The Cell Phone Driving Impairment Studies And Studies Demonstrating the Epidemic Rise in Cell Phone Use While Driving Disclose An Important Additional Independent Variable Undermining NHTSA's "Over Time" Fatality Comparisons.
In our Motorcyclists-Against-Dumb-Drivers Cell Phone Safety Impact Scientific Review Article we suggest why motorcyclists should be very concerned about the epidemic of DUI level driver impairment with 10 percent of motorists at any given daylight moment in time now driving under the influence of cell phones. There is good reason to believe that auto drivers under the influence of cell phones pose an even greater danger to motorcyclists. We make the case that a comprehensive ban on cell phone use while driving is essential to return our highways to an ordinary level of motorist safety, and particularly for the safety of motorcyclists.
The implications of the epidemiological and controlled experimental scientific studies cited in the review article have additional relevance in the helmet law debate, and we invite our good freedom fighters to consider these additional implications.
Specifically we urge those confronting any "over time" statistics based on data collected after the mid-1990s, meaning statistics comparing fatalities or injuries or accidents occurring during one period of time with another period of time, to consider whether the epidemic rise in cell phone use may be an "independent variable" which the study authors failed to control for.
NHTSA has recently seized on what it considers to be perhaps its best opportunity ever to "create evidence" to obscure the utter failure of its past myopic and paternalistic "motorcycle safety" policies historically centered around dictating "what bikers wear." In the past NHTSA's efforts to manufacture "science" to support its political agenda has relied upon it's willingness to grossly violate most of the most basic tenets of the scientific method. And its most recent comparisons of haphazardly collected anecdotal fatality reports dating from the years "before" and "after" the repeal of state helmet laws are just more of the same. Perhaps the greatest weakness of these "over time" studies are their failure to control for independent variables, and it was ABATE that first pointed this out in the context of the "before" "after" studies, citing to the rise in motorcycle registrations as demonstrating that there were more motorcyclists on the road subsequent to the repeal than before. What we consider to be a hugely potent uncontroled independent variable likely to have lead to spurious results in any "over time" study conducted after the mid-nineties is the literally epidemic rise in the incidence of DUI driving under the influence of cell phones.
As we have developed more fully on other pages of this Motorcyclists-Against-Dumb-Drivers web site, including on our page entitled, "Motorcyclists Against Dumb Drivers Takes A Motorcyclist Safety Position In Favor of the Repeal of Motorcycle Helmet Laws" we are stronly critical of NHTSA's politically motivated study designs and the political use which NHTSA and state helmet law proponants have made of them.
Our overriding concern derives from the fact that the "rational basis" upon which the states justify helmet legislation is either the state's purported interest in the "public health" of the motorcycle riding segment of the state's population, or the "state fiscal interest" in reducing the amount of money the state must pay out to cover the medical expenses of bikers who don't wear helmets. Undermining the basis for all helmet laws, they are ill designed to acheive either of these purposes. This is unfortunate for the freedom movement because thus far the politicians have gotten away with it, misleading the public to believe that they are doing something good and paternalistically sympathetic for the safety of bikers, or to protect the state coffers from being drained by the irresponsible biker. The first, and most expansive rebuttal to all of the NHTSA studies used by the states to support both of these "rational bases" is that the studies are all clearly designed only to provide limited misinformation on fatalities,and patently only for the purpose of reducing the issue to that which is acceptable politically. It is indeed the politics which drives the study results obtained according to study designs created to acheive the politically desired results. Neither NHTSA nor the states want to face up to the fact that it is the majority of their constituancy, the auto drivers, who are causing this obscene death toll suffered by our two-wheeled minority. Heaven forbid that these politicians would have to acknoledge that the only way to reduce this disporportionate incidence of motorcyclist injury and death involves substantial imposition upon the majority.
