March 2014

  1. Do motorcyclists have high crash death rates?

    Yes. According to the federal government, per mile traveled in 2011, the number of deaths on motorcycles was more than 30 times the number in cars. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 2013. Traffic safety facts, 2011: motorcycles. Report no. DOT HS-811-765. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation.  Motorcycles are less stable than cars during maneuvers such as emergency braking and swerving and are less visible on the road. Some motorcycles have high performance capabilities that can encourage riders to speed, accelerate quickly or engage in other risky driving maneuvers. When motorcyclists crash, they lack the protection of an enclosed vehicle, so they're more likely to be injured or killed.

  2. What are the most common types of motorcycle crashes?

    Nearly half of all motorcycle driver deaths involve just the motorcycle and no other vehicle. This proportion has remained largely unchanged over time. Speeding and alcohol use contribute to many of these fatal single-vehicle crashes. In 2012, 47 percent of the 1,893 motorcycle drivers killed in single-vehicle crashes were speeding, and 43 percent had blood alcohol concentrations (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher.

    Crashing into a fixed object is a bigger problem on a motorcycle than it is for other vehicles. In 2012, 22 percent of motorcycles involved in fatal crashes collided with fixed objects, compared with 16 percent of passenger vehicles in fatal crashes.

    In 2012, 40 percent of two-vehicle fatal motorcycle crashes involved a vehicle turning left while the motorcycle was going straight, passing or overtaking the vehicle.

  3. Are rider deaths increasing?

    Yes. Fatalities among motorcycle drivers and passengers in 2012 were more than double those in 1997. They reached 5,112 in 2008, accounting for 14 percent of total highway crash deaths. This is the highest number of motorcyclists killed in one year since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began collecting fatal motor vehicle crash data in 1975. After declining 16 percent to 4,286 in 2009, motorcyclist deaths have increased each year since then, reaching 4,667 in 2012.  In contrast, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 marked record lows for passenger vehicle occupant deaths.

  4. Is motorcycling becoming more popular?

    Yes, but the recession may be slowing the rise in popularity. About 555,000 motorcycles were sold in 2011, down sharply from the 1.1 million motorcycles sold in 2008, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. The record was 1973, when Americans bought more than 1.5 million bikes. Sales cooled in the 1980s before starting to climb again in 1993 as baby boomers took up motorcycling as a hobby or returned to riding after breaks to raise families, industry representatives say. Bikes also have become more specialized with more than 300 models appealing to a broader range of potential riders.

    The Motorcycle Industry Council notes that many riders now are using motorcycles for transportation and not just for fun. Recreation is the top reason people cite for riding, but transportation climbed to second place, ahead of short-distance touring in the council's 2008 owner survey. The group cites high fuel costs, environmental concerns and convenience as possible explanations for the change. Motorcycle Industry Council. 2009. Press release - Motorcycling in america goes mainstream says 2008 motorcycle industry council owner survey. Published May 18, 2009. Irvine, CA.

  5. Have rider demographics changed over time?

    Yes. The typical motorcycle owner in 2009 was 41 years old, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council's Motorcycle/ATV Owner Survey. Motorcycle Industry Council. 2012. Statistical Annual. Irvine, CA. That was up from 1998, when the typical owner was 38, and a leap from the typical 24-year-old owner in the 1980s. Motorcycle Industry Council. 2009. Press release - Motorcycling in america goes mainstream says 2008 motorcycle industry council owner survey. Published May 18, 2009. Irvine, CA.  

    Women continue to take up riding, making up 10 percent of owners in 2009, compared with 6 percent in 1990. Motorcycle Industry Council. 2012. Statistical Annual. Irvine, CA. Only 4 percent of the 4,022 motorcycle drivers killed in 2012 crashes were women, while 91 percent of the 302 passengers who died were women.

  6. What are the most common types of street-legal motorcycles?

    Street-legal motorcycles can be grouped into 10 different classes in a system developed by the Highway Loss Data Institute: cruiser, standard, chopper, dual-purpose, supersport, sport, unclad sport, sport-touring, touring and scooter. Most motorcycles are designed with the same fundamental components — chassis with two wheels, engine, handlebars and open riding position. Motorcycles are classified according to riding position, body style, design features, usability and driving dynamics. Cruisers and standards together form the largest group of bikes. They accounted for nearly half of registrations in 2000 and 2003-08. Teoh, E.R.; and Campbell, M. 2010. Role of motorcycle type in fatal motorcycle crashes. Journal of Safety Research 41(6): 507-12.

    Cruiser

    Cruisers are the largest class of bikes. Riders typically are about 49, according to insurance data from the Highway Loss Data Institute. Cruisers mimic the style of American motorcycles from the 1930s to 1960s, such as Harley-Davidsons and Indians.


    Standard

    Standards have basic designs and upright riding positions, with low power-to-weight ratios that result in a user-friendly motorcycle. Their average driver is 46.


    Supersport

    Supersports are consumer versions of racing motorcycles. Reduced weight and increased power allow for quick acceleration, nimble handling and high speeds. The average driver is about 36 years old.


    Sport

    Sport motorcycles are closely related to supersports. Sport bikes are capable of high speeds but don't have the acceleration, stability and handling of supersports. They generally have lower power-to-weight ratios than supersports. The average age of a sport bike driver is 40.


    Unclad sport

    Unclad sport motorcycles are similar to sport bikes and supersports in design and performance but without plastic body fairings or windscreens. The average rider is about 42.


