As a 40-year safety professional, it annoys me to the point of anger when I read articles about safety that provide misleading statistics. In the Star Tribune, the June 7 article “Motorcycle deaths up in Minnesota” stated that over the period from 1997 to 2008, motorcycle deaths in the United States more than doubled. Without being given context to that number, the reader is left thinking that a very disturbing trend is happening.
However, according to the 2012 report of the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), motorcycle registrations in the United States went from approximately 3 million to a little more than 8 million between 1997 and 2009. Based on these numbers, the fatality rate for motorcyclists actually improved during the period in which the fatality count doubled. I found corroborating statistics on the U.S. Department of Transportation and Motorcycle Industry Council websites.
The 2012 GHSA report goes on to state that “[n]ational data support a strong relationship between motorcycle registrations and motorcyclist fatalities.” The report provides a chart showing that from 1976 to 2011, fatalities track registrations “quite closely for the entire 34 years, and extremely closely for the period 1990-2008.” State data are available, and Minnesota follows the national trend for fatalities vs. registrations.
The article also discussed the number of fatalities happening in the over-45 age group: 32 of the 55 deaths in 2012. This, in addition to comments in the article, gave the impression that older riders are overrepresented in the data, which once again is not accurate. The federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports that in 1985, the median age of motorcyclists was 27 and that in 2003 the median age was 41. Also in 2003, 53 percent of owners were 40 or older. Considering that it has been 10 years since these numbers were reported, it is not unreasonable that half of the fatalities would be happening to older riders.
My point is not to minimize the tragedy of even one motor-vehicle-related death. There is no argument with the fact that motorcyclists are extremely vulnerable and that in encounters with 2- to 3-ton vehicles, the motorcycle always loses. I am a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast, and I wholeheartedly endorse the message in the article that drivers need to be much more vigilant of motorcycles.
Motorcyclists, too, can greatly increase their chances for accident-free riding by wearing high-visibility clothing, riding defensively, taking a safety course and, most important, wearing protective clothing — especially a helmet (preferably full-faced).
However, the take-home message of the article was that “motorcycling is dangerous,” not that “motorcyclists are dying on Minnesota roads, primarily because other drivers don’t see them.” When the Star Tribune presents articles about safety using raw data instead of providing rates, ratios, percentages or other normalizing data, it does its readers a disservice. I guess “Motorcycle death rate stable” wouldn’t attract as many readers as “Motorcycle deaths up in Minnesota.”
Bob Adomaitis, of Eden Prairie, is a safety and risk management consultant.