really seem to make a habit of reading things that have no real substance and mostly opinion. ; )”

    I love it! An insult with a smiley face to make it all OK.

    You have no idea what I read and are assuming and smug.

    “If you don’t want to wear a helmet (and it’s legal in your state), knock yourself out (play on words intentional).”

    Right. And break a leg.

  21. wmoon Says:

    Interesting graph–don’t suppose you’d like to do it with the helmeted and unhelmeted fatalities in relation to regs for me, would you? : )
    It’s totally unbelievable that they couldn’t have gotten it from either LA or FHWA very easily if they wanted to. If I was a cynical person, I would guess that a) they didn’t think of it until too late (or someone at NHTSA asked why they didn’t address it). Or, if I was really cynical, I’d guess it was because it didn’t support their bias.

    And you make a good point about the fatality rate. I’m thinking it’s a matter of coincidence that it aligned with repeal myself…

  22. wmoon Says:

    Gee, I thought a smiley face made everything ok. It doesn’t? You told me what you were reading about helmets causing injuries and Earnhardt’s death and in both cases they were very inaccurate or incomplete at best and flawed by bias sources (which even you admitted about Earnhardt’s death). Otoh, you appear to have no familiarity with solid or recent research, so I’m hardly assuming anything. Like I said–you are free to have your own opinion–but you’re not free to make up your own facts.

  23. DataDan Says:

    Here are two different ways of looking at helmeted and unhelmeted deaths. The first is as %unhelmeted compared to fatality rate: http://home.att.net/~datadan/charts/la2.jpg
    The second is as counts of helmeted and unhelmeted vs. registrations: http://home.att.net/~datadan/charts/la3.jpg
    They tell it in different ways, but it’s the same story: Reenacting the helmet law in LA had only a small effect on motorcycle deaths, but a big effect on the mix of helmeted and unhelmeted deaths.

    The helmeted/unhelmeted counts are from FARS. Email me if you’re interested in details of the query.

  24. wmoon Says:

    DataDan, I think you summed it up perfectly in “Reenacting the helmet law in LA had only a small effect on motorcycle deaths, but a big effect on the mix of helmeted and unhelmeted deaths.”

  25. Jeff Brenton Says:

    Maybe the thing to take from all of this is:

    Motorcyclists die when they are in bad crashes. Whether they were wearing a helmet or not usually only affects the check boxes used on the coroner’s report. Avoid bad crashes.

    Of course, I’m going to strive to avoid all crashes, and wear a helmet and other protective gear for those times when I can’t.

  26. CaptCrash Says:

    So, Dale Sr hits the wall going 157mph and his helmet contributes to his death.

    Therefore: Helmets kill motorcyclists.

    Yut,Uuugh?

    I would offer that for a rider hitting a wall and going 157 to zero, your helmet killing you would be the last of your worries.

    My question is this: keeping in mind Lady Di was killed in a 70g impact that tore her aorta free and she bled out, IF you strike an object at a speed fast enough to cause a basal fracture, would other injuries kill you anyway?

    AND given (to my understanding) that striking the back of the head on the pavement is the killing injury motorcyclists suffer from most (sorry Indian Larry) doesn’t it make sense to protect against the most common killer rather than worrying the cure will kill you?

  27. gymnast Says:

    DataDan. What is your best guess as to the plot of the historical death rate trend line (as per your above graphs) had that last mandatory helmet enactment not occurred?

    Sort of off topic-
    One thing that seems to have occurred historically is that when the registration death rate indicates about a 1 in 1000 ratio of fatalities to to registrations on an annual basis, there is a rise in public concern to “do something” and a corresponding decline in motorcycle deaths and registrations. this seems to be both a local as well as a national phenomenon. A sort of “ebb and flow” and perhaps more of philosophical observation than one that easily lends itself to statistical analysis.

  28. DataDan Says:

    Gymnast: My WAG would be that, absent reenactment, The LA death rate per registered motorcycle would have proceeded similarly to what actually happened. The tapering off seen in ’07-’08 is similar to AR and KY, two states that repealed (’97 and ’98) and did not reenact, and also to 7 Southern states that maintained helmet laws. So it seems to be unrelated to the helmet law.

    The real surprise regarding fatality rates and helmet law repeal is seen when the 6 repeal states are combined to reduce wild spikes in the small numbers of a single state. The rate per registered motorcycle increased, of course, but no more than the increase in the 20 states that maintained all-rider laws. In addition, Florida, a much talked-about state 5 years ago, is now back to its pre-repeal rate. And Pennsylvania exhibited no discernable change at all in its fatality rate after repeal.

    The difficult concept to get your arms around is that these two facts can BOTH be true: Helmets save lives, but helmet LAWS have little effect on fatality rates.


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