The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a six page report last Friday titled “2013 Motor Vehicle Crashes: Overview” accompanied by six pages of statistical tables.
Normally that wouldn’t qualify as what eyewitless television programmers call “breaking news.” But except for the merry pranks and hollow threats of Pillsbury Doughboy body double Kim Jong-un this is a pretty slow news week. So yesterday the Wall Street Journal ran a feature titled, “Uneasy Rider: Boomer Deaths in Motorcycle Crashes Rise.” The story was subtitled “More Older Riders Take to the Road, but Reflexes Aren’t as Fast.”
The Journal piece is mostly blather. The story is personalized with the tales of Benjamin Garrett III who died after a Mustang turned in front of him and Randall Dowell who was hit by reckless driver in Ohio and lost a leg. The Journal mostly worries that motorcycles are more dangerous than cars and encourages readers to worry, too. It cites last Friday’s NHTSA report as a major factual source.
The Journal feature also leans heavily on the debatable opinions of “traffic safety consultant” James Hedlund who proclaims that older riders are more vulnerable. “Their reflexes and their vision aren’t as good as they were,” Hedlund says. Nor, he asserts, are older riders, who are Harley-Davidson’s core customers, as generally robust as younger riders. “The same impact will cause more damage to a 55-year-old than a 25-year-old.” The Journal doesn’t question or try to prove anything Hedlund says. The Journal’s writer, Steven Turville, simply assumes that Hedlund is an authority on gerontology as well as traffic safety.
In fact, Hedlund is not entirely comfortable with the idea of people riding motorcycles. “The way to make a motorcycle safe is to put four wheels and a body on it,” he said. And according to the Journal he favors “mandating helmets for all riders in the 31 states that don’t have such laws.” The Journal doesn’t acknowledge the possibility, that mandatory helmet use is an issue about which informed people can disagree.
The Journal did a sloppy job. The paper ran an ill-informed editorial masquerading as a news feature. But the fallout from the Journal piece is going to be worse than it should be because the United States is now a nation held together mostly by propaganda and paranoia and because later yesterday the webzine Gawker ran a slightly snarky response to the Journal story titled “If You Buy a Motorcycle, You Will Die” Gawker, in case you’ve never heard of it before, calls itself “the source for daily Manhattan media news and gossip” and its slogan is “today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news.” Gawker is much more influential in television newsrooms than it probably should be.
“You’ll get that beautiful chopper, you’ll take it out on the open road, you’ll open up that throttle and feel the wind in your hair and a heart-bursting sense of freedom and declare that you’ve never felt more alive,” Gawker explains. “Then you’ll get distracted or hit a pebble or feel a momentary wobble in your front wheel driving over some oil and before you even know what’s happening you’re sliding along the asphalt right into a fucking guardrail and you’re dead.”
“Don’t take my word for it,” the Gawker writer, an astoundingly important and influential guy named Hamilton Nolan (Batman above) argues. “Look at the cold hard facts: old folks like you are going out and buying motorcycles and then launching themselves over the handlebars and straight into hell, now more than ever.” Then Nolan quotes from and links to the Journal piece to substantiate his “cold hard facts.”
Twist the story a little more and you might be able to imagine what television is about to make of Gawker’s version of the Journal’s version of what NHTSA actually said.
Actually, NHTSA didn’t say what both news outlets allege it said. It didn’t imply what either the Journal or Gawker said it implied and in some cases NHTSA said the opposite.
Here is what the report said.
What NHTSA Said
“A particularly notable decrease was seen in the number of motorcyclists who lost their lives in 2013, down over 6 percent from 2012—318 fewer motorcyclists’ lives lost. Although the fatalities and injuries decreased from 2012 to 2013, the total number of crashes that occurred on the roads increased slightly – primarily a result of an almost 3-percent increase in crashes that resulted in no injuries, only property damage.”
Four thousand nine hundred eighty-six motorcyclists died in 2012. Four thousand six hundred sixty-eight motorcyclists died in 2013.
“One notable decrease was the 6.4-percent decrease in the number of motorcyclists who lost their lives on the roadways in 2013 – 318 fewer motorcyclists. This was the first decrease in motorcyclist fatalities since 2009, the only other decrease since 1997.”
“As was seen with motorcyclist fatalities, the number of injured motorcyclists also decreased in 2013 by an estimated 5,000 from 2012 (not statistically significant), or 5.4 percent.”
“Motorcyclist fatalities now take up 14 percent of total fatalities, compared to nine percent 10 years ago.”
“Motorcycle riders showed the greatest decrease in the number of alcohol-impaired drivers involved in fatal crashes from 2012 to 2013, dropping 8.3 percent or by 117 riders. This was both the greatest percentage drop and the greatest drop in actual alcohol-impaired drivers.”
“There was a large decrease in motorcyclist fatalities for the 50- to 69-year-old population: 190 fewer fatalities in 2013 than in 2012 (60% of the total decrease for motorcyclist fatalities).”
“There were 11 times as many unhelmeted motorcyclist fatalities in States without universal helmet laws (1,704 unhelmeted fatalities) as in States with universal helmet laws (150 unhelmeted fatalities) in 2013.”