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Status Report, Vol. 40, No. 8 | September 28, 2005 Subscribe

More deaths follow weakening of Florida's motorcycle helmet law

The motorcyclist death rate in Florida has increased about 25 percent, from 31 to almost 39 fatalities per 1,000 crash involvements, since the state weakened its helmet use law in 2000. An estimated 117 deaths could have been prevented during 2001-02 if the law hadn't been changed.

These are the main findings of an Institute study that compared death rates in motorcycle crashes before the law change (1998-99) and after (2001-02). The findings are consistent with a recent federal study of the Florida law and with an earlier study of the effects of the law change conducted by University of Arkansas researchers (see "In other highway safety news ... ," Aug. 1, 2004).

The law in Florida used to apply to all riders. The weakened law, which took effect in July 2000, exempts riders 21 and older who have at least $10,000 of medical insurance coverage. Helmet use in Florida was observed at close to 100 percent before the law change but fell to only 53 percent afterward.

The death rate per 1,000 crashes increased not just among adult riders but also among young riders who continue to be covered by the helmet law. Institute vice president and study co-author Anne McCartt says this finding isn't surprising because the law is virtually unenforceable.

"A police officer seldom can tell the age of a rider, so the law can't be enforced by age. And how would an officer know how much medical insurance a rider has unless the officer stops and asks the rider for proof?" McCartt says.

Researchers analyzed data on police-reported crashes from 1998 to 2002. The data were provided by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Death rates were analyzed before and after the law change. The year 2000 wasn't included because the law change went into effect midway through the year.

Motorcyclist deaths are on the rise across the United States. After declining from the early 1980s until 1997, these deaths began increasing. Almost 3,900 motorcyclists died during 2004, up 89 percent compared with 1997 and 7 percent higher than in 2003.

In recent years more fatally injured cyclists have been 40 or older. These riders accounted for 45 percent of all cyclists killed in 2003, up from 9 percent in 1982.

"What happened in Florida is the same thing we've seen in other states. When the helmet laws are weakened or repealed, the proportion of riders wearing helmets plummets and there's an increase in deaths," McCartt points out. "Some argue that freedom of choice trumps safety, and older riders should be allowed to choose whether or not to wear a helmet. But study after study has shown that this results in more deaths and serious injuries."

A recent evaluation of the Florida law change by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found much the same effect as the Institute's study — an increasing number of cyclist deaths. NHTSA also reported on deaths per 10,000 motorcycle registrations, finding a 21 percent increase in this rate during the two years after the law was changed compared with the two years before.

The agency evaluated the effects of the law change on motorcyclist injuries as well as deaths. The main finding is a huge increase in hospital admissions of cyclists with injuries to the head, brain, and skull. Such injuries went up 82 percent during the 30 months immediately following the law change. The average cost per case of treating these injuries went up from from $34,518 before the helmet law was weakened to nearly $40,000 afterward.

"Less than one-quarter of the injured [motorcyclists] would be covered by the $10,000 medical insurance requirement for those who chose not to use helmets," NHTSA reports.

Earlier NHTSA studies found a 21 percent increase in motorcyclist deaths in Arkansas and an even bigger increase in Texas after these two states weakened their helmet use laws to exempt older riders (see Status Report special issue: motorcyle deaths, Jan. 12, 2002). After Louisiana's helmet use law was weakened in 1999, the number of cyclist deaths doubled. This prompted state legislators to reinstate universal coverage last year. When states adopt such coverage for the first time or reinstate it, the results typically have been increasing helmet use and declining motorcyclist deaths.

Now a total of 20 states and the District of Columbia require all motorcycle riders to wear helmets. This compares with 47 states and D.C. in 1975.

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