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Status Report, Vol. 48, No. 4 | May 30, 2013 Subscribe

Watch your head: Michigan's weakened helmet use law leads to costlier injury claims

The average insurance payment on a motorcycle injury claim rose substantially in Michigan after the state weakened its helmet use law to exempt most riders last year, a new HLDI analysis finds. The result is consistent with previous studies that show that rescinding helmet requirements results in more fatalities and hospital admissions.

For more than 40 years, Michigan required all motorcycle riders to wear helmets. However, as of April 12, 2012, the requirement applies only to riders younger than 21. All others may opt to ride without a helmet if they have either passed a motorcycle safety course or have held the motorcycle endorsement on their driver's license for at least two years. Unhelmeted riders also must carry at least $20,000 in medical coverage (see "Michigan drops helmet requirement for most motorcycle riders," May 31, 2012).

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that helmets cut the risk of a motorcycle fatality by 37 percent, and IIHS and other safety groups predicted that deaths would increase in Michigan as a result of the change. Researchers at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) recently analyzed Michigan crash data and estimated there would have been 26 fewer motorcycle crash deaths — a 21 percent reduction — last year had the helmet mandate remained in place.

How Michigan medical payment losses changed after the state
weakened its helmet law versus control sites

Graph image

The loss trends suggest that motorcyclists' injuries in the state have indeed become more serious. To see how the law change affected injuries, HLDI analysts compared medical payment (MedPay) losses from the 2010-11 riding seasons with the 2012 season. MedPay coverage insures against injuries sustained by motorcycle operators. Since many motorcyclists put their bikes away for the winter in northern states, only data from May through September were included in the study.

HLDI measures insurance losses three ways: by claim frequency, or rate; claim severity, or the average amount paid on each claim; and overall losses, which is the product of frequency and severity. Comparing losses in Michigan with those in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin — where helmet laws did not change — and controlling for motorcycle age and class; rider age, gender and marital status; weather; and other factors, HLDI found that MedPay claim frequency was 10 percent higher than would have been expected without the law change, claim severity was 36 percent higher, and overall losses were 51 percent higher. The increases in claim severity and overall losses were statistically significant, but the change in claim frequency was not.

Further calculations were done to account for changes in policy limits that resulted from the law change. The HLDI analysts knew that the new requirement that helmetless riders carry at least $20,000 of MedPay coverage would affect claim severity and overall losses if riders who previously had less coverage increased their insurance limits. That's because policies with higher limits will pay more for serious injuries than those with lower limits. To see how much of the change in severity was a result of riders going without helmets as opposed to such coverage changes, HLDI controlled for policy limits, finding that claim severity still increased 22 percent after the new law went into effect.

"Weakening the helmet law seems to have made it somewhat more likely that riders will sustain injuries, but the big impact has been on the seriousness of the injuries," says David Zuby, chief research officer of HLDI and IIHS. "Helmets can't protect against all injuries, but they do help prevent debilitating and often fatal head trauma."

Opponents of helmets sometimes argue they make crashes more likely by increasing fatigue and impeding visibility and hearing. By that logic, the crash rate should drop when a helmet law is repealed. However, HLDI found that claim frequency under collision insurance, which covers crash damage to a motorcycle and is the coverage most likely to come into play after any crash, rose 12 percent. (Collision claim severity remained unchanged.) The fact that the claim rate didn't fall once helmets were no longer mandatory undercuts this particular argument.

It's not clear what would cause collision frequency to increase. It's possible that riders who prefer not to wear a helmet rode more miles after the law change. That also could explain the 10 percent increase in MedPay claim frequency.

"More riding might account for more frequent crashes, but it doesn't explain the increase in severity," says HLDI Vice President Matt Moore. "Motorcyclists are sustaining more injuries per crash or more serious ones after the law change than before."

HLDI data don't include information on where a crash occurred, so in this analysis, Michigan crashes are only the crashes of motorcycles insured and garaged in the state. Likewise, the control-state crashes are only crashes of motorcycles insured and garaged in those states. The measured change in crash and injury risk for Michigan counts only the risk for Michigan-based motorcycles.

