by California columnist Paul 'Piper' Rafter
Government Affairs Editor for Thunder Press
This article may be reprinted at any time as long as credit is given. Contact Piper at firstname.lastname@example.org
A study presenting the benefits of California's helmet law is recently hitting the press. So, I thought our friends in Washington State might like to know more about it and what is actually happening in California. The report, "The Effect of the 1992 California Helmet Use Law on Motorcycle Crash Fatalities and Injuries," can be found in the Journal of the American Medical Association, November 16, 1994, now available at your local library. In it, the authors conclude "Enactment of an unrestricted helmet law significantly reduces the incidence of motorcycle crash fatalities and the number and severity of head injuries." The following article contains insight on the study, actual data on accidents, injuries and fatalities, and my interpretations of the data.
First and foremost, the study was funded principally by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (Arlington, Va.), a non profit research firm that is funded entirely by casualty insurance companies, the folks with a profit motive to eliminate motorcycling altogether. A common practice used in all industry is the hiring of a consultant by an organization to "prove" what the organization already believes. Based on my conversation with an IIHS spokesperson, the IIHS is proud of the role they play in advancing the insurance agenda. In turn, the study's authors, which included a UCLA research team and an employee of IIHS, might be viewed as "biting the hand that feeds them" if they produced a study that did not support the IIHS agenda. Additional money was provided by the Southern California Injury Prevention Research Center (the place where several of the UCLA authors work) and the California Office of Traffic Safety (funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, our nemesis in Washington, D.C.).
Notwithstanding the above, the report itself can be considered flawed in the following ways:
- It discounts the effect of rider training as a significant factor in reducing accidents,
- It does not credit the reduction in ridership as a significant factor in reducing accidents,
- It does not credit the reduction in accidents for the reduction in fatalities,
- It measures the fatality rate as a function of motorcycle registrations instead of miles ridden or fatalities per accident.
Also, buried in the report's data tables are several interesting statistics that weaken the IIHS message and could actually strengthen the position of choice for motorcyclists. The information below addresses these points and should give activists support in their lobbying efforts.
On the topic of rider training, the California Highway Patrol is proud to claim that the California Motorcycle Safety Program, produced significant reductions in accidents, injuries and fatalities since its inception [see TABLE ONE below]. The CHP also stated in CHP Perspectives, 1992, that "[p]art of the explanation for this extraordinary decline in fatalities may be a significant reduction in ridership in 1992, as evidenced by an estimated 25 percent reduction in motorcycle accidents between 1991 and 1992." They go on to say, "Part of the explanation is also the efficacy of the CMSP program, with its heavy focus on young riders-that segment of the motorcycle-riding population most likely to be involved in serious crashes."
The IIHS study bases its fatality rates on the number of registered motorcycles, not on the number of miles in the saddle. In doing so, the study fails to include the significance that a change in ridership would have as a factor in the reduction of injuries and fatalities. In fact, the authors state that: "Motorcycle fatality rates [based on 100,000 registered motorcycles] were reduced by 26.5%..." between 1991 and 1992 while elsewhere they state that fatalities themselves decreased 37.5%. The combination of the two statistics means that registrations must have declined, but this is not clearly stated by the authors.
However, the report does not completely ignore the ridership reduction. In one paragraph, the report states: "One effect of the law may have been a reduction in the number on high-risk riders who did not own or would not obtain a helmet and... chose to forgo motorcycle riding." However, this still does not address those of us who have not chosen to forgo riding completely but simply ride fewer miles. A survey conducted by ABATE of California revealed that riders hip among those still riding decreased by almost 20% as a result of helmet law. According to the IIHS report, the decrease in passenger deaths from 1991 to 1992 was 70% while the driver deaths decreased only 33%-the net decrease being the 37.5% mentioned above. They account for the difference by stating: "The decrease in passenger deaths is consistent with observational surveys showing a decrease in passengers on motorcycles after the helmet law. Presumably, passengers are less likely to own or have access to a helmet and are less likely to be motivated to acquire one in response to a law requiring its use." This, to me, sounds like helmet use requirements indeed reduces ridership.
