Archive for the ‘Motorcycle culture’ category

Why do we believe what we believe about motorcycle helmets?

April 21, 2010

In the last entry we saw that ordinary people in ordinary circumstances misjudge the actual ability of protective gear to reduce or prevent injury and take on more risk that uses up that safety margin. Motorcyclists are just as likely to fall prey to risk compensation as others. But how do motorcyclists—and non-riders—come to have an exaggerated belief that helmets, specifically, are more effective than they are?

Experts

Let’s first take a look at what experts say about helmets. For the sake of conciseness, I’m going to sum up and put longer quotes and links in footnotes:

NHTSA claims that “Motorcycle helmets provide the best protection from head injury for motorcyclists involved in traffic crashes.”[i]

The Michigan State Police claim that “Helmets decrease the severity of injury, the likelihood of death, and the overall cost of medical care…. Just like safety belts in cars, helmets can’t provide total protection against head injury or death, but they do reduce the incidence of both.[ii]

The American College of Emergency Physicians says  “Head injury is the leading cause of death in motorcycle crashes, and helmets provide the best protection from head injuries…”[iii]

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety—long seen as opposing motorcycling in general—says, “Motorcycle helmets have been shown to save the lives of motorcyclists and prevent serious brain injuries.”[iv]

The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) states the exact same thing in the exact same words as the Michigan State Police website so we’ll use a different part of the quote:  In the event of a crash, unhelmeted motorcyclists are three times more likely than helmeted riders to suffer traumatic brain injuries…”[v]

MSF has a .pdf flyer on helmets that states that “Helmet use is not a “cure-all” for motorcycle safety, but in a crash, a helmet can help protect your brain, your face, and your life.

“Combined with other protective gear, rider-education courses, proper licensing and public awareness, the use of helmets and protective gear is one way to reduce injury.”[vi]

MSF’s Basic RiderCourse handbook states, “Helmets work well in accomplishing their intended function to protect the head and brain from injury…helmet effectiveness has been confirmed by research, not just in the laboratory, but by decades of actual crash analysis as well. So, be safe and always wear a helmet while riding…Since head injuries account for the majority of motorcycle injuries, head protection is vital. The best helmet is no guarantee against injury, but statistics indicate that helmet use reduces the risk of brain injury by 67 percent (and gives the NHTSA 2004 “Traffic Safety Facts” report as the source of the statistic).[vii] However, the NHTSA 2004 Traffic Safety Report

http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/TSF2004.PDF

does not contain that statistic.

Media articles on motorcycle safety also repeat the same claims.

Media articles typically include whether a rider was wearing a helmet or not—and do so far more often than whether drivers were wearing seatbelts as in this short news item on the death of a rider from The Geneva County Reaper,

http://www.oppnews.net/default.asp?sourceid=&smenu=73&twindow=Default&mad=No&sdetail=&wpage=&skeyword=&sidate=&ccat=&ccatm=&restate=&restatus=&reoption=&retype=&repmin=&repmax=&rebed=&rebath=&subname=&pform=&sc=2985&hn=oppnews&he=.net

“Motorcyclist killed in wreck” A 60-year-old motorcycle rider died on Easter Sunday in a single vehicle wreck on Walton County Road 181.

Ronnie Denza Hughes was headed west when the bike traveled across the eastbound lane and onto the shoulder, striking a tree, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. The bike rotated and came to rest facing south.

The accident took place around 7 p.m. Hughes was not wearing a helmet.”

WEAU 13 NEWS in Eau Claire, WI published an article on April 13 of this year,  “Motorcycle riders and law enforcement warn about motorcycle safety.” It said, in part, “…“We highly recommend people wear helmets they’re not required by law, unless your under 18 or have an instructional permit, but a helmet’s gonna definitely save you from serious injury in case you are involved in a crash,” Sgt. Jerry Voight with the Wisconsin State Patrol says.”[viii]

The Columbus Dispatch, published an article on April 3, “Caution urged in motorcycle season: Deaths a grim reminder for riders, motorists”.