There's no way to know how many of the claims involved unhelmeted motorcyclists, but the UMTRI study indicates helmet use has indeed fallen in Michigan. Only 74 percent of motorcyclists involved in crashes were helmeted from April 13, 2012, the first full day after the law change took effect, through the end of the year. That compares with 98 percent in the same period of the previous four years.

Michigan is one of 28 states with helmet laws covering only some riders, usually those younger than 18. Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire have no helmet requirements. Only 19 states and the District of Columbia require helmets for all motorcyclists.

In the past, many more states had universal helmet laws, thanks to pressure from the federal government. Beginning in 1967, states were required to enact helmet laws in order to qualify for certain highway construction and safety funds. By 1975, there were only three states left that didn't require all riders to wear helmets. However, before the U.S. Department of Transportation could assess penalties for noncompliance, Congress revoked its authority to do so, and most states responded by loosening their laws. In 1991, Congress created new incentives for states to enact helmet and safety belt laws, but reversed itself again four years later.

This changing landscape has given researchers ample opportunity to study the effectiveness of universal helmet laws. In an IIHS survey, 94 percent of motorcyclists in states that require helmets said they always wore one, while in states that require only some riders to wear them, just 57 percent said they did (see "Riding is risky fun: Motorcyclist deaths increase," March 31, 2010). In a 2012 NHTSA observational survey, 97 percent of motorcyclists in states with universal helmet laws were wearing helmets, compared with 58 percent in states without such laws.

An IIHS study of motorcycle fatalities in Florida, which modified its helmet law in 2000 to exempt riders 21 and older with at least $10,000 of medical coverage, found that the motorcyclist death rate rose 25 percent after the change, leading to an estimated 117 additional deaths in the first two years (see "More deaths follow weakening of Florida's motorcycle helmet law," Sept. 28, 2005). NHTSA also studied the change in Florida, and found that hospital admissions of motorcyclists with head injuries increased 82 percent in the 30 months afterward.

State helmet laws

Helmet use is significantly higher in states that require all riders to wear them. In 2012, 97 percent of motorcyclists used helmets in states with universal laws, compared with just 58 percent in states without universal helmet laws, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports.

Table legend
Alabamaall riders
Alaska17 and younger, passengers of any age and operators with instructional permits
Arizona17 and younger
Arkansas20 and younger
Californiaall riders
Colorado17 and younger and passengers 17 and younger
Connecticut17 and younger
Delaware18 and younger; all riders should carry helmets
District of Columbiaall riders
Florida20 and younger; riders 21 and older need proof of medical insurance to ride without a helmet
Georgiaall riders
Hawaii17 and younger
Idaho17 and younger
Illinoisno law
Indiana17 and younger
Iowano law
Kansas17 and younger
Kentucky20 and younger and operators with instructional permits; riders 21 and older need proof of medical insurance to ride without helmet
Louisianaall riders
Maine17 and younger, passengers 17 and younger, operators with instructional permits and in 1st year of licensure and passengers
Marylandall riders
Massachusettsall riders
Michigan20 and younger; riders 21 and older in 1st 2 years of licensure unless they have extra insurance and pass a safety course
Minnesota17 and younger and operators with instructional permits
Mississippiall riders
Missouriall riders
Montana17 and younger
Nebraskaall riders
Nevadaall riders
New Hampshireno law
New Jerseyall riders
New Mexico17 and younger
New Yorkall riders
North Carolinaall riders
North Dakota17 and younger and their passengers
Ohio17 and younger and their passengers; all operators in 1st year of licensure and their passengers
Oklahoma17 and younger
Oregonall riders
Pennsylvania20 and younger; all operators in 1st 2 years of licensure unless they have completed safety course
Rhode Island20 and younger; passengers of any age and operators in 1st year of licensure
South Carolina20 and younger
South Dakota17 and younger
Tennesseeall riders
Texas20 and younger; older riders need proof of training or proof of medical insurance policy to ride without helmet
Utah17 and younger
Vermontall riders
Virginiaall riders
Washingtonall riders
West Virginiaall riders
Wisconsin17 and younger and operators with instructional permits
Wyoming17 and younger

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