What seatbelt usage can teach us about motorcycle safety, Pt. II

After four decades of “Buckle up for safety,” it may surprise you to discover seatbelts aren’t much more effective than a DOT-certified helmet. According to traffic safety expert Leonard Evans who spent years doing research for General Motors, “While theoretical considerations show that the effectiveness of occupant protection devices declines from 100% at very low crash severity to 0% at high severity….” the real effectiveness rate “averaged over all crashes, safety belts reduce driver fatality risk by (42 +/- 4).” [i]

However, people may believe that seat belts are more effective than they are—while they know that since fatalities still occur, they estimate seat belt effectiveness are about 80 percent effective in preventing fatalities—or about twice effective as they really are. But that’s not the story you’ll hear about seat belts nowadays. In fact, seat belts—when mentioned at all—are presented as highly effective.

In comparison, NHTSA estimates the effectiveness of helmets at preventing fatalities at 37 percent. Iow, not so far off from the effectiveness of seat belts. And riders can assume helmets, too, are much more effective than they are.

Whether it’s 42 percent for seat belts or 37 percent for helmets, those are significant benefits—though not nearly as effective as those who use them believe they are. The truth is—neither seat belts nor helmets live up to the expectations of either those who wear them nor those who espouse their benefits:

From 1990-2007, motorcycle registration increased over 67 percent and helmet use remained the same (63 percent).[ii] And, as we’ve examined in the past, roughly the same percent of fatalities were helmeted and unhelmeted with more being helmeted.  During these years, injuries increased 28 percent and fatalities increased 88.5 percent. Otoh, motorcycle crashes only increased by 17 percent—iow, riding a motorcycle became significantly more lethal even though helmet use remained the same.

In comparison, total passenger vehicle registrations increased a miniscule 3.17 percent and seat belt use increased 41.3% (from 58 percent to 82 percent) but fatalities had only decreased by a tiny 6.3 percent and injuries by 22 percent.

Iow, injuries decreased by almost half of what could be expected considering the increase in seat belt use while fatalities hardly decreased at all in comparison. As a  study in Maryland[iii] found that  “Belts appear more effective at preventing fatalities than at preventing injuries.” Furthermore, as those 17 years progressed, more cars on the road had driver air bags and ABS brakes and the passenger airbags, better crush zones, safety-designed bumper heights and then side window air bags.

Despite all this, total vehicle crashes decreased by only 6.9 percent—which is just about as much as fatalities decreased.

Iow, while there were extensive and drastic changes to automobiles and an enormous increase in seat belt use that made crashing safer, crashing itself didn’t significantly decrease.

As we’ve discovered over the past months, the number of trained, licensed, sober and helmeted motorcyclists has significantly increased over the same period of time that fatalities zoomed up.

Both riding and driving, then, should be safer than they are—and yet aren’t. So what’s going on?

Some researchers say at least part of it is that drivers are no different than parents with lighters and medicine bottles or who allow their kids to bicycle or in-line skate, or kids on an obstacle course or young adult in-line skaters, bicyclists—and those who drive by bicyclists—soccer players and trained boaters. [iv] Stay tuned…

[i] Evans L., Safety-belt effectiveness: the influence of crash severity and selective recruitment. Accid Anal Prev.  1996 Jul;28(4):423-33. In fact, air bags alone are only 13 percent effective in preventing fatalities and airbags plus lap-shoulder belts are only 50 percent effective. Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal. TranSafety, Inc..September 2, 1997.  http://www.usroads.com/journals/p/rilj/9709/ri970902.htm

[ii] Bureau of Transportation Statistics Tables 1-11, 1-16, 2-17, 2-22 and 2-30 Transportation System and Traffic Safety Data http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics

[iii] Loeb, Peter D. The effectiveness of seat belt legislation in reducing driver-involved injury rates in Maryland. Transportation Research Part E 37 (2001) 297-310.

[iv] For this section see: Morrongiello, B.A., 1997. Children’s perspectives on injury and close-call experiences:sex differences in injury-outcome processes. Journal of Pediatrics. Psychol. 22. 499–512. Morrongiello, B.A., Major, K., 2002. Influence of safety gear on parental perceptions of injury risk and tolerance or children’s risk taking. Injury Prevent. 8, 27–31. Morrongiello, B.A., Rennie, H., 1998. Why do boys engage in more risk taking than girls? The role of attributions, beliefs, and risk appraisals. J. Pediatr. Psychol. 23, 33–43.Viscusi,W., 1984. The lulling effect: the impact of child-resistant packaging on aspirin and analgesic ingestions. Am. Econ. Rev. 74, 324–327. Viscusi, W., 1985. Consumer behavior and the safety effects of product safety regulation. J. Law Econ. 28, 527–553. Viscusi, W., Cavallo, G., 1996. Safety behavior and consumer responses to cigarette lighter safety mechanisms. Managerial Dec. Econ. 17, 441–457. Braun, C., Fouts, J., 1998. Behavioral response to the presence of personal

protective equipment. Hum. Factors Ergon. Soc. 2, 1058–1063. Walker, Ian. Drivers overtaking bicyclists: Objective data on the effects of riding position, helmet use, vehicle type and apparent gender. Accident Analysis & Prevention. McCarthy, Patrick and Wayne K. Talley. Evidence on risk compensation and safety behaviour. Economics Letters 62 (1999) 91–96. Derochea, Thomas and Yannick Stephanb, Carole Castaniera, BrittonW. Brewerc, Christine Le Scanff. Social cognitive determinants of the intention to wear safety gear among adult in-line skaters. Accident Analysis and Prevention 41 (2009) 1064–1069.