The latter part of the article focuses on the human interest element. After first detailing how one unhelmeted rider died in a crash it goes on to tell about another fatality: “Computer developer Joseph Matello, 40, of Riverstone Drive in Columbus, died after a crash about 11a.m. Thursday on the Far West Side. Police said he crossed the center line on Feder Road and struck a car head-on.

“His wife, Stephani, said Matello was a strong believer in safety, and a helmet saved his life a few years ago when a car driver didn’t see him and struck him.”[ix]

Iow, even though the crash was—for whatever reason—his fault and though a helmet was worn and did not save his life, the article still stresses how important wearing a helmet is—and that it had saved his life years before.

Reasonable to believe helmets are effective

The above is just a fraction of all the repeated direct and implied claims by those who present themselves as experts. The story told by different groups circle around on themselves by citing each other—and most often NHTSA.

The very official status of the sources gives credibility to their claims. That story then is willingly propagated through the media that repeats those claims and adds testimonials from both dealers and riders—or in the last case, the dead rider’s spouse.

It’s highly likely that a reasonable person, after reading even a portion of the above would believe that helmets were highly effective in preventing death and reducing injuries. In fact, it would be unreasonable to disbelieve such repeated accounts.

As we’ve seen, ordinary people—which fulfills the legal definition of a reasonable person—take more risks in ordinary ways simply because they believe they are safer because they are wearing some kind of protective gear.

Iow, it’s reasonable that a reasonable person would act upon such repeated safety claims and to take on risks he or she wouldn’t if they weren’t wearing a helmet. For example—the risk of riding a motorcycle at all. We

Iow, we believe that helmets are effective because we’ve been told over and over by credible sources that they are. And we don’t just act upon that belief, we stake our lives on it.

But the thing is—we don’t have to take on anything more than the most ordinary risks of riding to outride the protection a helmet can give in the most ordinary circumstances.

Given the strong chorus of approval and recommendations from safety and transportation interests and experts, it’s exceedingly interesting and illuminating and especially surprising—what helmet manufacturers say about their products. Or rather, what they don’t say.


[i] Helmet Use Laws. NHTSA. http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/new-fact-sheet03/motorcyclehelmet.pdf

[ii] “They’re designed to cushion and protect riders’ heads from the impact of a crash…. Motorcycle crash statistics show that helmets are about 37 percent effective in preventing crash fatalities. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates an unhelmeted rider is 40 percent more likely to suffer a fatal head injury and 15 percent more likely to incur a nonfatal head injury than a helmeted motorcyclist.” http://www.michigan.gov/msp/0,1607,7-123-1593_3504_22760-13677–,00.html

[iii] “Helmets are estimated to be 37 percent effective in preventing fatal injuries to motorcycle riders. (NHTSA)… Everyone is only one step away from a medical emergency….Helmet use is the single most important factor in people surviving in motorcycle crashes. They reduce the risk of head, brain and facial injury among motorcyclists of all ages and crash severities. Unhelmeted motorists are 40 percent more likely to die from a head injury, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).” http://www.acep.org/pressroom.aspx?id=26118

[iv] http://www.safroads.org/issues/fs-helmets.htm

[v] “Helmets decrease the severity of head injuries, the likelihood of death, and the overall cost of medical care. They are designed to cushion and protect riders’ heads from the impact of a crash. Just like safety belts in cars, helmets cannot provide total protection against head injury or death, but they do reduce the incidence of both. NHTSA estimates that motorcycle helmets reduce the likelihood of crash fatality by 37 percent….Helmets are highly effective in preventing brain injuries, which often require extensive treatment and may result in lifelong disability.” http://www.iihs.org/research/qanda/helmet_use.html This quote appears verbatim on several other websites.

[vi] “Second, a good helmet makes riding a motorcycle more fun, due to the comfort factor: another truth.

