by Mark Taylor
Published in January of 1981, the Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures Volume 1: Technical Report, also known as the “Hurt” report after the lead author H.H. Hurt, became an important document for organizations and businesses associated with motorcycle safety. The report’s purpose was the collection of in-depth information and data about real cases of motorcycle crashes and the generation of information regarding “the causes of motorcycle accidents and injuries…the effectiveness of safety helmets, and other protective equipment…[and] countermeasures [that] must be determined which will prevent motorcycle accidents and reduce injuries” (Hurt, Ouellet, and Thom 1). Over 400 pages long, the report contains an exhaustive list of both charts and data tables but only a few visual data representations. The report’s length, technical language, and lack of visual graphics leave a large section of the average population outside its scope of audience. Those audience outsiders wishing to be enlightened from such a study must either devote a large amount of their time towards understanding the study’s specific language and use of numbers or seek out experts who can summarize the study’s findings.
More recent studies have begun to include more visual data representations, but the language is often still outside the scope of a wider audience. The recent push toward providing free and easily accessible information through the World Wide Web has encouraged multiple organizations and private citizens to fill the information gap between experts and the information curious. In the online world of motorcycle information, sites such as webBikeWorld turn the highly technical information presented these reports into brief summaries of the key findings. Even still, the information presented lacks the sense of immediacy offered by well-designed data representations. According to Ingo Gunther, well-designed visuals allow “the uninitiated audience to cross into the field of expertise” (qtd. in Perer 173). Lines of text summarizing a report, despite being highly informative, are not very engaging. In response, many organizations like the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) have created images and diagrams instructing both amateur and expert riders, but one image created by a German safety researcher in Hannover concerning helmet safety has become so popular as to be posted on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website (CDC) and even used in a marketing scheme by a contemporary helmet manufacturer.
Professor Dietmar Otte, the creator of the image, is a prominent accident researcher that often makes use of visual diagrams to accompany his data charts, and his notoriety in the field adds a great deal to the helmet diagram’s credibility. Oddly though, despite giving clear reference to the creator of the diagram, none of the sources examined for this essay actually cite the article by Dr. Otte in which the diagram originates. Further investigation has failed to produce a research article written by Dr. Otte that includes the diagram, but the CDC does reference the image as being used in the book Proficient Motorcycling by D.L. Hough (2008). In addition, other helmet diagrams in articles written by Dr. Otte are very similar to the one in question, suggesting that he is indeed its architect.
The lack of an originating document aside, the popularity of the diagram is hard to deny. Much of this fame derives from its immediate approachability. In contrast to the confusing data tables and images of the “Hurt” report, Dr. Otte’s diagram can be understood almost instantly, due in large part to its simplicity. The single image maintains almost all of the data required to understand the image; the numbers’ reference to impact percentages is the only missing context and is typically discussed in the webpage’s text. No separate data table is required and no legend or key must share the visual space. Aiding the simplicity is the limit to three data points: the mirrored diagram of the helmet itself created with solid lines, the grid pattern created by dotted lines, and the percentages presented within the grid spaces. The mirrored diagram acts as a parallel image, which is prudent as “comparisons are usually more effective when the information is adjacent in space rather than stacked in time” (Tufte 81). The limit on data points leaves the image, which is typically presented in a small size around 468 x 207 pixels, lean on stimulus, allowing for a faster move from “feature processing” to “pattern” recognition to perceiving “objects” (Ware 10-11). Plenty of other data points could have been included with the visual, such as number and type of injuries riders suffered from impacts to certain zones and the damage to the helmet in each zone, but each level of additional data would have slowed the recognition process and possibly required an increase in the diagram’s size.
This is not to say, however, that the image is perfect. Dr. Otte’s diagram has been altered in multiple ways for multiple reasons. The image used by the CDC has been sharpened, fixing the original diagram’s appearance of having been a fifth generation copy. The CDC also changed the color of the dotted lines forming the zone grid to blue, creating a greater deal of contrast between the zone grid and the drawing of the helmet. Finally, the CDC created a grayscale background, allowing the helmets to appear as solid images instead of empty space. While it is true that “as the graphical features get larger, so the need for extreme luminance contrast declines” the inverse is also true (Ware 75). Because the diagram is often used in its small native resolution, the added use of contrast in the CDC version of Dr. Otte’s diagram is a fruitful amendment.
Despite these changes, the CDC’s version of the image does not alter the initial rhetorical impression of Dr. Otte’s original diagram. The CDC uses the cleaned up version of Otte’s diagram on their “Motorcycle Safety Guide: Prevention that works” webpage. Statement after statement on the site comes with a reference to a plurality of studies; much of the information is based on correcting faulty information regarding helmets that continue to exist in motorcycle culture, “There are no negative health effects from helmet use. Helmets do not restrict a rider’s ability to hear important sounds or to see a vehicle in the next lane” (CDC). In connection with the rhetorical position of Dr. Otte’s diagram, a simple statement of a full-face helmet’s superior protection is presented, keeping with the more objective style found in the Hurt report, “The partial coverage helmet is certainly more effective than no helmet at all, but its effectiveness is significantly below that of the full and full facial coverage helmets” (Hurt, Ouellet, and Thom 295).
