St. Louis, MO
Posted - 03/03/2011 : 3:51 PM
What has happened in the sky since 1990 can give motorcyclists a fresh and revealing look at what's happened on the ground and may point the way to a solution for the motorcycle safety puzzle:
In 1991 there were 30 skydiving deaths in the USA and 14 of them were "no pull-low pull" accidents-or 46.6 percent were killed by their parachutes opening too late or too low to the ground. These are deaths by equipment failure.[i]
Because they were caused by equipment, these kinds of accidents were amendable to an equipment solution. In a similar way, since so many motorcycle crashes are caused by braking errors, better brakes (disc for drum and then dual disc, then ABS and dual disc) brakes would do for motorcycling what AAD did for skydiving.
In contrast, in 1991 only 3 were killed in "Open Canopy" accidents-or when the parachute was open and controllable and yet the sky-diver slammed into the ground at lethal speed. Those accidents occur because the skydiver miscalculated how long they had to perform maneuvers in the air or turned too sharply too low to the ground or began leveling off too late to land successfully.
Open canopy (or landing fatalities), the skydiving community says, are deaths by human error, but they say, these aren't newbie mistakes. In fact, more expert skydivers die every year than students.[ii]
In one of the fastest and most complete safety turnarounds ever, deaths from no pull-low pull accidents dropped every year after that until, in 1998, there were none. That year alone, however, 12 skydivers who would've likely been killed were saved by an automatic activation device (AAD).
The AADs available prior to 1990 were big, awkward to operate and expensive-and not very effective. CYPRES, which stands for Cybernetic Parachute Release System, changed all that when it hit the market in 1990. It's a computerized device about the size of a pack of cigarettes that costs about $1,200 and is extremely effective. "During free-fall and canopy descent, the CYPRES uses computer-interpreted barometric metering to constantly assess a skydiver's altitude and rate of descent. If a skydiver is descending faster than a certain speed, beyond a pre-set altitude (750 feet AGL), this device will instantly activate the skydiver's reserve parachute."[iii]
Skydivers typically wear a visual altimeter and nowadays an audible altimeter is also available. Altimeters aren't required but their safety advantage is undeniable. The advantage of an AAD isn't the altimeter, then, but the automatic deployment.[iv]
Like a motorcycle helmet doesn't prevent a crash, an AAD doesn't prevent a bad landing-skydivers can still be injured. Yet, CYPRES and its competitors effectively removed the most obvious fatal risk of skydiving and became incredibly popular:
CYPRES sales alone had risen from less than a thousand units in 1991 to almost 22,000 units in 1998.[ v] It's unknown, though, how many skydivers use an AAD device, however, today, "failed to open" crashes are rare-and some of them happen because the skydiver had fiddled with the altitude limit at which the reserve parachute would open.
A tremendous difference in regulation
Unlike motorcycling, skydiving is basically self-policing. However, skydivers go through training before they are allowed to jump from a plane. The shortest is tandem jumping where they are attached to a trained professional who controls the jump. The most extensive course is the one developed by the U.S. Parachute Association. This association, like the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, developed the standards, curriculum and certification for skydivers in the USA (though with a great deal more transparency-see here: . Skydiving training is both more intensive and real-world based than motorcycle training to get to the certified stage (which is comparable to a motorcycle endorsement on a driver's license.
Key to our discussion on motorcycle fatalities is that an AAD is not required in any state as a motorcycle helmets are in 20 states. Rather, unlike motorcycle helmets, most sky divers immediately saw the obvious benefit of AAD and voluntarily adopted them. As a result, that particular kind of fatal accident has been virtually eliminated.
An AAD, however, isn't comparable to a helmet. Though it is expensive, once bought it's basically invisible: it's simply there like an airbag in a car; nor does it make skydiving more uncomfortable or less enjoyable nor do they remove control over pulling the ripcord from the skydiver. Rather, it does it's job invisibly and only does it's job when the skydiver can't.
Most importantly, AADs were not politicized as motorcycle helmets were nor seen as a lifestyle statement nor as a badge of who is a "real" motorcyclist or not.
It can be argued that usage is high because the danger is extremely obvious and skydivers aren't stupid-just as they realize a wrist altimeter is necessary, so is an AAD to control risk.
But there is no possible AAD-type solution for motorcyclists that could deal so effectively with the risk of riding.
Skydiving helmet use v. motorcycle helmets
Skydiving helmet use is much more comparable to motorcycling because there are many more similarities. Skydiving helmets offer (some) protection from mid-air or landing collisions with other divers or a fixed obstacle such as the ground, a vehicle or building.
But it is a limited protection due to the nature of skydiving accidents- for example, skydivers can be going 100 mph or more when they collide in mid-air and 60 mph in a hook turn to landing gone wrong. And skydiving helmets, like motorcycle helmets, cannot protect the user from injuries such as coup-contra-coup and axial rotation injuries.
Yet mid-air collisions with other divers (or collisions with the plane on exit) and landing collisions with fixed, solid objects are risks skydivers are well aware of, usage seems to be as much as a place to mount a camera as it is for safety. While there are no statistics on skydiving helmet usage, examination of scores of skydiving videos reveal that usage is not uniform.
Given skydiver;s reluctance to voluntarily wear a helmet and given the history of motorcycle and bicycle helmet regulation, it;s somewhat surprising that skydiving helmet use is not mandated in any state even though the benefits are very similar to motorcycling. Nor are helmets even required by many schools for students. Nor is there a national standard for helmet construction or agreed upon measures for what impact they need to withstand.
