Archive for the ‘Motorcycle fatalities’ category

Bicycle boom has opposite result from motorcyclist boom

November 24, 2010

There’s a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal, Cycling’s New Rules of the Road, by Tom Perrotta that offers some interesting possible parallels and counterpoints to motorcycling in the USA:

According to the article, after years of “tepid growth” bicycling in New York has doubled to more than 200,000 riders a day. In a similar way, motorcycling suddenly surged in the late 1990s.

The article implies that bike lanes are at least partly responsible for the increase in bicycling.  Since 2007 NYC has built a further 200 miles of  bike lanes for a total of 482 miles with another 1,300 miles to be built by 2030. Bike lanes are promoted by a wide variety of means as the answer to bike safety like this one, NY 9th Ave Separated Bike Lane Experiment:

New York is not alone—the number of bicyclists has been rising for years in other large urban areas like Portland, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Chicago.  This, too, is like motorcycling where urban areas have seen the greatest increases in motorcyclists. And like NYC, these cities have been putting in miles and miles of bike lanes.

There’s another unexpected parallel to the recently passed boom in motorcycling. Just like in the motorcycling boom, far more women and “elderly” people are climbing on bicycles to travel around one of the most congested cities in America.

The increase in women and elderly riders is “a sign,” said John Pucher, a professor of urban planning and public policy at Rutgers University, “that cycling is seen as safe.” And they feel safe because of the bike lanes.

A report,  Four Types of Cyclists, by Roger Geller, Bicycle Coordinator, Portland , OR Office of Transportation directly associates the increase in bicyclists with a decrease of fear because of the increase in bike lanes, “This enthused and confident demographic of cyclists are the primary reason why bicycle commuting doubled between 1990 and 2000 (U.S. Census) and why measured bicycle trips on Portland’s four main bicycle-friendly bridges across the Willamette River saw more than a 300% increase in daily bicycle trips between the early 1990’s and 2006.”

Four types of bicyclists—and motorcyclists? Geller identifies four types of Cyclists, “Survey after survey and poll after poll has found again and again that the number one reason people do not ride bicycles is because they are afraid to be in the roadway on a bicycle. They are generally not afraid of other cyclists, or pedestrians, or of injuring themselves in a bicycle-only crash. When they say they are “afraid” it is a fear of people driving automobiles. This has been documented and reported in transportation literature from studies, surveys and conversations across the US, Canada, and Europe.”

And it is fear, according to Geller, that has the most to do with whether people ride, how often they ride and where they ride. He breaks them down into four types—and I suggest that this is a possible model for motorcyclists:

The first, and smallest, group are the “Strong and Fearless” that he describes as, “These are the people who will ride in Portland regardless of roadway conditions. They are ‘bicyclists;’ riding is a strong part of their identity and they are generally undeterred by roadway conditions…”

The “Enthused and Confident” are those who are comfortable riding around cars because of bike lanes and “bike boulevards”. Both Geller and the general perception in the bicycling community suggest that riders are newer to the activity and less experienced, do not ride as often or as long—and are believed, by the Strong and Fearless group, to ride slower and get into more dangerous situations due to their inexperience or recreational nature of their ride.

The largest group is the “Interested but Concerned” who “would ride if they felt safer on the roadways—if cars were slower and less frequent, and if there were more quiet streets with few cars and paths without any cars at all.”

The last group is the “No Way No How” who are “currently not interested in bicycling at all, for reasons of topography, inability, or simply a complete and utter lack of interest.”

Based on Motorcycle Industry Council research, it’s probably that while the proportions may differ it is extremely likely that there are the same four groups in regards to motorcycling but with slightly different descriptions but sharing the same concern about safety.

Safety matters when it comes to bicycling Study after study has found that bicycling is particularly sensitive to perceptions of risk—perceived improvements in bicycle safety is followed by a corresponding rise in participation.

Bicycling, though not as objectively dangerous as motorcycling, is still far more dangerous than any other form of road transportation. Head injuries are a leading cause of fatalities and any crash is more likely to result in injury than a similar one in a passenger vehicle or truck. Fatal head or chest trauma or internal injury can occur, as with motorcycling, at 13 mph and above—just as in motorcycling. And, as in motorcycling, the cyclist gets injured in fixed object crashes (like hitting a light pole—or even curb), in multi-vehicle crashes or even a collision with a pedestrian.

In terms of control, bicycles and motorcycles are not too different. Both share the same vulnerabilities to weather, pavement and handling. Both do not lend themselves to seat belts, air bags or crush zones.