Actually, in 1992, all California motorcycle registrations decreased by 9% and new motorcycle registrations decreased by 20%. Total vehicle registrations remained flat implying that the decrease in motorcycle registrations are not necessarily the result of economic conditions since other vehicle registrations increased. Motorcycle registrations dropped again in 1993 by another 4% while total registrations remained constant. Motor cycles represent 2.5% of total vehicles registered. Between 1991 and 1993, all licensed drivers increased by over 100,000 while licensed motorcyclists, whose numbers had been steadily growing until the helmet law, dropped by over 13,000.
Along this line, the reduction in accidents is not credited in the report for the reduction in fatalities. The report's data tables reveal a total reduction of fatalities and injuries. Table One contains data that I obtained from the California Highway patrol, and some data reduction. The numbers used by the authors, reportedly provided in part by the CHP, do not exactly match the current CHP data. The difference slanted the analysis slightly, but not significantly, in favor of the IIHS position. A quick look at Table One reveals many things, not the least of which is the sharp 25.5% reduction in accidents from 1991 to 1992-the reason for which is completely overlooked in the lIHS study.
There is no evidence that helmet use will reduce the likelihood of having an accident. The authors admit that they "could not identify any significant changes in legislation, overall weather conditions, highway speeds, or motorcycle design features during the 2 years that would have significantly altered exposure to a crash or subsequent injury." This leaves only rider training and the helmet law itself as reasons for reduced accidents.
Incidently, this 1993 study does not include 1993 numbers. Notice the following from the table:
- In 1993, the accident reduction rate returns to the level of pre-helmet law years, a level directly attributable to the California Motorcycle Safety Program.
- In 1992, the fatality rate (deaths per accident) does not drop off as fast as does the fatalities (14.07% versus 35.95%). This indicates a continued decrease in ridership.
- The fatality rate increased slightly in 1993.
Finally, the data in the study reveals little gems that the anti-helmet law community might find helpful:
- The percentage of severest nonfatal head injuries-the ones that might be considered to cause "vegetables"-increased by 33%(35 out of 761 in 1991 vs. 19 out of 314 in 1992). This group as a percent of the total nonfatal injuries dropped only from 1.8% of total nonfatal injuries in 1991 to 1.5% in 1992.This is a 17% drop which is less than the 25.5% total drop in accidents. The authors fail to include this in the analysis, but one might presume that the helmet law is not helping to reduce the "veggie rate" but may actually be aggravating it.
- Although the study shows no increase in spinal cord injuries in nonfatal accidents, spinal cord injuries increased by 325% among the fatalities (4 in 1991 vs. 13 in 1992). One might >presume that helmet use would have increased the incidence of paralysis if the victims had only lived. Perhaps the helmet itself caused a fatal spinal cord injury.
Personal agendas aside, IIHS' study comes across as very professional and objective. There are no impassioned speeches in defense of the insurance or medical industry agendas and no bigoted attacks on motorcyclists-just a clinical attempt to emasculation the anti-helmet use agenda. As such, it is very credible and will be wielded effectively by the safety nazies.
However, this study makes no comparison between motorcycling head injuries and those from any other activity. It does not put into perspective the benefits of helmet use in these other activities. Nor does it consider the possible negative effects that motorcycle helmet use has on the driver like reduced vision, reduced hearing, aggravated fatigue, aggravation of existing neck and back injuries. It also makes no attempt to identify who is causing the accidents and why. If memory serves me well, the now famous Hurt study from 1981 indicated that roughly 70% are caused by automobile drivers violating the right of way of the motorcyclist. Of those, half are from left-turners, a quarter are from U-turners. To also include this information would likely weaken their arguments. As it is, it makes our work as activists that much harder.
I often get the question, especially from new riders and non-riders, "What's all the fuss over a helmet law anyway?" Here is the answer: Because the insurance industry knows there will be fewer riders, and therefore fewer claims, when helmet laws are in effect. For their profit, our heads are incarcerated in three pound foreign objects that half of us choose to wear without a law. Ridership reduction has other adverse effects on motorcycling. Reduced volumes from manufacturers cause higher prices and fewer choices in equipment, magazines, and events; although the Harley-Davidson Motor Company is doing great right now, the industry overall in California appears to have had a negative reaction to the helmet law.
So when someone challenges you with this study, keep these things in mind. Remember also, even if helmet use can be unquestionably proved as good for motorcyclists, it does not mean that helmet laws are good for our country.