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Lies with Numbers

2017-03-29 5 min read Blog marco

Clara is back to life! After standing in the back of the garage in San Diego for years, blocked by flooring, and then in a storage unit in Denver for months, she finally is legit in Colorado and the weather is cooperating. All hail the Girl!

One of the first things I did was familiarize myself with motorcycle riding rules in the state. I knew that California is fond of bikes and the lobby there (formerly: here) has worked hard on making motorcycle riding safer and more expedient, resulting in changes to the rules of the road. Motorcycle riders can ride on any HOV lane (unless expressly forbidden), can ride in staggered formation (one rider to the right, one rider to the left on a single lane), and most importantly, can share lanes with other vehicles.

Lane splitting is one of those things that people have strong feelings about. Car drivers generally hate the motorcycles that come out of nowhere to their left and right, while motorcycle riders know the most dangerous thing to them (us) is drivers not noticing us (well, short of alcohol, a no-no if there ever has been one on a bike). Driving between cars, I can say from experience, is much safer than driving next to a car, because the latter case opens up the possibility of the car changing lanes into you. Also much safer: when you move between standing cars at a traffic light. You are safe between cars, but being the last vehicle in line is hugely unsafe, because drivers notice the car ahead of you before they notice you.

In any case, I went to the web site and found there are only three sections, each with minimal information. Helmets are not mandatory for anyone over 18, but eye protection is required. (Frankly, anyone who rides a motorcycle without glasses, goggles, or a visor should be sent for urgent mental health checks.) Lane sharing is illegal, full stop (grumble). Bike passengers have to have foot rests available and have to use them (something tells me someone’s feet got caught in a wheel at 80 mph…). And finally, no towing of bikes while riding, in a vicious attempt to single-handedly destroy the Funny or Die Darwin Awards Category.

I am a little unhappy about the lane sharing agreement. At the very least, I would have wanted to be able to ride between cars to the front of a line, considering that my reaction time on the bike is a lot faster than a typical car. But I can live with all of it. What struck me as very odd and very wrong was this quote:

In 2006, 65% of fatally injured motorcycle riders were not wearing a helmet in states without all-rider helmet laws, compared with only 13% in states with all-rider helmet laws. (NHTSA, 2007)

This was meant to imply that riding without a helmet is much more dangerous than with a helmet, which really doesn’t require any numbers for backup. What is really bad about that statement, though, is that it pretends to say something, but it really says nothing. That indicates that whoever put that statement on the site either doesn’t understand how statistics work, or is actively trying to manipulate people. Neither option is particularly kind to the site maintainer.

Here is the problem: it is completely irrelevant to know how many of the fatal injuries happen to unprotected riders if you don’t know what percentage of riders are unprotected. If 80% of riders don’t wear a helmet in states without helmet laws, but only 65% of fatalities happen to them, then it’s safer not to wear a helmet. This actually might be the case if riders without helmets are conscious of their lack of protection and ride more safely. I doubt it, and riding without a helmet is a really terrible idea, but still.

Conversely, to say that 13% of fatalities in states with helmet laws happen to riders without helmets is also totally irrelevant if we don’t know how many riders wear no helmets. In reality, I find this fact by itself (that is, the number 13%) much more telling than the comparison with the much larger sounding 65%. While I have no idea how many people in Colorado ride without a helmet, I can safely say that I have very rarely seen a rider in California without them. That 13% of fatalities happen to riders without a helmet (in states with helmet laws) tells me that it is probably statistically really bad to ride without a helmet, because a lot less than 13% or riders ride without helmets.

Ultimately, I never ride without a helmet unless I have to, because it’s a really dangerous thing to do. I had to twice: once because the battery on the bike died in the middle of the night and I had locked the helmet to the seat after I finally got someone to help me starting the bike – to get the helmet off, I would have had to kill the engine. The second time, I was riding around the block because the breaks were making a funny noise and I needed to hear it.

So, kids, don’t ride without a helmet. And don’t quote statistics that mean absolutely nothing.