Traveling peed, then, is the main difference between bicyclists and motorcyclists in terms of safety. But bicyclists can—on the flat—reach consistent traveling speeds of up to 30 mph and, in shorter bursts, higher speeds—and, of course, on a slope. And it’s a fallacy that most motorcyclist fatalities happen at high speeds.

Given that, there’s a marked difference in what’s considered “safe” for bicyclists and “safe” for motorcyclists:

There are no mandatory training courses for adults, and, of course, no bicycling license, insurance or registration required. The bicycling community unofficially teaches road strategies including controlling your space—“take the lane”; taking full responsibility for their own behavior and safety; assuming they aren’t seen; predicting and decide on avoidance actions, etc.

Not one state requires adults to use a helmet and helmet use varies widely state to state.

There is protective gear—pads for elbows, knees, wrists; shorts; chest and neck protectors; and jackets—but use is mostly associated with racing or mountain biking and most are rarely seen on city streets where bicyclists dress in ordinary clothes.

Iow, the only thing that has really changed is the amount of bike lanes in NYC and other large urban areas. There’s a very low threshold for “safety” then for bicycling. Bike lanes, because they are promoted and perceived as safer, are enough to move people from  “Interested but Concerned” to the “Enthused and Confident” group.

This, then, is a difference between the motorcycle and bicycle boom—no one thinks motorcycling is safe.[i]

Still, one wonders if helmets, riding gear and training courses fulfill the same role as bike lanes for bicyclists and, as with bicycling, gave a great many “Interested but Concerned” a reason to move over to the “Enthused and Confident” group.

New York bicyclists might be right that bicycling is safer—and the risk is lower: despite this enormous increase in riding on incredibly congested streets, “the yearly number of cycling fatalities and injuries has remained flat or declined, and the percentage of riders who are injured while riding has fallen dramatically.” This is very unlike motorcycling as we well know.

Unintended consequences

Despite the video above, the reality is that the safety of bike lanes has been oversold—or rather, something that should’ve been protected space has been co-opted by other road users. Check out My Commuted Commute:

for another take on bike lanes. Other videos show the same thing—vehicles blocking the lanes, using the lanes, turning in front of bicyclists, pedestrians jaywalking in front of bikes—iow, the same behavior they do on the regular lanes. And, perhaps most troubling, cyclists being “doored”—vehicle doors being opened in front of cyclists resulting in injury or death.

Bicyclists, then share many of the same problems that motorcyclists do and I have long encouraged motorcycle rights activists to combine forces with both bicyclists and pedestrian rights groups for more effective action. That advice has been ignored, though.

Other research has found that motorists drive closer to cyclists if they are in a bike lane than if they aren’t. Iow, if bike lanes were truly respected as intended, bicycling would be safer but because they aren’t, they may be more dangerous even if cyclists are streetwise and wary.

Additionally, cyclists speak of the danger of the inexperienced or casual rider who is not street smart or rides too slowly causing other riders difficulty. In this way, also, bicyclists are similar to motorcyclists—it’s not them it’s the new guy that’s causing the problems. Yet, like motorcycling, there’s no proof of that.

Interestingly, some of the bicyclists in the video identify the problem as risk perception—it’s thinking that the bike lane is supposed to be safe, is safe, that makes it so dangerous.

The video ends with several bicyclists—including the narrator and filmmaker—saying that bike lanes dangers has them now co-opting the bus lane because they perceive the risks are lower there.

Bad behavior increases risks But, according to the WSJ article, when it comes to bicyclists the bad behavior is not one-sided. Scott Stringer, the President of the Manhattan Borough, sent out some staffers to observe and what they “recorded over three days, astounded him: 1,700 total infractions by drivers, bikers and pedestrians, many of them egregious.”

While bicyclists emphasize (as do motorcyclists) offenses against them, there’s a great deal of bad bicycle behavior that includes running red lights and stop signs, accepting too narrow gaps between moving or stationary vehicles,  following too close, too fast for conditions, etc.

Bike lanes don’t discourage much of that behavior—and may exacerbate some of it. To what degree bicyclists take on additional risk because they feel justified by the bad behavior of pedestrians or motorists or because they feel they have the street smarts/experience to handle it.

Danger increases as risk perception drops As discussed above, bicycling in NYC has been as safe or safer despite the surge in participation until this year.  “There were 19 cyclist fatalities in the city through October 31, seven more than in all of 2009. In the same period, 3,505 bikers were injured in crashes with motor vehicles, more than last year’s total and up 20% compared to the first 10 months of last year. If the current rate of injuries continues, the percentage of daily riders who sustain injuries in 2010 will rise slightly.”

