8 Ball In The Wind

Friday, July 25, 2014

Numbers Game

I have been going over motorcycle reports and studies as part of my duties as Legislative Affairs Officer for the Elk Country Chapter of A.B.A.T.E. of Washington.  If it wasn't such a serious subject, I would almost find it amusing how several of the key studies that are used to foist the Federal governments desire for a universal mandatory helmet law for motorcyclists on the riding public.  As is typical of many statistical studies, it depends on what variables you choose to compare as to whether you will get the results you desire.  Let's be honest about this, if you are putting in the effort to do a statistical study of whether helmets are effective or not, you probably already have a point of view you want to demonstrate is correct with your statistics.  Government agencies are no different.  Except maybe in the fact that they want their statistics to support the rules and regulations they themselves create and promulgate throughout the country.

Take for example, the CDC.  Somewhere along the way, the bureaucrats at CDC decided that their sphere of power and influence went beyond 'disease control' into all areas of health and safety.  Any area that they felt had some connection to being able to affect the life and death of citizens.  Being the good bureaucrats they were, they decided to look into the 'effectiveness' of mandatory helmet laws.  Several studies had shown a significant reduction in the rate of head injury when wearing a helmet during a crash.  CDC ran their own study back in 1990 comparing the fatality rates in mandatory and voluntary helmet use states between 1979 and 1986.  What they did was actually come up with two separate rates for head related deaths from motorcycle accidents.  One, showed virtually no significant difference between the two sets of states death rates.  The other, showed a significant difference, higher death rates in the voluntary helmet states.

How did they do that, you ask?  Well, if you didn't, I did.  What they did was divided the number of head injury fatalities associated with motorcycle crashes by the states population (Voluntary helmet states tend to be a bit more rural, and have lower populations.  So changes in the fatality rates divided by a smaller population would show a larger change).  As a result, they came to a finding that the death rates in voluntary states were nearly double that of mandatory states (An average of 11.4 fatalities per million in voluntary helmet use states.  Compared to an average of 5.5 per million in the mandatory use states.)

The CDC study also divided the head injury fatalities of motorcyclists by the number of motorcycle registrations in each state.  The numbers came back looking quite different.  There was virtually no significant difference between the two sets of states (An average of 3.5 fatalites per 10,000 registered motorcycles in the voluntary states compared to an average of 3.0 fatalities per 10,000 registers motorcycles in the mandatory states.  That is only a difference of 0.005%.)  Since the CDC is so adamant about motorcyclists wearing helmets to prevent head injuries and dying from them in crashes, they used the population based rate which gave them the more dramatic differences to 'prove' their conviction that all motorcyclists should be mandated to wear helmets.

To further demonstrate how blindly the CDC is devoted to mandatory helmet laws, Congressman Thomas Petri wrote the CDC asking why they were involving themselves in  the effort for a national universal helmet law.  In a response, dated January 27, 2014 the CDC stated that; "CDC approaches motorcycle safety in the same manner as other public health issues, such as heart disease, cancer, and asthma."  The letter went on to state that in 2010, 41% of fatalities on motorcycles were not wearing helmets.  Followed by a paragraph on how helmets can reduce the life long costs of even non-fatal head injuries.

I do not argue with the contention that motorcycle helmets have been shown to reduce head injuries.  However, I also know that studies have shown that the benefits of reduced head injuries begin to trade-off with an increase in the risk of neck injuries above a certain speed.  What is that speed?  It is in the range of 13mph.  Thats about the same speed that FMVSS-218 requires motorcycle helmets to withstand impacts of (13.4mph).  So above the speed of about 13mph, the increase in risk of neck injury due to wearing of the helmet would seem, to me anyway to offset the desired effect of the helmet.

Since two of the major contributors to fatal motorcycle accidents are speeding and drug or alcohol impairment (Between 2006 and 2010, 53.3% of motorcycle fatalities had speeding as a contributing factor.  While 53.7% had drug or alcohol impairment as a factor.  No doubt many had a combined influence.), the real world speeds of fatal crashes tend to be more than a tad higher than 13.4 mph.  But that is a fact very few studies seem to make known.  While at low speeds, a helmet will more than likely protect you from head injury in a crash, after about 13 mph you become ever more at risk of severe neck injuries.

One of the most famous and influlential studies of the 20th Century on traffic and motorcycle safety, and the benefit of helmets was no doubt, the Hurt Report.  Authored by Professor Harry Hurt, it is still regarded as one of the best arguments for mandatory helmet laws ever produced.  During a 1992 television interview, Professor Hurt made a comment I don't think would sit well with many if not most of the safetycrats in our government today.  He said simply; "When impact speeds get up to 25-30 mph, there's no helmet in the world going to save you."

With that thought, I'll bid you all a fond 'adieu', and let you ponder the governments numbers game.

Catch you on the road sometime...

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