“Third, wearing a helmet shows that motorcyclists are responsible people; we take ourselves and motorcycling seriously. Wearing a helmet, no matter what the law says, is a projection of your attitude toward riding. And that attitude is plain to see by other riders and non-riders alike.” http://www.msf-usa.org/downloads/helmet_CSI.pdf

[vii] http://msf-usa.org/CurriculumMaterials/BRCHandbook2009.pdf

[viii] “State troopers say just wearing a helmet and the proper gear could help save your life People who drive motorcycles say the feel of the wind on your face is a thrilling experience, Wisconsin doesn’t require helmets, but those who sell motorcycles and those who enforce the law, say safety needs to be of utmost importance. http://www.weau.com/news/headlines/90705479.html?ref=479

[ix] “She said she has a message for other motorcyclists: “For riders, wear as much protective gear as possible.

“For cars, watch for them. They’re everywhere, and it only takes a second to take somebody’s life.” http://www.dispatch.com/live/content/local_news/stories/2010/04/03/caution-urged-in-motorcycle-season.html?sid=101

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Protective gear and risk compensation

April 18, 2010

Risk compensation isn’t limited to high-risk sports like skydiving. In fact, some of the most unlikely people take the most unlikely chances simply because they believe risks have been offset—such as parents:

Parents and children and risk compensation After regulation demanded medicine bottle caps and lighters have child-proof devices  research found that “…that many parents left the caps off bottles, and the net effect that was observed from this safety device introduction was that there was no evidence of a significant beneficial impact.” It also found that up to 10 percent of parents would leave lighters where children could get them as a result raising the risk of setting a fire rather than lowering it.

Other studies[i] have found that parents allowed their children to take more risks if they were wearing protective gear because they assumed that the gear provided complete protection for the children. Children in another study went faster and “behaved more recklessly” when they had gear on.[ii]

Bicyclists, soccer players and in-line skaters British research by Dr. Ian Walker found that people drove closer to bicyclists if the bicyclists wore a helmet and was male.[iii]

And a study on soccer found that when the kicker and goalie wore protective gear the kicker moved closer to the goalie but didn’t when protective gear wasn’t worn. Other studies have shown that rugby headgear can influence players to tackle harder. [iv]

While another study found that serious injuries were more frequent among adult in-line skaters  who wore safety gear about half the time rather than among those who didn’t wear safety gear at all.[v]

As one of the studies on children’s and parents’ behavior stated the “… use of safety gear may result in misperceptions of injury risk and this can produce unwanted effects. Specifically, individuals may assume that safety gear completely protects against all injury, and therefore the need to be cautious no longer exists, resulting in greater risk taking or increased tolerance for risk taking. This phenomenon is known as risk compensation.”[vi]

Boaters Experience—and training—has also been found to have the opposite effect as a study of 10,000 boating accidents over 5 years[vii] found: Older, more experienced boaters were less likely to wear a personal floatation device (PFD)—and  so were their passengers. And if they did wear a PFD, they were more likely to increase their alcohol consumption. PFD use did increase in windy conditions—indicating the operators perceived higher risk—it decreased at night indicating they didn’t see darkness as increasing risk.

Iow, protective gear—including helmets—is associated with risk compensation but with a twist. In some cases, it’s the participants wearing the gear that take increased risk. In other cases it’s someone else who takes greater risks  (other drivers) because someone else is wearing gear or (we’ll get to the role of experience and training in the next entry).

Risk compensation by ordinary people in ordinary activities is normative Iow, in many activities and with a wide range of people who are not associated with risk-taking behaviors (such as parents and recreational boaters) automatically take on more risk (or allow those they are responsible for to do so) because of something that’s worn—and often with a false understanding of what that gear can actually do. Iow, risk perception changes—and not necessarily in conscious ways—by the presence of protective gear.

Which makes sense in a way: because children are wearing gear, they are less likely to be hurt playing soccer, running an obstacle course or bicycling—and so are adults.

When it comes to protective gear, risk compensation is a normative behavior for  ordinary people, ordinary objects and ordinary risks. When people believe they are safer they act in ways that put them more at risk.

The question, then, would seem to be not if protective gear risk compensation occurs in motorcycling but how much.