Iow, the fears of the “Interested but Concerned” are founded in reality—despite the bike lanes, bicycling isn’t all that safe. And this, too, is like motorcyclists—motorists and pedestrians invade bicyclists’ space, do not yield the right-of-way, look but do not see, and so forth.[ii]

Lower death rate for bicyclists: The great difference between the booms The rise in fatalities, though, may be a blip, an anomaly in NYC this year. Comparing pedalcyclist fatalities for other bicycle-friendly states shows that although bicycling has boomed in those states the fatality rates have dropped over the years—though with occasional minor fluctuations year after year even as the numbers of riders doubled.

This is the exact opposite experience of motorcyclists where the death toll far outpaced the increase in riders.

And, amazingly, it was accomplished without formal training—let alone mandatory training, without an overarching, over-controlling corporation made up of the major manufacturers, without helmet laws or use of protective equipment. Iow, without anything that we’ve been told ad nauseum that we have to do as motorcyclists to be safe.

But what we do to be safe hasn’t been effective while what bicyclists don’t do has been. And what’s up with that?


[i] According to a study Perceived Risk And Modal Choice: Risk Compensation In Transportation Systems,  high income people perceive the risks of a given form of transportation as lower. The author, Robert B. Noland, speculates this may be because they purchase (and use) more safety devices.  However, as noted, observed helmet use is rather low and protective gear, in cities, is almost non-existent. Males also perceive the risks of a given mode of transportation as lower than females do. Surprisingly, risk perception drops as age rises.

Iow, older, well-off men perceive less risks in a form of transportation than the younger and  poorer and females do. Needless to say, older, well-off men are the majority of those who took up motorcycling in the last boom.  Iow, the very group that perceives the least risk are the ones who were drawn to the most risky form of road transportation.

[ii] Like motorcyclists, the average age for bicyclist fatalities has risen and, in 2008, was 41 while in 1998 it was 32. In 2008 the average age for injuries was 31 while in 1998 it was 24. Yet, unlike motorcycling, NHTSA does not blame the rise on the born-again bicyclist. But those who were 41 in 2008 were 31 in 1998—iow, bicycling seems to be affected by that large Boomer cohort. Unlike motorcyclists, NHTSA makes it clear when it comes to alcohol-involvement and fatalities, it’s either the rider or the pedalcyclist—even though it’s the same situation for motorcyclists. However, there’s less alcohol-involved fatalities in bicycling than motorcycling.

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Another death in Motorcycle Safety Foundation Training

July 18, 2010

There’s been another death as the result of an MSF-curriculum rider training class. There may have been more—but this is the latest one I have heard about from an alert reader and loyal friend:

Fifty-five year-old James Lawrence Smith was taking a MSF-curriculum rider training course at Florence-Darlington Technical College in Florence, SC on Saturday, July 10, 2010 when he thrown from his bike after he lost control. According to his family, he died from his injuries. The same news story can be found here and here and here.

The articles do not say which course Smith was taking at the time of his crash.

Rider training is offered by the state motorcycle training program in South Carolina on community and technical college campuses.  The Florence-Darlington Technical College website says the continuing ed program offers beginning, intermediate and expert classes, however the available courses button only links to intermediate classes.

That is all the information I have at this time.

This is the 12th death that we know about in training in the past eight years. From 1973-2001 and almost 1.5 million riders trained, there had only been one death due to rider error. From 2002 until now, there have been at least 12 and several other near-fatal injuries.

Who doesn’t tell the Motorcycle Helmet Story–the manufacturers

April 27, 2010

There’s two groups that don’t tell the Helmet Story, and I don’t mean the rabid anti-helmet folks.

No, one group is the helmet manufacturers themselves. And my next guess is that many of you are strenuously objecting right now—so let’s take a look at the most popular helmets in the USA (in no particular order).

First of all, all helmets sold in the USA have to meet, at minimum, DOT standards—and that information is available on the sites. But, we’ll take a look at standards in another entry.

Arai “You could go through a bunch of cheaper helmets in the lifespan of just a single 5-year-warranty Arai – and wind up spending more in the long run. Worse, you’d miss out on Arai’s legendary comfort, fit, features, and feeling of confidence along the way. A helmet is something you’re going to spend too much time and too many miles in to not ensure that every bit of it is a pleasure. So compromise somewhere else.”[i]

Iow Arai takes the same approach L’Oreal hair color took with women: yes it’s more expensive, but you’re “worth it.” But nothing in the manufacturer’s site says safety is what the rider is buying.

