The Paranoid Motorcyclist

story by Fred Rau, Photograph by Alfonse Palaima, Created Oct. 06, 2006
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"They are the scourge on our highways." 

"They are an epidemic." 

"They continue to clog the trauma centers of America."

Those are quotes from Dr. Jeffery W. Runge, Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), while speaking at the Lifesavers Convention, Charlotte, NC, on March 14, 2005. And just in case you hadn't figured it out yet, the "they" being referred to is you and me - motorcyclists.

Dr. Runge and other "authorities" making these statements always back up their comments with hard scientific evidence like, "motorcycle fatalities have increased 12% in the past two years." Of course, what they never include in such statements are modifying facts, like maybe, "the number of people riding motorcycles has increased by 18% in the past two years." We wouldn't want to confuse people with too many facts, so we'll just give them the ones that support the conclusions we've already jumped to.

The plain and simple truth is that you can manipulate statistics to support just about any theory you'd care to propose. One of my old college professors proved that to me beyond any shadow of a doubt. And at the risk of sounding even more paranoid than I already am, I'm pretty sure that our government has an entire cadre of experts in its employ whose only job it is to do just that very thing. But even they can't hold a candle to the greatest statistical "spin doctors" I've ever encountered: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Read one of their annual reports, and unless you're a totally gullible moron, you'll see exactly what I mean.

The IIHS has us looking over our shoulders.One of the IIHS' favorite stats to report is that, "per mile traveled, motorcycle rider fatalities are 27 times greater than those in automobiles." Well, golly, since they bothered to factor in "per mile traveled," that sounds pretty bad, doesn't it? I suppose it does, but it leaves out a few mitigating factors. For example, a motorcycle will be carrying a single rider about 90% of the time. When you ride one mile without an accident on your bike, you are counted as one safe mile traveled. But the stats for automobiles includes not only cars with two or more passengers, but also vans, trucks and even buses. A bus with 40 passengers goes one mile without an accident, and it is counted as 40 safe miles traveled, compared to your one mile. Then, add in the fact that motorcycles simply aren't ridden the number of miles in a year that a car is used. In fact, we average only about 30% of automobile usage. Oh, and they count dirt bike miles, too, and ATVs, which obviously results in a lot more accidents "per mile traveled." Ever see someone go off-roading in the family sedan, or better yet, a fully-loaded school bus?

Per mile traveled, equestrians (horseback riders) are 25 times more likely to be killed or injured in an accident than a motorcyclist!

Are you beginning to see how this works? If not, I'll make it even simpler: Per mile traveled, a pedestrian is 18 times more likely to be injured or killed in an accident than a motorcyclist. We need to get those crazed, daredevil walkers and joggers off our sidewalks! But wait --there's something worse: Per mile traveled, equestrians (horseback riders) are 25 times more likely to be killed or injured in an accident than a motorcyclist! Sure, I'll admit that motorcycle riding can be dangerous --as riders we need to never forget that-- but I don't hear anyone talking about how dangerous it is to ride a horse, or about regulating them more, or even banning them outright. The future of equestrian gear?

The plain and simple truth is that you can manipulate statistics to support just about any theory you'd care to propose.

Am I really paranoid, or am I detecting some kind of bias here? Do you remember, as I do, when Gary Busey fell off his bike and suffered severe head trauma? The newspaper articles weren't very sympathetic. In fact, most seemed to lean toward the take that if he hadn't been doing something so stupid and dangerous as riding a motorcycle, this never would have happened, so he really had only himself to blame. Granted, Gary is a kind of belligerent, in-your-face sort of guy, so I can see how he elicited some of these reactions, but the fact remains that he was given little in the way of public sympathy. And yet, not too long after that incident, Superman himself, Christopher Reeve, fell off his horse and also suffered severe head trauma. Now, I felt as sorry for Chris as anyone, but the fact is, the media almost immediately anointed him as a saint. Magazines and TV shows devoted entire issues and shows to extolling this brave, valiant hero who was fighting for his life after an unfortunate accident. Okay, so maybe Chris was a nicer guy than Gary --but does that really explain why Gary was portrayed as an idiot for falling off a motorcycle, but Chris was lauded as a hero for falling off a horse?

I forget who said it, but the quote goes something like this: "You're not paranoid if they really are out to get you."

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