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The New York Times web version has a section called Visuals, which looks like an attempt to be relevant in the age of Big Data. This week features Fewer Helmets, More Deaths, which seems so common-sensical that they didn’t put enough effort into the supporting charts. The worst offender is below. For what makes it sloppy, follow the swirl.

Florida motorcycle fatalities

Of course there is a big jump in non-helmet fatalities right after the helmet law is repealed, because of all the riders who wore a helmet only to avoid a ticket. For subsequent years, there is no way to tell if the growth is because helmets are lifesavers (although that’s what transportation officials believe), or because more and more riders choose to forego them. If motorcycling has become more dangerous, we could be seeing an increase in the number of helmeted fatalities, as indeed we do, even if the number of riders with helmets were actually dropping.

All of the imprecision could have been avoided with one simple number: what percentage of riders use helmets. (More precise, if harder to determine, would be what percentage of motorcycle-miles are ridden with helmets.)

Since the chart shows they are about 60 percent of the fatalities, the extent helmet use is below 60 percent can be used to define the relative risk. It’s hard for me to believe that 60 percent of Florida riders go helmetless, and it must have been just as hard for the Times’ editors. The chart, as it stands, is an example of expectation bias, where alternative explanations that don’t fit pre-existing beliefs are ignored.

The story has the analogous chart for Pennsylvania, which is similar except that the most recent data have about equal fatalities for helmet and non-helmet.

The story’s other charts of different series show the same error, but not as blatantly. Motorcycle deaths have become a much larger percentage of vehicle fatalities since the partial repeal of helmet laws. However, the first chart in the sequence shows that to some extent, this is a function of fewer automobile fatalities. Assuming that the drop in automobile fatalities is a function of more air bags and diverse safety features which have no correspondence on a bike, we would have seen at least some increase regardless of helmet laws.

The Times could have looked up the data to see if motorcycle fatalities had gone up more in states with repeal than in states that retained a helmet law, optimally pairing states with similar automobile fatality rates or otherwise controlling for highway type, weather, and other conditions. That would tend to quantify the danger of going without a helmet. Guess they’re still short a data scientist!

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Comment Preferences

  •  According to the CDC States with partial (4+ / 0-)

    helmet laws like Florida 64 percent don't where helmets.  Which explains a lot about Florida.  And states with no laws 74 percent didn't wear helmets. Also alcohol related fatalities involving motorcyclists are up as well.  Not surprising either. CDC estimated 700 less fatalities in 2010 if helmet laws were universally required.  


    If I comply with non-compliance am I complying? Sarcasm is the ability to insult stupid people without them realizing it.

    by thestructureguy on Tue Apr 01, 2014 at 09:45:33 PM PDT

    •  Your source miscopied the CDC data (0+ / 0-)

      I knew I'd seen it while researching the diary. The original CDC study is here. The 12%, 64%, and 74% are the percentages of fatalities not wearing helmets in helmet, partial helmet, and no helmet law states respectively. Not an estimate of the percentage of riders who wear helmets. So it begs the question of how much more a helmetless rider is to die.

      I have no doubt that helmets save lives, just, these charts contribute nothing to proving that.

  •  Andrew Lazarus (0+ / 0-)

    I believe that there should be a free choice on whether to wear a helmet or not.
    What say you?

    I`m already against the next war.

    by Knucklehead on Wed Apr 02, 2014 at 12:08:00 AM PDT

    •  Since brain injured motorcyclists are a burden on (5+ / 0-)

      the rest of us, helmet less motorcyclists are writing checks on our bank accounts. So, no. It's not a liberty issue.
         While number of deaths is one metric that's relevant to helmet use, another one is disabling brain injury. I don't see the stats for that.
         It is absurd that with the safety standards for cars, and with auto drivers and passengers risking tickets if they don't wear seat belts, motorcyclists are allowed to drive down the road in heavy traffic at 70-80 mph with no protection whatever.
         And, no, helmets won't save you at those speeds. They will protect you in lower speed accidents.
         And even though motorcyclists are many times more likely to be injured in accidents, there is no requirement for motorcyclists to buy insurance that matches the risk, because full insurance coverage would be too expensive.

      •  Let's ask an insurer whether helmets matter. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        "Was he wearing a helmet?" was the first question the Gecko's representative asked when a relative of mine reported her husband's crash (in a state where helmets are not required by law).

        (Thankfully, she was able to answer "yes.")

        •  UnionMade (0+ / 0-)

          Here in California helmets are mandatory.
          So because of this, many bikers wear a little skid lid that simply requires one to ask for a DOT sticker from the seller, et voila, you are now legal.
          The helmets provide no more safety than if you affixed the sticker to the back of your head.

          But it`s legal.
          The medical costs in case of a crash, many times as a result of a stupid cage driver, remain the same.
          Ergo, there is no burden to the taxpayer since the rider had a "helmet"? No, the burden remains.
          So when asked by the insurer, "was he wearing a helmet" one can answer thankfully "yes" but he`s a paraplegic.

