PBS Pushes Shoddy Study Blaming Motorcycle Deaths on Removal of Helmet Requirements

A story that aired on PBS NewsHour Monday showcases the innate pro-bigger-government bias of that program, embedded in a discussion of mandatory motorcycle helmet laws and an increase in motorcycle accident fatalities.

Host Gwen Ifill introduced the segment as a look at "the correlation between motorcycle casualties and helmet laws," featuring a Judy Woodruff interview with Rick Schmidt, who was billed as a reporter for FairWarning.org.

FairWarning describes itself as a non-profit and non-partisan online publication "that seeks to provide robust, public interest journalism on issues of health, safety and corporate conduct." Those descriptors may well be true but the organization's story is advocacy journalism -- blaming rising motorcycle fatalities on many states doing away with mandatory helmet laws for adult riders.

Woodruff's PBS segment followed that same path:

Fatalities on the nation's roads may be declining, but motorcycle deaths are not. Those deaths have increased from about 3,200 in 2002 to 4,500 in 2010. And yet state laws requiring helmets have been weakened. In the 1970s, 47 states shown here in gray required all motorcycle drives to wear helmets. Today, just 19 of them, all in dark blue, require them. Most of the rest in light blue still require helmets of younger riders. That's the finding of a new report released earlier this month by the investigative group FairWarning.org. Days later, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued its own report, finding that five times as many cyclists who don't wear helmets die in accidents compared to those who do wear one.

Only late in the story does Woodruff raise the statistical possibility that the rise in fatalities isn't because of states getting rid of helmet laws, but because -- wait for it -- there are a lot more motorcyclists now than in the 1970s.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I have to ask you about one of the statistics, or a major statistics that the motorcycle groups put out there. And they say, yes, the number of fatalities has more than doubled, as you point out, but they also say the number of motorcycles out there, the number of motorcycles registered has more than doubled.

RICK SCHMITT: Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And when you compare that with the percentage of fatalities, they say the percentage of fatalities has actually slightly decreased.

RICK SCHMITT: Well, it's definitely true that a lot more people are riding motorcycles and enjoying riding motorcycles on the roads.

It's also true that there are lot more people driving cars these days since the 1940s, maybe five or six times number of folks. And yet the number of people who die in car accidents is actually the same as it was. So I think we need to ask ourselves, why is one about the same and why is one continuing to climb rapidly?

Woodruff doesn't continue this line of conversation, but then shifts to the libertarian argument that, essentially, the government ought not to be in the business of telling people to wear helmets.

This allows Schmitt to shift to the "social costs that kind of redound to the public" from motorcycle accidents as a justification for making helmets mandatory.

Schmitt's original story at FairWarning.org doesn't explore the question of whether the increase in deaths might be due to the increase in the number of motorcycle riders, and barely even hints at the possibility, saying only, "As more riders have gotten on the road and the number of states with mandatory helmet laws has declined, biker deaths have soared."

And while Schmitt's story is long and filled with data and multiple points of view, essentially the story makes the mistake of assuming the correlation of data is the same as causation.

A real study of the data would look at motorcycle accident fatality data in each state were mandatory helmet laws have been repealed, and would adjust the data for such factors as the rise in the number of motorcyclists on the road, the overall rise in vehicle traffic on the roads, and the vehicle miles traveled.

Rather than go there, Woodruff ends her segment by asking Schmitt, "Is there a prospect of pushing back against it?" - implying that the data clearly shows a need for more mandatory helmet laws. 

Schmitt's answer indicates where he and FairWarning.org come down on the need for such laws. No, he doesn't see more states making helmets mandatory. "There seems to be more and more disdain for these -- for helmet requirements. And I think for -- and I think public safety people are both sort of confounded and very frustrated at the state of events right now. They're seeing more people die, and there's nothing that they can go do about it."

It may well be that such laws are a good idea but the evidence presented by Woodruff and Schmitt really is insufficient. Is it too much to ask that journalists actually demand proof from those demanding more government regulations?

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013