Shoei doesn’t say it’s reduces injuries or prevents death either: In the section “Inside A Shoei Helmet” there’s a subsection, “SHOEI ACTIVE SAFETY”: “As opposed to “passive safety” that is ensured by compliance with Snell and DOT safety standards, “active safety” defines the further improvements made by SHOEI to ensure that maximum comfort is achieved, allowing the rider to devote all of his or her focus to riding. Advanced helmet features such as our anatomically-shaped comfort liner for optimum helmet fitment, lowest possible weight to reduce stress on the neck muscles, and effective ventilation system for temperature regulation and reduction in wind noises all serve to further improve the safety of the rider. Further development and continued improvement in the areas of safety and comfort technology are SHOEI’s primary goals.”

Shoei implies that safety is synonymous with comfort and that’s “active” safety. Safety is defined as the rider paying more attention, having a cooler head (which is only hot because they’re wearing a helmet) and is quieter (though the helmet itself is causing much of the noise which Shoei then dampens). All that is a limited truth because comfort can just as easily led to inattention. But that’s not why we buy helmets.[ii]

HJC doesn’t claim its helmets do anything either:  “With the addition of the helmet models mentioned above, it is clear that HJC continues to be a brand that is friendly to motorcyclists around the world providing safe, comfortable, stylish and affordable helmets.”

In the section “Helmet Usage” HJC comes the closet to claiming that its helmet will reduce injury or death:  “To reduce the risk of serious injury or death…” “and to help prevent damage to your helmet” …“always use your helmet correctly.” However, this doesn’t say the helmet reduces the risk. Rather, its what the rider does that will reduce the risk.

But that’s a half-truth. A rider can vastly reduce the risk of a crash by what he or she does (and that includes using the helmet correctly) but once the crash occurs, the rider can’t reduce the risk of injury or death—that’s exactly what a helmet is supposed to do. But that’s not what HJC claims.

Nolan Helmets has a truly ridiculous claim: “…since the early 1970’s, Nolan began using sophisticated materials to bring optimum performance to motorcycle riders at a competitive price.” Iow, it’s not skill or judgment that makes a rider perform as best  (but not necessarily safely) as they can. Iow, helmets are like tires or a trellis frame or a few hundred extra cc’s. Safety—or even comfort—aren’t appeals that Nolan uses in its advertising.

KBC comes the closest to referencing safety in terms of helmets with its slogan: “Ride Long. Ride Hard. Ride Safe.” It’s also the only manufacturer that states a direct though somewhat ambiguous warning on its website: “PLEASE NOTE: A.  No helmet can protect the user against all foreseeable impacts.”

Scorpion has a section on safety but it doesn’t say its helmets will protect you. Instead it references MSF training (without saying that will keep you safe), has a link to the MSF’s .pdf on helmets and directs readers to the Snell Foundation.

Safety seems to be the last thing on Icon’s mind—as does grammar and coherent thought. Rather, Icon courts and encourages both risk and violence: For example, it describes its new “Airframe Sacrifice” helmet as: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Some will thrive whilst others wither. The Airframe Sacrifice is the former. A warrior’s helm. A leader destined for glory amongst the disposable ranks. Legions of weaker willed troops will break upon it’s chromed brow. There will be no legends passed down to glorify their sacrifice. Only this single heroic helmet and magnificent crest will remain.”

The Airframe Predator is described as: “When this bird shows up, trust us, it’s no party. This foul predator eats your dog’s food, craps over the driveway and one day will probably carry off the cat. We’ve seen it a thousand times.” And the Airframe Death or Glory as: “Some live their life in moderation – a careful balancing act devoid of excess. And that’s fine, the world needs those people. Then there are those who are destined to leave their mark on history’s pages. Those courageous (or stupid) souls who know no such balance. For those few it’s all or nothing. A pure digital lifestyle – Zero or One, Black or White, Death or Glory.”

Icon, though, does have a section called “Survivors” where Icon purchasers relate their various crashes and attribute their well-being to Icon.

Only one manufacturer claims that its helmet saved a life—while Bell also advertises its helmets in terms of ventilation, weight and price it’s the only manufacturer that directly claims that once a helmet saved someone’s life: “In 1955 a guy named Cal Niday plowed into the retaining wall during the Indianapolis 500 and the first Bell comeback was officially underway. The impact fractured his skull, but one of our helmets saved his life.”

