What you can do
Date: Thu, 10 May 2001 03:31:34 -0700
From: Kathy E Gill - firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: NHTSA reports more older riders in motorcycle crashes
Cc: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
The following letter to CNN.Com reflects my concerns about a recent
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report on
motorcycle accidents. It is unclear from the news report if the
reporting is slanted or if the NHTSA report is slanted; the NHTSA
web site does not yet reference the report nor are 2000 data available
(this story was released on 4 May).
I am writing you because either
-- you represent me in Washington, DC;
-- you hold a position of Congressional oversight over NHTSA; or
-- you hold a position of managerial oversight over NHTSA.
I am interested in obtaining a copy of the report, which was provided
in advance to CNN.com, and in discovering if the spin accompanying this
story was solely that of the reporter or if it was stimulated by the
tone of the NHTSA report.
Kathy E. Gill
1075 Bellevue Way NE
Bellevue WA 98004
=== begin copy of CNN.com response ===
As a taxpayer, motorcyclist and motorcycle instructor, I strongly
object to reporting that is so full of analytical stumblings that
I'm prompted to send both the Health Editor and the reporter a copy
of _A Mathematician Reads The Newspaper_.
Moreover, the tone of this article extends from its shaky foundation --
and is alarmist in the extreme. Is this the tone of the report or the
reporter? Won't know until I am able to read the as-yet-not-public
report (note -- the article does not say when the report will be
released to the public, nor can I find it at the NHTSA web site --
five days after this article was published).
Let's examine the first and second "findings":
"Preliminary statistics for 2000 showed motorcycle crashes
have steadily increased over the past three years. In the year
2000 alone, deaths on motorcycles increased 8 percent, to
"One reason cited was the increase in the number of motorcycles
on the road -- sales increased by 51 percent between 1997 and
1999 -- but the report found other possible factors as well."
Why even mention crashes when the article -- and NHTSA stats -- focus on
deaths? Reporting an absolute increase -- rather than number of deaths per
number of motorcycles on the road -- does little to illuminate the issue.
It is, however, alarming as presented and makes for great headlines. It also
ignores the fact that NHTSA statistics indicate that motorcycle deaths also
increased 8 percent from 1998 to 1999 (from 2,294 in 1998 to 2,472 in
1999 ). What "steady increase"? At this rate, for the past three years,
deaths might have increased as much as 24 percent -- compared to a 51 percent
increase in bikes sold.
Why not this spin instead?
Despite the increasing popularity of motorcycles for recreation
and commuting, fatalities and accidents are not increasing at the
same rate as ownership, suggesting that riders are practicing
defensive riding skills. And suggesting that courses like the
Motorcycle Safety Foundation new and experienced rider courses
are well worth their time and money.
Oh. That's right. "Good news" doesn't sell, nor does it often result in budget
increases. So let's fabricate some bad news, shall we, using data like these:
"The highest alcohol use among riders killed was in the
30-39 age group, in which almost half were legally drunk."
This is news? It is not "news" that half (or more) of accidents involving
motorcycle fatalities include alcohol as a factor. We also know that the
definition of "legally drunk" has recently changed from 0.10 BAC to 0.08 BAC
in many states -- making it difficult to compare year-to-year data.
Add this scintillating fact:
"There also is evidence that larger bikes, which aren't
necessarily faster but are more difficult to handle, might be
contributing to the increase in fatalities."
Who says? What evidence? And what, exactly, does the reporter mean? Weight?
Engine size? This is unattributed opinion masquerading as reporting -- and it
certainly would have landed me an 'F' when I was in journalism school.
The only data used to substantiate this point is engine size -- and comparing
1990 to 1999 on this count is truly like comparing apples and oranges! The
percentage of motorcycles being sold in the 1000cc-and-over range is far
greater today than it was in 1990! Could our reporter -- or the NHTSA
researchers -- NOT know this?
"Dick Schriner, an instructor in a motorcycle training program
in Glen Bernie, Maryland, thinks his students 'have an overinflated
idea of their abilities, of what they can handle and cannot handle,
and... of what they can deal with in traffic.'"
Warning - sarcasm from a former reporter:
I am so glad that the CNN reporter could find a motorcycle safety instructor
willing to provide a soundbite that matches the slant of the article.
In my experience (I'm in my second year as an instructor), most of my students
understand their limits. (This is, by the way, one of the things we are
supposed to help them recognize in the course -- does Mr. Schriner realize
how damning his statement is as a reflection on his abilities as an instructor?)
They recognize that riding a training bike in a parking lot is different from
riding a 650cc or 1200cc motorcycle in metropolitan rush hour traffic. In fact,
it is this awareness that makes most of my students elect to enroll in a
Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) course in the first place!
In conclusion, what have we learned? That the NHTSA has a (possibly) inflammatory
report which might help them boost their budget (slightly) to launch a public
awareness campaign promoting motorcycle safety. A report which they release in
advance to the media -- for no good reason (what is *secret* here? nothing!).
While I'm all for increased awareness of motorcycle safety and motorcycling, I
do not want it to rest on a foundation of shoddy reporting, inept research, and
fear-mongering. And I really *really* dislike the media having their paws on a
publicly-funded report well in advance of those who paid for it (taxpayers) or
those who might, actually, know how to interpret it (motorcyclists).
Kathy E. Gill
1075 Bellevue Way NE
Bellevue WA 98004
Sen. Patty Murray
Sen. Maria Cantwell
Rep. Jennifer Dunn
Sen. John McCain, chair, Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee
Rep. Don Young, chair, Committee on Transporation and Infrastructure
Rep. Brian Baird, WA, member, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
Rep. Rick Larsen, WA, member, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
Norman Y. Mineta, Secretary of Transportation
Eugene Taylor, CIO, Department of Transportation