          I`m already against the next war.

          by Knucklehead on Wed Apr 02, 2014 at 11:00:14 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  Florida requires helmetless to have more insurance (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Knucklehead, melfunction

      Let's assume that riding without a helmet is significantly more dangerous, although the NY Times' argument for that is inadequate. In that case, I think either a helmet should be required or there should be a price to by a permit to skip helmets, sufficient to compensate the public treasury for higher expenses of Medicaid/are, etc.

  •  Oh, motorcycle helmets. (0+ / 0-)

    Not sure where I stand on that. But I was expecting bicycle helmets, where I'm sympathetic to the argument (apparently shown to be valid by at least one study) that allowing people to ride without a helmet makes them more likely to exercise and actually increases their life expectancy. (Of course this is completely inapplicable to motorcycles for not only the obvious reason of motorcycling not being exercise, but also the difference in speeds. Though it might be worth looking into whether choosing a motorcycle over a car due to lax helmet laws results in fewer emissions. I do remember MythBusters showing that motorcycles use less gas but put out more of the 'bad' chemicals due to not having a catalytic converter, but the question is whether this can be easily fixed or whether a decrease in longer-lifetime carbon emissions outweighs the shorter-term chemicals. Especially if you decided to compare electric vehicles where the shorter-term chemicals are scrubbed at the plant.)

    warning: snark probably above

    by NE2 on Wed Apr 02, 2014 at 12:20:36 AM PDT

    •  NE2 (0+ / 0-)

      Why do you think that those people on bicycles you mention prefer not to wear helmets if they are allowed that choice?
      You can`t believe it`s to enhance their exercise regimen, right.

      I`m already against the next war.

      by Knucklehead on Wed Apr 02, 2014 at 12:32:00 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  It's one more thing (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        to buy, to carry around, to funnel sweat down the face, etc. You can't believe the only use of bikes is exercise, right.

        warning: snark probably above

        by NE2 on Wed Apr 02, 2014 at 12:47:46 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  NE2 (0+ / 0-)

          No, not at all, but those same arguments apply to motorcyclists also, no.
          Not to mention the partial loss of peripheral vision & the partial loss of hearing danger approaching.

          I`m already against the next war.

          by Knucklehead on Wed Apr 02, 2014 at 01:07:08 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  NE2 (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Pinto Pony

          I figure I should show you my bike.
          I ride it daily for exercise & the pleasure of riding my parrot Coconut around on my shoulder.
          He does run down my arm to ring the bell when people are around.


          I`m already against the next war.

          by Knucklehead on Wed Apr 02, 2014 at 01:17:47 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  How do you keep Coconut from (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            flying away?  

            "My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right." -- Sen Carl Schurz 1872

            by Calamity Jean on Wed Apr 02, 2014 at 08:46:02 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Calamity Jane (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              I keep him concentrating on the bell.
              A moment of distraction from a falling leaf might cause him to think the sky is falling & he possibly could fly off.
              It has happened too many times for me to risk his well being again so I learned not to put him at risk & we enjoy each others company with no loss of companionship.

              I never cut my birds`ability to fly by clipping their wings as it could mean certain death if they were to accidentally be in a position to escape predation or attack.
              They come much before my ability to restrain them with love alone.
              And even though Coconut is a complete clown, It would not be a happy household if anything should happen to one of my best friends.
              Here he is showing off, (as usual)

              Private Zip-line

              STRONG ARMED COCONUT 2 flat

              I`m already against the next war.

              by Knucklehead on Wed Apr 02, 2014 at 10:48:51 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

            •  Oh, and one more thing, (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              Here`s my other bike I ride.
              I do like to get as many opinions as I can & from both sides of the aisle.

              37 Knucklehead

              37 KNUCKLEHEAD DSCN1985 copy

              I find that no matter which of my bikes I ride, I`m still in jeopardy, helmet or not.

              I`m already against the next war.

              by Knucklehead on Wed Apr 02, 2014 at 10:58:09 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

      •  Serious bicyclists wear helmets. (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        bcamarda, Knucklehead, melfunction
    •  Without a bicycle helment, my son would be dead (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      OK, maybe just permanently brain-damaged.

      Now, maybe he would have ridden more in line with his skills (he couldn't execute a downhill turn on a mountain bike path and went into a tree) in the absence of a helmet. But such arguments are awfully counterintuitive.

  •  25 years ago, my wife (girl friend back) then were (8+ / 0-)

    exiting route 6 in Hyannis MA (Cape Cod) on a long down hill exit ramp when the wheels our bike hit an oil slick.
    We landed on the left side, hitting our Full face shield helmited heads on the pavement hard as we impacted.
    Due to our rate of speed and the down hill ramp we continued to slide for some distance. I'm positive that the helmets saved us from incurring a serious brain injury
    The weekend before I had ridden without a helmit on a ride up to the Canadian Border in New Hampshire.i have never ridden w/ out a helmit since that accident. IMO it is a foolish risk to do so.

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