But from that point on it uses euphemisms to imply it saves lives without directly claiming they do: “Cal returned to racing a few months later. We’ve been engineering spectacular comebacks ever since….Bell was there when the world’s best riders went down. And with innovations like energy-absorbing liners, the first full-face motorcycle helmet, and more design patents than any helmet company in history, we’ve always been there to help them get back up again. Over the years we earned enough trust to make our name synonymous with motorcycle helmets.”

Iow, if one didn’t know the Helmet Story one would never ever guess from what those who make them that the primary purpose of helmets is to reduce injuries and prevent deaths. But then we do know the Helmet Story thanks to NHTSA and the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, which is one of two organizational sister corporations to the Motorcycle Industry Council—to which all the helmet manufacturers belong.

The easy answer is that helmet manufacturers don’t say a helmet can save your life because of fear of liability suits—if they say it, and someone is hurt or dies, then they’ll get sued.

So let’s look at life jacket/vest manufacturers as a comparison. Certainly their products also are supposed to save lives and if they failed, they, too could be sued.

Like helmet manufacturers every one states their products meet standards—but, unlike helmet manufacturers they don’t stop there:

The Personal Flotation Device Manufacturers Association is a trade group like MIC and states on its homepage, “Most drowning victims had access to a Personal Flotation Device, but did not wear it. A wearable PFD can save your life – if you wear it!”

Float-Tech “Safety in the water is something we should all take seriously. One of the easiest things we can do is wear our life preserver, a habit that would have a significant impact on annual drowning.”

Jim BuoyModel #SO-1 – Features Jim Buoy’s remarkable new LIFE-SAVING design that enables an unconscious person to roll over, face-up, with their mouth more than 4 3/4″ above the water in LESS THAN 5 SECONDS!”

Or this from manufacturer Extrasports, “Wherever safety is needed most, rescue experts turn to Extrasport® Swiftwater® rescue PFDs. The right equipment can mean the difference between success and failure, life and death. Our accomplished Swiftwater® rescue line is often called to unexpected places and dangerous water conditions.”

Or Mustang Survival Company that states, “For more than 40 years, Mustang Survival has been committed to providing lifesaving solutions for people exposed to the most hazardous environments. Through constant innovation and application of new technologies we have established ourselves as a leading supplier of survival solutions to the most demanding military, professional, and recreational users.”

The difference between helmet manufacturers and personal flotation device manufacturers could not be more pronounced. And the latter aren’t afraid to mention the elephant in the room—that their products are meant to be used in terrible times. They aren’t afraid to say that their products can mean the difference between living and dying. In fact, they flaunt it.

Nor do they try to justify the purchase by waxing on about comfort or how side effects will make the boater safer. They know why their consumers buy their products and that’s what they sell: we save lives for a living.

The helmet manufacturers sell comfort, ventilation, comparative weight, graphics and swappable faceshields. Notice the difference?

Or how about the opposite side of the spectrum—not preventing death but preventing unwanted life? Durex condoms advertises “Durex condoms …they’re not just about protection against sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies.  They’re designed to excite and enhance.”

Or Trojan: “TROJAN® Ultra Thin Spermicidal Lubricant Condoms…

  • Thinnest TROJAN® Latex Condom-Designed for ultra sensation
  • The Strength of a Regular TROJAN® Latex Condom
  • Made from Premium Quality Latex-To help reduce the risk
  • Nonoxynol-9 Spermicide Is On This Condom for extra protection against pregnancy ONLY – NOT for extra protection against AIDS and other STDs
  • Special Reservoir End – For extra safety
  • Each Condom is Electronically Tested – To ensure reliability

CAUTION: Spermicidal lubricants are for extra protection against pregnancy. Spermicidal lubricants are not for rectal use or more-than-once-a-day vaginal use.”

Or, on the feminine side of sexual protection, here’s what Meyer Labs says about Today’s Sponge: “Today Sponge provides effective birth control without “pill” side effects. It is a proven contraceptive with over 150 million sponges sold…”

So if it’s liability that’s the concern, there’s a far greater chance that pregnancy or disease would result trip for trip, so to speak, than a rider has of sustaining a head injury or dying from one. Yet there’s absolutely no doubt about what condom manufacturers are selling—and it’s not reduction but prevention. Comfort and pleasure are added values and not the main benefit when it comes to birth control.

To put this into perspective, then, if helmet manufacturers advertised condoms, it would be all about comfort and pleasure they give without the slightest hint that they’re supposed to prevent pregnancy or disease. Iow, rather like Arai and Shoei advertise helmets.  Personally, I doubt comfort or pleasure are why people buy condoms.