So first of all, our "public health crisis," is defined not by the number of our "fatalities," but by the full panoply of our injuries and the consequences of our injuries sustained in motorcycle accidents. The same is true also for the state's "fiscal" crisis which results again from the medical expense the state must pay for the full landscape of motorcyclist injury, deriving from the hugely disporportionate number of multi-vehicle motorcycle accidents cause by inattentive and negligent auto drivers; auto drivers who after maiming the motorcyclist then refuse to take responsibility to pay his medical expenses beyond the limits of their minimum coverage liability policies. Our public health crises and state fiscal crises are not about to be solved by helmet laws. Each are defined by the spinal cord injuries we suffer, which helmets can have no utility to prevent, our paraplegia, leaving us unable to participate ever again in the professions by which we had supported our families, or quadriplegia, leaving us crippled for life, hole up in convalescent homes for life, our debilitating internal injury, often with the same consequences; our catastrophic orthopedic injury and limb amputations, also leaving us unable to return to our professions. This is the landscape of human carnage left in the path of the inattentionally blind and negligent auto driver, not just our few fatalities; and helmets are completely useless to protect or minimize any of them. Even in terms of the head injuries we sustain, we would like to be accurately informed of the true incidence rates and utility of helmets to reduce these rates or the severity of the injuries, so that we can make an informed choice whether to use a helmet. But we have never received accurate data because NHTSA has been so stridently involved in developing misleading information in the service of its failed political "motorcycle safety" biker dress code agenda. Studies focusing solely upon fatalities are indeed obviously designed principally to avoid the "perspective" which would become immediately apparent, that fatalities and indeed head injuries are but a small part of the much greater state "public health" and "fiscal" issues. Indeed it would be useful even for the fatality data to know what percentage of the fatalities resulted from head injury as distinct from internal injury, spinal cord injury or from bleading out, as might occur from an amputation injury. Indeed, instead of basing policy on accumulations of haphazardly collected anecdotal fatality reports, we would suggest that essential to obtaining meaningful information each motorcyclists death should be investigated and subjected to unbiased, independent medical and neurological review to determine whether patient died as the result of a head injury, whether the head injury would have been minimized and death avoided by use of a DOT compliant helmet, whether the patient would have died anyway from other sustained injuries, and if it is concluded that the motorcyclist would have survived as the result of the protection of the helmet, what mental and physical condition he would have been left in with which to enjoy the remainder of his life. Without this type of analysis none of NHTSA's fatality studies provides any meaningful information about the utility of helmets, let alone in the perspective of the entire landscape of motorcyclist injury and death resulting the disporportionate and indeed obscene incidence of multi-vehicle auto-motorcycle accidents.
Stepping back, the reason for NHTSA's historical singular focus on what bikers wear derives from the fact that NHTSA is a political institution run by bureaucrats who hold their jobs by not taking political risks, sensitive to public reaction and to the agendas of state politicians who only want to hear what will support policies which will be acceptable to their constituencies. Neither NATSA or many state politicians want to face the truth that the factors responsible for the greatest percentage of the broad landscape of devastating motorcyclist injury is auto driver inattention and negligence, principally resulting from "motorcycle specific inattentional blindness" manifest most commonly when auto drivers enter or turn left at intersections into the motorcyclist's right of way. Indeed, NHTSA long ago adopted the political artifice that it was the motorcycle's smaller size that was the culprit resulting in the auto driver's inability to "see" it. This "lack of conspicuity" fiction remains a part of NHTSA most preciously held original misrepresentations because it provides the political excuse for not laying blame where it belongs, with the inattentionally blind auto driver. The fiction permits NHTSA and the states to focus on remedies which burden only our small minority, on helmet laws and recommendations about the multicolored fashion bikers should wear to make themselves more "conspicuous" to auto drivers. If NHTSA and the states can pretend that it is the motorcycle's size that is the problem, this is their best excuse for doing nothing productive for the safety of motorcyclists, particularly given that what would be productive they concluded long ago was politically unfashionable.
While Motorcyclists-Against-Dumb-Drivers does not have the freedom fight as a part of its mission, deferring to our ABATE brothers and sisters and the other freedom fighters who have diligently fought this good fight for so long, we do consider it within our motorcycle safety mission to point out that NHTSA's myopic, paternalistic, historical focus on "what bikers wear" has been a huge impediment to obtaining the real solutions to the real dangers we face as bikers. It is for this reason, in the interest of improving motorcycle safety, that we have concluded that this unproductive obsession with what bikers wear must be put to bed, and attention refocused on the real motorcycle safety issues; and the only way that will be acheived is by the universal repeal of all helmet legislation and abandonment helmet laws as a distraction to the motorcycle safety debate.
Now turning to the utility of the scientific evidence of this growing epidemic of DUI level "driving under the influence of cell phones" in rebutting NHTSA's "over time" fatality studies. The importance of the cell phone studies is to demonstrate an independent variable that likely overwhelmes any other variable, including the variable of helmet use, in accounting for the rise in motorcyclist fatalities. Most recently, NHTSA has focused on "before"/"after" helmet repeal fatality comparisons. These are haphazard collections of anecdotal motorcyclist fatality data, comparing gross numbers of fatalities in the years before and after the repeal of state helmet legislation without controlling for even the most obvious independent variables, and then reporting the correlations or relative risks often without the proper application of ordinary statistical analyses essential to determine if the results are statistically significant.
When NHTSA first came out with these "before and after" fatality comparisons our good freedom fighters were the first to point out NHTSA's failure to control for the independent variable that there were a greater number of bikers on the road in the years after the repeals than before, as evidenced by the increased number and rate of new motorcycle registrations. Another independent variable which NHTSA failed to control for was that given the increase in new motorcycle registrations, there were surely a greater number of new or less experienced riders on the roads in the years "after" repeal than "before" accounting for another measure of the "over time" increase in fatalities.