In contrast, the version of the diagram used as part of an argument in favor of full-face helmets on a web forum for motorcycle riders in Maine makes a much stronger rhetorical impression in favor of full-face helmets; the author of the altered version of the diagram is not given (Dearborn). Instead of making simple changes to the diagram to clean up the image, this version highlights in yellow the zones of the helmet only covered by full-face helmets. This in turn creates a pop-out effect, “something that pops out can be seen in a single eye fixation and experiments show that processing to separate a pop-out object from its surroundings actually takes less than a tenth of a second” (Ware 29). The rhetorical purpose is abundantly clear. Instead of relying on the viewer to make their own assessment of the data, the viewer is supplied with a pop-out image, directing their focus to the percentage of impacts only protected by a full-face helmet.
Other websites use Dr. Otte’s diagram in a much more direct way, employing the visual field as a rhetorical tool to suggest that anything short of a full-face helmet is no helmet at all. Jeff Dean’s site bmwdean.com places Dr. Otte’s diagram in a series of visuals that also include a helmet with crash damage to the section protecting the chin and face and a graphic image of a crash survivor wrapped in bandages and attached to a device preventing his head from turning. Text does accompany the images, but the argument being made is easily understood without reading a word. One company that produces motorcycle helmets, Icon, even made use of the diagram by painting it onto one of their helmets. While the image is not presented anywhere on Icon’s store website, it should be noted that Icon produces only full-face helmets. The creation of a helmet that prominently displays the statistics provided by Dr. Otte, even if it never finds its way onto Icon’s own store website, can only help Icon’s sales. The appearance of such a rhetorical visual on multiple motorcycle blogs suggests to the online motorcycle community that Icon is a company that takes rider safety as its main concern.
The popularity surrounding Dr. Otte’s image suggests a couple of things worth mentioning concerning visual data representation. Chiefly, government and private organizations concerned with safety would do well to understand why this simple diagram remains popular. Convincing people to take actions in their own best interest is not always as easy as one would assume. A human tendency to resent authoritative decrees often runs afoul of human health promotions. Dry public service announcements, while often successful on some level, are vastly improved if the message promoted is both accepted and reinforced by a portion of the public. The popularity of Dr. Otte’s diagram proves that an easily understood visual diagram can move beyond a simple statement of safety and on to the front lines of a cultural argument. Such a simple diagram will not bring about a switch to universal use of full-face helmets, but more people are going to be aware of the diagram’s data implications because of its wide reception.
Second, exceedingly active members of the public, other government entities, and private entities that accept and promote a government or private message are not above altering visual data representations for their own purposes. Such purposes can be as altruistic as the CDC’s subtle improvements to Dr. Otte’s diagram, which were meant to improve its readability without altering its rhetorical purpose. In contrast, a purpose might be only mildly altruistic, like Icon’s creation of an actual helmet painted to match Dr. Otte’s diagram. Such a move, while still promoting safety, necessarily promotes Icon’s own business. Others still may simply attempt to add more emphasis to the message by altering the diagram in ways meant to promote one clear message; they may also attempt to change the rhetorical situation in which the diagram is found by placing it amongst other images that emphasize their message. Clearly there exists in the public a large promotional force, and safety organizations would do well to employ the talents of such communities. Creative and simple visual data representations that are easily understood and adapted are the key.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Motorcycle Safety Guide: Prevention that Works.” CDC.gov. CDC, 13 June 2013. Web. 1 Apr. 2014.
Dearborn, Charlie. “Re: No Helmet Thoughts.” Maine Biker Network. Jeff Neil, 22 Jan. 2014. Web. 1 Apr. 2014.
“Dietmar Otte.” Helmet Optimization in Europe. COST and European Science Foundation, n.d. Web. 7 Apr. 2014.
Hurt, H.H., Ouellet, J.V., and Thom, D.R. Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures Volume 1: Technical Report. U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington: GPO, Jan. 1981. Print.
Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Basic Rider Course: Rider Handbook. Irvine: Motorcycle Safety Foundation, May 2011. PDF file.
Otte, D., B. Chinn, D. Doyle, K. Sturrock, and E. Schuller. Interim Report: Database Cost 327 Accident Description and Analysis of Motorcycle Safety Helmets. Cordis, May 1998. Web. 1 Apr. 2014.
Perer, Adam. “Finding Beautiful Insights in the Chaos of Social Network Visualizations.” Beautiful Visualization. Eds. Julie Steele and Noah Lliinsky. Beijing: O’Reilly, 2010. 157-173. Print.
Siler, Wes. “Icon x Dietmar Otte.” Ride Apart.com. Ride Apart Inc., 3 Jan. 2012.
“The ‘Hurt Study.’” webBikeWorld. webWorld International, 2013. Web 1 Apr. 2014.
Tufte, Edward R. Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. Cheshire: Graphics Press, 1997. Print.
Ware, Colin. Visual Thinking for Design. Amsterdam: Morgan Kaufmann, 2008. Print.