Yet we’ve certainly heard of situations where condoms break or were defective and pregnancy or disease resulted yet that doesn’t stop these manufacturers from stating what their products are meant to do.

Iow, while fear of consumer liability lawsuits is a reasonable explanation for the startling omission of any reference to what helmets are supposed to do, it’s not a very good answer.

Or maybe it’s just a different type lawsuit they fear. Stay tuned…


[i] Arai really does spend a great deal of time justifying its cost: “In the end, what are your comfort and confidence are worth to you? Can you really put a “price” on them? An Arai helmet isn’t inexpensive. It isn’t made to be.” “And when you wear one, it isn’t made to feel good for just an hour or two. It’s made to feel good all day, every day – and to keep feeling good for years, long after cheap helmets have become loose and shabby (and probably had to be replaced more than once).” Notice that the only benefits Arai claims have to do with comfort and not safety:” “You can’t always see the reasons why an Arai feels better, but they’re there: lower weight from aerospace fiberglass-based construction; a lower center of gravity for better balance and less strain; softer single-piece multiple-density liners (whose technology still hasn’t been able to be copied in almost 20 years). Ventilation systems that work in the real world, not just in drawings. A helmet with no “minor” parts. And the result is major: you just feel good. You want to keep riding.”

“That’s why we build our helmets the way we do. Because it’s not about what you pay, it’s about what you get.” “Few of us can afford to own the very best of most things. But with an Arai helmet, you truly can own the very best of something.”

[ii] However, Shoei disagrees with the true experts in helmet’s effectiveness like the late Harry Hurt: “Very thick, soft padding provided good wearing comfort, but it did not hold well at high speeds, leading to helmet buffeting and instability.” http://www.shoei-helmets.com/Safety_ActiveSafety.aspx Hurt, the foremost advocate of helmets and truly effective standards, was very clear:  very thick soft padding absorbs more kinetic energy and is thus safer for the reason we wear helmets: reducing injuries and preventing deaths.

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

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.

What skydiving can teach us about motorcycle safety

March 29, 2010

What has happened in the sky since 1990 can give motorcyclists a fresh and revealing look at what’s happened on the ground and may point the way to a solution for the motorcycle safety puzzle:

In 1991 there were 30 skydiving deaths in the USA and 14 of them were “no pull-low pull” accidents—or 46.6 percent were killed by their parachutes opening too late or too low to the ground. These are deaths by equipment failure.[i]

Because they were caused by equipment, these kinds of accidents were amendable to an equipment solution. In a similar way, since so many motorcycle crashes are caused by braking errors, better brakes (disc for drum and then dual disc, then ABS and dual disc) brakes would do for motorcycling what AAD did for skydiving.

In contrast, in 1991 only 3 were killed in “Open Canopy” accidents—or when the parachute was open and controllable and yet the sky-diver slammed into the ground at lethal speed. Those accidents occur because the skydiver miscalculated how long they had to perform maneuvers in the air or turned too sharply too low to the ground or began leveling off too late to land successfully.

Open canopy (or landing fatalities), the skydiving community says, are deaths by human error, but they say, these aren’t newbie mistakes. In fact, more expert skydivers die every year than students.[ii]

In one of the fastest and most complete safety turnarounds ever, deaths from no pull-low pull accidents dropped every year after that until, in 1998, there were none. That year alone, however, 12 skydivers who would’ve likely been killed were saved by an automatic activation device (AAD).

USA Year No Pull-Low Pull Fatalities AAD Saves
1998 0 12
1997 2 20
1996 6 12
1995 6 17
1994 11 6
1993 7 1
1992 8 2
1991 14 0
1990

The AADs available prior to 1990 were big, awkward to operate and expensive—and not very effective. CYPRES, which stands for Cybernetic Parachute Release System,  changed all that when it hit the market in 1990. It’s a computerized device about the size of a pack of cigarettes that costs about $1,200 and is extremely effective.  “During free-fall and canopy descent, the CYPRES uses computer-interpreted barometric metering to constantly assess a skydiver’s altitude and rate of descent.  If a skydiver is descending faster than a certain speed, beyond a  pre-set altitude (750 feet AGL), this device will instantly activate the skydiver’s reserve parachute.”[iii]
Skydivers typically wear a visual altimeter and nowadays an audible altimeter is also available. Altimeters aren’t required but their safety advantage is undeniable. The advantage of an AAD isn’t the altimeter, then, but the automatic deployment.[iv]

Like a motorcycle helmet doesn’t prevent a crash, an AAD doesn’t prevent a bad landing—skydivers can still be injured. Yet, CYPRES and its competitors effectively removed the most obvious fatal risk of skydiving and became incredibly popular:

CYPRES sales alone had risen from less than a thousand units in 1991 to almost 22,000 units in 1998.[v] It’s unknown, though, how many skydivers use an AAD device, however, today, “failed to open” crashes are rare—and some of them happen because the skydiver had fiddled with the altitude limit at which the reserve parachute would open.