So even though head trauma is often cited as the cause of death in skydiving fatalities, it has not undergone the same public intervention as motorcycling has-possibly because it is a relatively invisible sport-relatively few participate and when they do, it's normally in out-of-the-way locations. Nor does skydiving come under such intense media scrutiny.
Shared attitudes about personal protective gear
Skydivers are also much like motorcyclists when it comes to safety gear. Though protective suits are available, they are even less frequently used than skydiving helmets. And, like motorcyclists, protective gear protects against weather (temperature for skydivers) and minor-not moderate or severe-injuries.
And, like motorcycling, when a participant chooses to wear a protective suit, they also appear to choose to wear a helmet, too. However, just like with motorcycling, the reverse is not true-those who wear helmets don't necessarily wear gear. Iow, those who are most safety-conscious in either activity seem to share an in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound attitude.
A study that compares helmet and protective gear usage across several high-risk activities to determine similarities and differences in attitudes, use, likelihood of prior injuries/close calls etc. could be very revelatory.
Unlike gear one must choose to buy and wear, AADs usage is higher than either helmets or protective gear. In one way this makes sense-if your canopy doesn't open, a helmet/gear is less likely to make a life or death difference. Even so, just like in motorcycling, there are more accidents in skydiving that are more likely to end in injury than in death and, statistically, the average rider or skydiver has a much higher chance or being in an injury-producing accident than a fatality. Yet usage lags in the same areas as motorcycling. The operative word here is wear. We'll return to that in a future entry.
Huge safety margin but no safety gain
Even though the leading cause of skydiving accidents has been virtually eliminated, about 1 in 100,000 dives end in death today. And that has been the ratio of fatalities to jumps since 1963. Iow, there has been no ultimate safety gain in the sport.
Instead "landing" accidents rose every year from 1989 to 1998 in an ominous symmetry with the drop in no pull-low pull accidents. There was one difference, however: landing fatalities exceeded the classic cause of death we associate with skydiving.
By 2009 70 percent of all skydiving fatalities occurred with fully-opened, properly functioning parachutes-and almost none of them happened to beginners.
Instead, the experts-or intermediates jonesing to be experts-were dying as they did the airborne version of motorcycling stunting.
Specifically, they were doing "hook turns" just before landing. When done properly, they result in long, dramatic "swoops" to a spectacular landing.
When done improperly, skydivers can be seriously hurt or die.
While there are collisions and other equipment malfunctions (such as toggle brake failures), the greatest increase in fatalities has been in landings bungled by human error.
The safety margin gained by AAD usage, then, was consumed by the increase in more dangerous high performance maneuvers. The risk involved in skydiving, then wasn't eliminated but was merely translated into a different kind of accident.
Unlike No pull-low pull fatalities, the current configuration-landing errors-is caused by human and not equipment errors-and therefore more difficult to solve.
Particularly because skydivers who perform such maneuvers believe they are skilled enough-and therefore have managed the risk-to perform them correctly and land safely. But they were wrong. If not death, the results are often shattered legs, multi-fractures to the pelvis injuries, and chest and brain trauma.
In that way, they are like motorcyclists who believed they were riding within their limits and found out to their dismay-or death-that they weren't. And, like skydivers, many motorcyclists are doing all the right things-they're trained and fully licensed, wearing helmets, riding sober-and operating within their limits.
In this way, skydivers and motorcyclists have a lot in common: both groups believe that they are skilled enough to manage the risks-and all too often, individual participants are wrong.
The question is why did these kind of crashes suddenly begin occurring? The general perception in the skydiving community is that risk compensation occurred: When parachute malfunction was virtually eliminated, skydivers subconsciously or unconsciously took on activities that were more risky. In this case-as a whole group-the safety gain from AAD was more than offset by the safety loss from high performance maneuvers.
But, as Napier et. al. pointed out, correlation is not causation-and other things occurred during the same time frame. For example, sport canopies became smaller-but more difficult to handle. That's another similarity to motorcycling with the growing popularity of sport bikes.
In the next entry, we'll explore risk compensation more closely.
[i] Napier, Vic, Findley, Carolyn Sara and Self, Donald Raymond. Risk Homeostasis: A Case Study Of The Adoption Of A Safety Innovation On The Level Of Perceived Risk. www.vicnapier.com/Risk/4%252...nt=firefox-a." target="_blank">http://126.96.36.199/search?q=cache...t=firefox-a. Other kinds of fatal accidents are caused by entanglements and collisions but these are by far the fewest kinds of crashes.
[ii] Luvi. Parachuting Statistics on Accidents. Apr-11-08 11:40am. http://www.zimbio.com/Skydiving/art...cs+Accidents.
[iii] Skydiving FAQ About skydiving safety. http://www.fabulousrocketeers.com/P...ly_Roger.htm.
[iv] Successful deployment of the reserve parachute usually depends on the main canopy being cut completely away, which the skydiver may be unable to accomplish for one reason or another.
[ v] Napier, Vic, Findley, Carolyn Sara and Self, Donald Raymond. Risk Homeostasis: A Case Study Of The Adoption Of A Safety Innovation On The Level Of Perceived Risk. www.vicnapier.com/Risk/4%252...ent=firefox-a" target="_blank">http://188.8.131.52/search?q=cache...nt=firefox-a