The steep rise in cell phone use over the past decade and the recognition that cell conversation while driving results in DUI level driver impairment constitutes an additional independent variable which has not been raised or fully considered as potentially confounding the results of "over time" comparisons. Indeed, over the past decade the percentage of the auto driving public which has been driving under the influence of cell phone conversation (with DUI level driving impairment, and a fourfold increased likelihood of causing an accident), has risen each year epidemically. In the year 2000 the percentage of American drivers on the road at any given daylight moment in time who were actively involved in cell phone conversations was 4 percent. By 2002, the number had risen to 6 percent. By 2004, the number had risen to 8 percent. And by the end of 2005, the number had risen to 10 percent. See, Motorcyclists-Against-Dumb Drivers Cell Phone Safety Impact Scientific Review Article, Henke, Aug. 2006.
The danger posed to all motorists is indeed the same as if these percentages of drivers using cell phones while driver were all driving DUI level drunk. We suggest in the above referrenced review article, furthermore, that there is good reason to believe that the dangers posed to motorcyclists by motorists driving under the influence of cell phone conversation may indeed be substnatially greater.
This "independent variable," the year to year rise in the numbers of motorists driving under the influence of cell phones, may indeed be responsible for the greatest part of increases in all manner of accidents, including accidents resulting in fatalities sustained by drivers and passengers of every type of vehicle, and if we are correct, even more profoundly the explanation for even greater year to year increased incidence in motorcyclist fatalities. Indeed, the greatest part of the the "before" to "after" helmet law repeal increase in motorcyclist fatalities is likely due in fact to the steep rise in DUI driving under the influence of cell phones.
This type of retrospective "before-after" population study, which NHTSA and helmet law proponents see as their new "great opportunity " to cover-up the failure of their decades long myopic "motorcycle safety" focus on what bikers wear, is widely recognized by epidemiologists as the very least persuasive study design, precisely because it is the most likely to yield spurious results. The weaknesses in NHTSA study designs generally are exacerbated when those conducting the studies are willing to violate the most basic tenets of the scientific method, as when NHTSA fails to control for these most obvious independent variables.
The individual studies each have a multitude of additional methodological errors. In the above Cell Phone Impairment Scientific Review article Henke discusses just one obvious defect in the most recent compilation of haphazardly collected raw data put forth in the current California cell phone ban debate in which it was urged by the leading proponent of a "handheld cell phone only" ban that handheld cell phones were 27.7 times more likely to result in accidents than hands-free cell phones. These "study results" were cited by the Los Angeles Times as turning the California legislature to favor a handheld cell phone ban over a complete ban on all cell phone use while driving. Henke quickly strips the relative risk from 27.7 to 1.3, and then offers a number of good reasons, equally applicable to the NHTSA before-after studies, that even that much smaller relative risk should be ignored (undercutting the argument for a handheld cell phone only ban.) Bad science should have no place in serious public health debate.
Indeed the solution to the state public health and fiscal crises is not to be found in the political bandaid contemplated by helmet laws. The problem is motorcycle specific auto driver inattentional blindness and general motorist negligence resulting from auto driver ignorance of the most basic motorcycle accident avoidance strategies essential for the protection of our vulnerable two-wheeled species. Enough of "lack of conspicuity" as an excuse for doing nothing to modify motorcycle specific auto driver inattentional blindness.. Motorcycles are just as visible as cars at the distance at which an auto driver can pose a threat to a motorcyclist when the auto driver pulls out into an intersection or turns left into the motorcyclist's right of way. The reason why auto drivers don't "see" motorcyclists is indeed described by the phenomenon of inattentional blindness, we believe, moderated primarily by two IB factors, "expectation" and "relevance." Only now does NHTSA pay the weakest lip service to "motorcycle awareness" without any specific plan to force auto drivers to consciously attend to motorcyclists when engaging in the specific auto driver behaviors most likely to result in multi-vehicle motorcycle accidents. There are ways which the scientific literature suggests can be effective in training auto drivers to attend to motorcycles, but they are much more sophisticated than anything yet discussed by NHTSA. These would include providing the auto driver a specific conscious "task" to engage in when a motorcycle appears in his visual field. This is a complex issue, discussed elsewhere on this Motorcyclists-Against-Dumb-Drivers web site. But the point is that there are available solutions to many of the most important categories of dangers we face as bikers that are scientifically based and calculated to have a substantial effect to reduce the dangers.
The biggest safety problem faced by motorcyclists today is that NHTSA, having spent decades myopically focused only on "what bikers wear," now appears bent on spending the next decade in efforts to defend its past failed policies, inter alia, with these expensive, methodologically flawed "before"/"after" helmet repeal studies. NHTSA and the states need to drop their paternalistic political focus on what bikers wear so that we can get on with the hard work of reducing the incidence of the full landscape of motorcyclist injury, and the only way to do that is by adopting policies to reduce the obscene incidence of multi-vehicle auto-motorcycle accidents.