A tremendous difference in regulation

Unlike motorcycling, skydiving is basically self-policing.  However, skydivers go through training before they are allowed to jump from a plane. The shortest is tandem jumping where they are attached to a trained professional who controls the jump. The most extensive course is the one developed by the U.S. Parachute Association. This association, like the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, developed the standards, curriculum and certification for skydivers in the USA (though with a great deal more transparency–see here: .  Skydiving training is both more intensive and real-world based than motorcycle training to get to the certified stage (which is comparable to a motorcycle endorsement on a driver’s license.

Key to our discussion on motorcycle fatalities is that an AAD is not required  in any state as a motorcycle helmets are in 20 states. Rather, unlike motorcycle helmets, most sky divers immediately saw the obvious benefit of AAD and voluntarily adopted them. As a result, that particular kind of fatal accident has been virtually eliminated.

An AAD, however, isn’t comparable to a helmet. Though it is expensive, once bought it’s basically invisible: it’s simply there like an airbag in a car; nor does it make skydiving more uncomfortable or less enjoyable nor do they remove control over pulling the ripcord from the skydiver. Rather, it does it’s job invisibly and only does it’s job when the skydiver can’t.

Most importantly, AADs were not politicized as motorcycle helmets were nor seen as a lifestyle statement nor as a badge of who is a “real” motorcyclist or not.

It can be argued that usage is high because the danger is extremely obvious and skydivers aren’t stupid—just as they realize a wrist altimeter is necessary, so is an AAD to control risk.

But there is no possible AAD-type solution for motorcyclists that could deal so effectively with the risk of riding.

Skydiving helmet use v. motorcycle helmets

Skydiving helmet use is much more comparable to motorcycling because there are many more similarities. Skydiving helmets offer (some) protection from mid-air or landing collisions with other divers or a fixed obstacle such as the ground, a vehicle or building.

But it is a limited protection due to the nature of skydiving accidents— for example, skydivers can be going 100 mph or more when they collide in mid-air and 60 mph in a hook turn to landing gone wrong. And skydiving helmets, like motorcycle helmets, cannot protect the user from injuries such as coup-contra-coup and axial rotation injuries.

Yet mid-air collisions with other divers (or collisions with the plane on exit) and landing collisions with fixed, solid objects are risks skydivers are well aware of, usage seems to be as much as a place to mount a camera as it is for safety. While there are no statistics on skydiving helmet usage, examination of scores of skydiving videos reveal that usage is not uniform.

Given skydiver’s reluctance to voluntarily wear a helmet and given the history of motorcycle and bicycle helmet regulation, it’s somewhat surprising that skydiving helmet use is not mandated in any state even though the benefits are very similar to motorcycling. Nor are helmets even required by many schools for students. Nor is there a national standard for helmet construction or agreed upon measures for what impact they need to withstand.

So even though head trauma is often cited as the cause of death in skydiving fatalities, it has not undergone the same public intervention as motorcycling has—possibly because it is a relatively invisible sport—relatively few participate and when they do, it’s normally in out-of-the-way locations. Nor does skydiving come under such intense media scrutiny.

Shared attitudes about personal protective gear

Skydivers are also much like motorcyclists when it comes to safety gear. Though protective suits are available, they are even less frequently used than skydiving helmets. And, like motorcyclists, protective gear protects against weather (temperature for skydivers) and minor—not moderate or severe—injuries.

And, like motorcycling, when a participant chooses to wear a protective suit, they also appear to choose to wear a helmet, too. However, just like with motorcycling, the reverse is not true–those who wear helmets don’t necessarily wear gear. Iow, those who are most safety-conscious in either activity seem to share an in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound attitude.

A study that compares helmet and protective gear usage across several high-risk activities to determine similarities and differences in attitudes, use, likelihood of prior injuries/close calls etc. could be very revelatory.

