Fabricating Trends in Fatal Motorcycle Crashes

by Warren Woodward, Chair, State Legislative Committee

Street Bikers United Hawaii

Recent Trends in Fatal Motorcycle Crashes: An Update ( http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pdf/nrd-30/NCSA/Rpts/2006/810606.pdf ) is 72 pages of charts and analysis from The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) based on the 10 years from 1995 to 2004. It should have been called Fabricating Trends in Fatal Motorcycle Crashes. Here’s why:

Cherry Picking – NHTSA is cherry picking data. In the opening summary, motorcycle fatalities are presented as a crisis: “Since 1997 motorcycle rider fatalities have increased 89{019db79bed566fe49107903e76219f41f3222d6e60d921839a9d0c01f42470d5}.” Wow, sounds bad, but go back 15 years, since 1990, and fatalities have only increased 24{019db79bed566fe49107903e76219f41f3222d6e60d921839a9d0c01f42470d5}. If you go back 25 years, from 1980 to 2004, the fatalities actually decrease 22{019db79bed566fe49107903e76219f41f3222d6e60d921839a9d0c01f42470d5}. From the following graph of yearly rider fatalities you can see what I mean:


So instead of starting out the report with a horrifying 89{019db79bed566fe49107903e76219f41f3222d6e60d921839a9d0c01f42470d5} increase in fatalities, NHTSA could have begun by saying that since 1980 motorcycle fatalities have dropped 22{019db79bed566fe49107903e76219f41f3222d6e60d921839a9d0c01f42470d5}. But then there’s no crisis, and we wouldn’t need to be saved, or at least not by them.

Helmets – A chart on page 36 of the report shows that the helmet use rate in fatal crashes was basically unchanged over the 10 years, 1995 to 2004. If helmets “save lives”, shouldn’t more of the dead be helmetless, especially as fatalities rose 89{019db79bed566fe49107903e76219f41f3222d6e60d921839a9d0c01f42470d5}? Yet helmeted riders consistently comprise the dead majority at around 54{019db79bed566fe49107903e76219f41f3222d6e60d921839a9d0c01f42470d5} of fatalities every year. Of course that doesn’t stop NHTSA from calling for mandatory helmet laws.

Ultimately, the helmet numbers are useless because they do not reflect anything except how many were wearing and how many were not at time of death. NHTSA might as well have a chart showing how many riders were or were not wearing wristwatches. How can anyone tell if a helmet would have helped or not? Just because someone died without a helmet does not mean they would have lived with a helmet. And how many of the helmeted dead had snapped necks or basal skull fracture? NHTSA doesn’t say.

A similar trick was played here in Hawaii just recently by the state Department of Transportation. They emphasized that two thirds of the riders who died in Hawaii last year were not wearing helmets. Of course the implication is that had they been wearing helmets they would not be dead. But we don’t know that. The fact is that helmets have not changed the death to accident ratio in any state where they have been mandated ( see Helmet Law Facts at www.sbumaui.org ).

I think fatalities went up over the 10 years for the same reason they went down over the 25 years. And if you find that reason be sure and tell me. My point is there is no one reason. All I know is the more experience and training a rider has the better, but even that won’t save you when you’re time is up.

VMT – Much of the report is simply invalid since it is based on NHTSA’s fictitious Vehicle Miles Traveled. In NHTSA’s National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety they actually admit: “Unfortunately, vehicle miles of travel (VMT) data for motorcycles are not reported directly and must be estimated.” Fabricated would be a more accurate word than estimated ( see addendum 2, Helmet Law Facts, at www.sbumaui.org ). When it comes to VMT, NHTSA is winging it.

Speed & Alcohol – According to NHTSA, over the 10 years, speed related deaths decreased 6{019db79bed566fe49107903e76219f41f3222d6e60d921839a9d0c01f42470d5} and alcohol related deaths decreased 8{019db79bed566fe49107903e76219f41f3222d6e60d921839a9d0c01f42470d5}. That’s great, but I always question the accuracy of those numbers. For example, we had a rider here on Maui cross the double yellow line while going up Haleakala. Cars coming down the other way are usually doing at least 60. The Maui News said the accident may have been speed related. Sorry, from where I sit it was intelligence related (and he was wearing a helmet).

Engine Displacement – One of the more troubling aspects of the report is NHTSA’s fixation on engine displacement. There are 23 different charts, almost 1/3 of the report’s total charts, concerning engine displacement and fatalities–engine displacement and speed, engine displacement and type of crash, engine displacement and type of road, there’s even one that compares engine displacement with the days people died!

We all know that motorcycle engine displacement has increased over the years and that a 750, for example, is no longer a “big bike”. Somehow though, a popular myth is being created, and NHTSA is fueling it, that increased displacement = increased fatality, especially amongst inexperienced riders. Having got into plenty of accidents when I was uneducated and inexperienced on my first bike which displaced 175cc, I have never bought into this myth.

There is so much more to a motorcycle than displacement. Power to weight ratio, seat height, rider position, center of gravity, tires, braking capability, and rider experience all play a role in how well a machine can be handled. Yet NHTSA has not figured out how to quantify those so they are not part of the mix. And NHTSA will never be able to quantify karma.