ATGATT and risk compensation? It would be no surprise, then, if motorcyclists who wear helmets do so as well since even parents who are dedicated to their children’s safety do so. And, as we discovered in the entries on seat belts, motorcyclists are more likely to voluntarily wear helmets than drivers are to wear seat belts. Nationally, even in states without helmet laws, over 50% of riders do wear helmets according to the National Occupant Protection Use Survey. Iow, motorcyclists perceive and believe in the protection helmets offer.

A survey of over 130 riders 40 and older found that 83 percent said they wore a helmet all the time and 80% said they wore gear all the time. Fifty-nine percent of respondents thought helmets were either completely or significantly/very effective at reducing injury and 49 percent thought they were completely or very effective at reducing death.

Yet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) claims that helmets are only 25 percent effective in reducing injury and 37 percent effective in preventing death.

Clearly, motorcyclists, like parents, tend to have an exaggerated and erroneous belief in just how effective helmets are.

Consuming the safety margin But the safety margin that protective gear gives participants is predicated on all else staying exactly the same: they are only safer because of gear if they take no more risks than they had previously or the situation becomes no more dangerous.  Iow, helmets are only 25 percent and 37 percent effective if the situation hasn’t become more dangerous (more difficult roads or poor road surface, heavier traffic, etc.)  and if the rider hasn’t taken on more risk (higher speeds, shorter gaps, late braking, etc.).

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much to consume the safety margin gear and helmets offer—particularly since helmets can only protect against injuries caused by exterior forces. Internal injuries (coup contra coup, axial rotation, etc.) can be far more debilitating but cannot be prevented by helmets. But no one can predict which kind of crash they’ll have and what kind of head injury will result.

Others can consume our safety margin In a related way, just as the study on soccer players and the one on bicyclists wearing helmets others will take on more risk because the participants were wearing protective gear. Iow, even if the one wearing protective gear is minimizing risks, others can consume the safety margin the gear gives by acting in more aggressive ways because they believe the one wearing the gear is better protected than they are in reality. It matters a great deal, then what both participants and outsiders believe about helmet/gear effectiveness.

And that’s the subject of the next entry.


[i] Mok, D., Gore, G., Hagel, B., Mok, E., Magdalinos, H., Pless, B., 2004. Risk compensation in children’s activities: a pilot study. Paediatr. Child Health 9, 327–330.

Morrongiello, B.A., 1997. Children’s perspectives on injury and close-call experiences: sex differences in injury-outcome processes. J. Pediatr. 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. Pediatric Psychology. 23, 33–43.

[ii] Morrongiello, Barbara A. and Beverly Walpole, Jennifer Lasenby Understanding children’s injury-risk behavior: Wearing safety gear can lead to increased risk taking. Accident Analysis and Prevention 39 (2007) 618–623.

[iii] Walker, Ian. Drivers overtaking bicyclists: Objective data on the effects of riding position, helmet use, vehicle type and apparent gender. Accident Analysis & Prevention Volume 39, Issue 2, March 2007, Pages 417-425.

[iv] Braun, C., Fouts, J., 1998. Behavioral response to the presence of personal protective equipment. Hum. Factors Ergon. Soc. 2, 1058–1063. McIntosh, A S. Risk compensation, motivation, injuries, and biomechanics in competitive sport. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2005;39:2–3. Hagel B, Meeuwisse W. Risk compensation: a ‘‘side effect’’ of sport injury prevention. Clin J Sport Med 2004;14:193–5.

[v] Williams-Avery R.M.; MacKinnon D.P.Injuries and use of protective equipment among college in-line  . Accident Analysis and Prevention, Volume 28, Number 6, November 1996 , pp. 779-784(6).

[vi] Morrongiello, Barbara A. and Beverly Walpole, Jennifer Lasenby Understanding children’s injury-risk behavior: Wearing safety gear can lead to increased risk taking. Accident Analysis and Prevention 39 (2007) 618–623.

[vii] McCarthy, Patrick and Wayne K. Talley. Evidence on risk compensation and safety behaviour. Economics Letters 62 (1999) 91–96.