Unlike gear one must choose to buy and wear, AADs usage is higher than either helmets or protective gear. In one way this makes sense—if your canopy doesn’t open, a helmet/gear is less likely to make a life or death difference. Even so, just like in motorcycling, there are more accidents in skydiving that are more likely to end in injury than in death and, statistically, the average rider or skydiver has a much higher chance or being in an injury-producing accident than a fatality. Yet usage lags in the same areas as motorcycling. The operative word here is wear. We’ll return to that in a future entry.

Huge safety margin but no safety gain

Even though the leading cause of skydiving accidents has been virtually eliminated,  about 1 in 100,000 dives end in death today. And that has been the ratio of fatalities to jumps since 1963. Iow, there has been no ultimate safety gain in the sport.

Instead “landing” accidents rose every year from 1989 to 1998 in an ominous symmetry with the drop in no pull-low pull accidents. There was one difference, however: landing fatalities exceeded the classic cause of death we associate with skydiving.

Year No Pull-Low Pull Fatalities Landing Fatalities
1998 0 18
1997 2 11
1996 6 18
1995 6 5
1994 11 6
1993 7 10
1992 8 1
1991 14 3
1990 0

By 2009 70 percent of all skydiving fatalities occurred with fully-opened, properly functioning parachutes—and almost none of them happened to beginners.

Instead, the experts—or intermediates jonesing to be experts—were dying as they did the airborne version of motorcycling stunting.

Specifically, they were doing “hook turns” just before landing.  When done properly, they result in long, dramatic “swoops” to a spectacular landing.

When done improperly, skydivers can be seriously hurt or die.

While there are collisions and other equipment malfunctions (such as toggle brake failures), the greatest increase in fatalities has been in landings bungled by human error.

The safety margin gained by AAD usage, then, was consumed by the increase in more dangerous high performance maneuvers. The risk involved in skydiving, then wasn’t eliminated but was merely translated into a different kind of accident.

Unlike No pull-low pull fatalities, the current configuration—landing errors—is caused by human and not equipment errors—and therefore more difficult to solve.

Particularly because skydivers who perform such maneuvers believe they are skilled enough—and therefore have managed the risk—to perform them correctly and land safely. But they were wrong. If not death, the results are often shattered legs, multi-fractures to the pelvis injuries, and chest and brain trauma.

In that way, they are like motorcyclists who believed they were riding within their limits and found out to their dismay—or death—that they weren’t. And, like skydivers, many motorcyclists are doing all the right things–they’re trained and fully licensed, wearing helmets, riding sober–and operating within their limits.

In this way, skydivers and motorcyclists have a lot in common: both groups believe that they are skilled enough to manage the risks–and all too often, individual participants are wrong.

The question is why did these kind of crashes suddenly begin occurring? The general perception in the skydiving community is that risk compensation occurred: When parachute malfunction was virtually eliminated, skydivers subconsciously or unconsciously took on activities that were more risky. In this case—as a whole group—the safety gain from AAD was more than offset by the safety loss from high performance maneuvers.

But, as Napier et. al. pointed out, correlation is not causation—and other things occurred during the same time frame. For example, sport canopies became smaller—but more difficult to handle. That’s another similarity to motorcycling with the growing popularity of sport bikes.

In the next entry, we’ll explore risk compensation more closely.


[i] Napier, Vic, Findley, Carolyn Sara and Self, Donald Raymond. Risk Homeostasis: A Case Study Of The Adoption Of A Safety Innovation On The Level Of Perceived Risk. http://74.125.95.132/search?q=cache:Xl7MTrU75oMJ:www.vicnapier.com/Risk/4%2520Risk%2520Homeostasis.doc+skydiving+risk+compsation&cd=4&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=firefox-a. Other kinds of fatal accidents are caused by entanglements and collisions but these are by far the fewest kinds of crashes.

[ii] Luvi. Parachuting Statistics on Accidents. Apr-11-08 11:40am. http://www.zimbio.com/Skydiving/articles/9/Parachuting+Statistics+Accidents.

[iii] Skydiving FAQ About skydiving safety. http://www.fabulousrocketeers.com/Photo_Jolly_Roger.htm.

[iv] Successful deployment of the reserve parachute usually depends on the main canopy being cut completely away, which the skydiver may be unable to accomplish for one reason or another.

[v] Napier, Vic, Findley, Carolyn Sara and Self, Donald Raymond. Risk Homeostasis: A Case Study Of The Adoption Of A Safety Innovation On The Level Of Perceived Risk. http://74.125.95.132/search?q=cache:Xl7MTrU75oMJ:www.vicnapier.com/Risk/4%2520Risk%2520Homeostasis.doc+skydiving+risk+compsation&cd=4&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=firefox-a

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

March 18, 2010

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.