Looking long term, I see NHTSA’s displacement fixation leading to a push for graduated licensing whereby riders would be prohibited from owning larger displacement bikes until they passed certain exams over a certain number of years. Outrageous? It’s already happening in Europe. NHTSA is laying the groundwork now–creating the problem by cherry picking the displacement data–and the solution will be a graduated license system. I’d bet on it.

Blame the Rider – The undercurrent running throughout NHTSA’s report is blame the rider. We are either too young, too old, too fast, too drunk, or the motor’s too big. Certainly riders do die because of one or a combination of those. However, there are 75 charts in this 72 page report and not one showing rider fatalities caused by the Right Of Way violations of other road users.

NHTSA is as blind as a Right Of Way violator. What’s worse is that, as taxpayers, we pay their undeserved salaries.

[This article was published in the November, 2007 issue of Biker Magazine.]

National Mandatory Motorcycle Helmet Law

MRF E-MAIL NEWS Motorcycle Riders Foundation

236 Massachusetts Ave. NE | Suite 510 | Washington, DC 20002-4980

202-546-0983 (voice) | 202-546-0986 (fax) | http://www.mrf.org

10NR08 – MRF News Release – National Mandatory Motorcycle Helmet Law


16 April 2010

Contact: Jeff Hennie, MRF V.P. of Government Relations & Public Affairs

National Mandatory Motorcycle Helmet Law

The Motorcycle Riders Foundation (MRF) has learned that, in a hearing held this week by the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) repeatedly called for a national mandatory helmet law. The hearing, entitled “Opportunities to Improve Highway Safety,” focused on areas that need improvement when it comes to the landscape of highway injuries and fatalities. In his opening statement, Lautenberg said that there should be a mandatory motorcycle helmet law for all riders in America. This is typical for the 86-year-old senator. He has routinely attempted to put a federal mandatory helmet law in place before. Lautenberg currently chairs or sits on every single senate committee that has jurisdiction over roads and road safety. During this hearing, Lautenberg was not alone in his quest for an all-rider federal helmet law. As expected, the spokesperson for the Advocates for Highway Safety also voiced their opinion that a national helmet law is a good idea. Fortunately, the hearing didn’t only focus on the helmet debate; in fact, very little of it did. There were other issues covered such as impaired driving, distracted driving, and big trucks. As always, the MRF will keep you informed on this and all issues affecting motorcyclists from Washington DC.


Brian Grayling

You never know what you’ll be facing at the start of a legislative season. ’09 was a tough year in the fight for motorcyclist’s rights, and this year we expected more of the same. So, prepared for the worst, it was a pleasant surprise that the 2010 session was a reasonably quiet one for us. Only once did SBU have to testify in committee to knock down one of twelve helmet bills. The other eleven didn’t even make it to committee. We were able to defeat this bill because a number of our members took the time to write to the committee chair voicing opposition. This carries a lot of weight in the member’s deliberations. Our mandate has never been anti-helmet – but we insist on the rider’s right of choice, and these appearances before the various committees from time to time allow us to carry this message.

Likewise with the seven muffler bills that appeared this year. SBU’s position is that a loud muffler is a safety device that alerts motorists that there is a motorcycle in the vicinity. The introduction of bills to mandate mufflers that “prevent any excessive or unusual noise” really serve no useful purpose, since there are already a whole slew of laws already on the books that address this. If some biker roars around the canyons of Waikiki at 4 in the morning, SBU will have no sympathy when that bike is pulled over. Not all bills are bad for us. With the cooperation of the Hawaii Motorcycle Dealers Association, SB549 was signed into law by the Governor. For the first time, motorcycles are under the umbrella of the lemon law, which cars and other vehicle types have had for some years. SBU was approached by Senator Espero for assistance in getting this bill passed into law. We were happy to do so. Now if a customer buys a bike that is defective, there is recourse.

So the Legislature will adjourn on April 29, and then we can all breathe a sigh of relief that once again the bullets were dodged. However, work continues for the SBU Board. The fundraisers have begun, with sometimes three or four early evening dinners a week to attend. As a lobbying group for all motorcyclists in Hawaii, these fundraisers give us a chance to meet and greet the politicians, and support them through donations. In return, they can help in the fight against any nuisance bills that may pop up that affect motorcyclists. We’re still facing a nagging problem with no easy solution – getting motorcycle training ranges set up on the outer islands. This has become almost critical, since it’s rumored that the new rail system planned for Oahu will pass through the Leeward College range, meaning that the only training facility in Hawaii will almost certainly have to be closed. The DOT has undergone a shakeup in personnel, and their prior motorcycle liaison person is no longer there. We’re hoping for great things from her replacement, and perhaps some backing in the establishment of ranges.

So as you see, there is a lot going on for SBU, and we sure could use a few extra hands on the State Board to join Sunshine, Ray, Rick, and myself to keep the organization moving forward. If you think you have an interest, give me a call at 291-8761.

Brian Grayling