In a speech on Tuesday, President Obama called on Congress to pass a package of regulatory measures to curb the illegal manipulation of oil prices. To make this appeal, Obama painted a picture of fat cat oil speculators getting rich off the backs of hard working American families who are forced to pay more at the pump. The speech was met with mixed reviews.

Maybe Obama's plea would have been better received if he came at the issue from a public health perspective. Perhaps logic along the lines of this: speculators manipulate oil markets→gas prices rise→more people start riding motorcycles because they are fuel efficient→more motorcycle deaths occur because of inexperienced riders.

Sound like speculation of a different sort? Research suggests otherwise.

In 2009, an article published in the American Journal of Public Health explored the relationship between gas prices, motorcycle ridership, and motorcycle deaths between1990-2007. The authors found a strong correlation between the three—as gas prices rose and fell, so did the number of people riding motorcycles and proportion of road fatalities involving motorcycles.

For example, the average cost of a gallon of gas in 1994 was $1.51 (adjusted for inflation) and motorcycle deaths accounted for 6.8 percent of all vehicle fatalities; in 2003, gas was running $1.81 a gallon and the motorcycle death figure was 10.0 percent; when the gas price went up to $2.94 in 2007, motorcycle deaths rose to 14.5 percent.

All in all, the researchers estimated that a $1.00 rise in the price of gas results in over 1,500 additional motorcycle deaths annually. The national average for a gallon of gas on April 9, 2012 was exactly $3.94 …

So, besides solving the national energy crisis, what can we do to save lives as oil prices rise?

Mandatory helmet laws are a start. Wearing a helmet increases the chances of surviving a motorcycle crash by 37 percent.  Pennsylvania had such a law until it was repealed in 2003— clearing the way for the lax requirements the state has today and a decrease in helmet use from 82 percent to 58 percent. Urge riders to make like Jack Nicholson and wear one.

Since 90 percent of motorcycle riders involved in crashes haven't been formally taught how to ride, a motorcycle safety course might help. Pennsylvania offers a free training course to its residents.

Better yet, if at all possible, ride a bike (the non-motorized kind) or walk. It's safer, healthier and keeps the shysty oil speculators from getting a penny of your hard-earned cash.

Please join us at 6:30 on Tuesday, April 24 at Triumph Brewing Company in Old City for "Blogging and Beer: A Discussion with 'The Public's Health'"—a Philadelphia Science Festival event. We'll be chatting about public health issues facing the city and what we can do about them. Information on special guests to follow… Cheers.

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