Volume 39, Issue 2, March 2007, Pages 417-425.

Explore posts in the same categories: Culture, History, Legislation, Motorcycle crashes, Motorcycle fatalities, Motorcycle helmet use, Motorcycle injuries, Motorcycle Safety

11 Comments on “What seatbelt usage can teach us about motorcycle safety, Pt. II”

  1. irondad Says:

    What was it Harry Hurt said? There is no magic bullet other than being smart.

    Seat belts and helmets should be a part of an overall strategy of driving and riding safely. I think a lot of people miss the “being smart” part of the strategy.

    Think how much different the picture would be if everyone who operated a vehicle did so intelligently.

  2. CaptCrash Says:

    Seatbelts protect you from getting ejected from a vehicle. They keep you from rag-dolling around inside a vehicle. BUT they don’t protect you from a sudden loss of headroom in a car…or from the case of Spitz Lite that’s lauched from the backseat.

    A helmet protects you from impact with the ground…or grinding your scalp off on the pavement. A helmet won’t protect you from internal injury due to impact. A helmet won’t keep your neck from snapping once you’re a projectile.

    As always–there’s no silver bullet–nothing we can apply and fix ALL problems (see Amercian Polictical Culture for analogies). Seatbelts and helmets DON’T save you in every situation yet we often hold them up like talismans and shake them at the darkness.

    Bottomline? I wear both. Why? ‘Cause a 40% reduction is a 40% reduction.

  3. Dave B Says:

    You and Ken Cordon mention a key phrase – “make crashing safer”. This seems to be the mentallity with most safety experts in America.

    I also teach DDC for the National Safety Council and I was involved with a friend who help to pilot the new DARE course that came out a few years ago. The results are the same for both programs – doesn’t help much. Kids still use drugs & alcohol and drivers don’t change their driving behavior. The only drivers I’ve seen change their driving behavior are the ones who were involved in a severe accident and almost got killed. That memory (or fear) was the motivation to change.

    I think it’s all about how much we fear the consequences of our actions. Some people feel stealing is wrong. Some people feel it’s justified in certain situations. Many will steal if they think they won’t get caught.

    I also think testosterone has something to do with it. Every once in a while, we all get that “need for speed” feeling, that adrenaline rush. Some get it more often than others.

    I heard one researcher say the people with the constant adrenaline rushes have more sugar in the brain. Maybe Gov. Paterson in NY has a good idea – tax sugary drinks.

    What’s the accident rate for motorcyclists on Vulcan?

  4. wmoon Says:

    Dave, “Safer crashing” was the policy adopted by the safety expert community when it came to driving back in the 70s. And that’s the way it’s gone since then–safer cars and more safety devices–and, in part, precisely because experts anticipated what you go on to mention–that driver’s behavior doesn’t change with more training. Unless, as you point out, there’s a severe enough fright to motivate them. MSF, however, went the opposite way–even though it knew that training itself wasn’t effective–on a plethora a new continuing ed courses and talked the federal government into paying OUR money into testing whether it’s effective by the so-called Discovery Project. That, btw, has been extended by a year because, as I’ve been told, the results within the time were discouraging from MSF’s pov.

    Maybe you’re on to something with the testosterone since men–regardless of form of transportation–have more crashes than women (accounting for differences in gender involvement). But only if it affects a man’s risk assessment and perception as that’s the key difference between men and women on the road.

    I hadn’t heard that about sugar on the brain–if that was true, then wouldn’t we see that in children? And, sorry, I not only don’t know the rider crash rate on Vulcan but the rate of crashes on Vulcans. ; )

  5. wmoon Says:

    CaptCrash–you are right, there are no magic bullets. And I agree and that’s what I base my actions on. I never think whether about the law when I buckle up or put a helmet on. I think about that 40% edge it gives me if all else goes wrong.

  6. Young Dai Says:


    How about this

    For my proper job I am moving into the murky world on objective and subjective risk.

    If the car has become comparatively less dangerous to crash in non-fatal accidents, as well as all those ER TV shows where you almost die then recover all within 45 minutes, then would car drivers drive to their subjective risk rather than the objective one? That is to say 15 mph over the limit and looking about 10 feet ahead.

    So would the M/C view of ride risk be impacted by the drivers preception, our risk model is lower than it should be because the other vehicles in the system have a grossly understated view of risk ?

    Apart from the general training issue, and no -one will ever admit to themselves they are a bad driver/rider or in need of re-skilling ?

  7. wmoon Says:

    Young Dai, you anticipate the next entry!

  8. Young Dai Says:


    I’ve trumped my partner’s ace.

  9. wmoon Says:

    Young Dai, or you could look at it as if you gave a teaser–a movie trailer so to speak.

  10. hi wat is ur facebook name

  11. wmoon Says:

    No point–I don’t go on Facebook and Twitter anymore–one crazy stalker was enough to convince me I had MUCH better things to do than give her more chances to harass me.

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