    Sport-touring

    Sport-touring motorcycles are similar to sport bikes but tend to be heavier and equipped with touring features such as saddlebags, a rear trunk and larger seats. Typically, they have more substantial windshields and wind-deflecting fairings than sport bikes. Sport-touring bikes have the largest engines in the sport class. The average driver is 54.


    Touring

    Touring motorcycles have big engines and fuel tanks plus room to haul luggage. They're often outfitted with antilock brakes, audio systems and cruise control. The average driver is age 54.


    Scooter

    Scooters have small wheels, automatic transmissions and small engines, but larger scooters are becoming more popular. The average age of a scooter driver is 52.



  7. Is engine size increasing?

    The average engine size in all classes of motorcycles involved in fatal crashes has risen. Among motorcycle drivers killed in 2012, 30 percent drove motorcycles with engine sizes larger than 1,400 cubic centimeters, compared with 9 percent in 2000 and 2 percent in 1997.

  8. How do fatality rates differ by motorcycle class?

    Registration-based death rates indicate that drivers of cruisers, standards, touring and sport-touring motorcycles have the lowest death rates. These motorcycles, which are very similar and together form the largest group of registered motorcycles on the road, are most often driven by people age 40 and older, according to data from the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI).

    Motorcyclists who drive supersport motorcycles, which make up a small fraction of registered motorcycles, are overrepresented in fatal crashes. A 2010 Institute study found that the driver death rate per 10,000 registered motorcycles for supersports was about 4 times as high as the rate for motorcyclists who rode cruisers or standards. Teoh, E.R.; and Campbell, M. 2010. Role of motorcycle type in fatal motorcycle crashes. Journal of Safety Research 41(6): 507-12.  Supersport motorcycles are built on racing platforms modified for the highway. A combination of light weight and high-horsepower engines means many of these motorcycles can quickly reach speeds of more than 160 miles per hour. For example, a 2012 model Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R produces 163 horsepower from a 998 cubic centimeter engine and weighs 437 pounds. In contrast, the 2012 model Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide, a touring bike, produces 66 horsepower from a 1,690 cubic centimeter engine and weighs 889 pounds. The driver death rate for sport motorcycles was about twice as high as the rate for drivers of cruisers or standards. Teoh, E.R.; and Campbell, M. 2010. Role of motorcycle type in fatal motorcycle crashes. Journal of Safety Research 41(6): 507-12. Sport bikes are similar to supersports but generally have lower power-to-weight ratios.

  9. Do rider characteristics differ by motorcycle class?

    Yes. Different types of motorcycles tend to attract riders in different age groups. Riders of supersport, sport and unclad sport bikes tend to be younger than riders who choose standard, cruiser and touring motorcycles.

    Fatally injured rider characteristics are  similar within each motorcycle class, but differ across classes. Speeding and driver error are bigger factors in fatal crashes of supersport, sport and unclad sport bikes compared with other classes of motorcycles. Speeding was a factor in 59 percent of supersport riders' fatal crashes in 2012 and 51 percent of the fatal crashes of sport and unclad sport riders. Speeding was a factor in 26 percent of fatal crashes among riders of cruisers and standards, 33 percent of riders of sport-touring motorcycles and 24 percent of riders of touring motorcycles. Sport and supersport riders were more likely to have been wearing helmets than many other motorcyclists. Seventy-five percent of supersport riders who died in crashes in 2012 wore helmets, compared with 52 percent of cruiser and standard riders. 

  10. Is alcohol use among motorcyclists a problem?

    Alcohol is a factor in many fatal crashes of motorcyclists. Twenty-nine percent of fatally injured motorcycle drivers in 2012 had BACs at or above 0.08 percent. By comparison, 33 percent of fatally injured passenger vehicle drivers had BACs at or above 0.08 percent in 2012. Alcohol is a bigger problem in single-vehicle crashes of motorcyclists than in crashes with other vehicles. Forty-three percent of fatally injured motorcycle drivers involved in single-vehicle crashes in 2012 had BACs at or above 0.08 percent. Alcohol impairment (BAC of 0.08 percent or higher) was a factor in the fatal crashes of 23 percent of fatally injured supersport drivers and 33 percent of fatally injured cruiser and standard motorcycle riders in 2012.

    A 2007 study by NHTSA carefully measured rider performance under different BACs on a closed course. It found that BAC levels as low as 0.05 percent significantly increased riders' reaction times and the likelihood of lane departure, compared with zero BAC. Creaser, J.I.; Ward, N.J.; Rakauskas, M.E.; Boer, E.; Shankwitz, C.; and Nardi, F. 2007. Effects of alcohol on motorcycle riding skills. Report no. DOT HS-810-877. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

  11. What kind of safety features are available on motorcycles?

    Antilock braking systems (ABS) are becoming increasingly common on motorcycles. ABS, along with other advanced braking technology, such as combined braking systems, can shorten stopping distance and improve stability in hard braking situations. Creaser, J.I.; Ward, N.J.; Rakauskas, M.E.; Boer, E.; Shankwitz, C.; and Nardi, F. 2007. Effects of alcohol on motorcycle riding skills. Report no. DOT HS-810-877. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Antilock brakes are increasingly available as standard or optional equipment on motorcycles, and the Institute maintains a database of ABS availability, which is searchable by model year and manufacturer.

    Some manufacturers are exploring ways to adapt other safety advances for passenger vehicles to motorcycles. Airbags are one such feature. A frontal airbag is optional on Honda's Gold Wing touring motorcycle.

    Many other technologies found in passenger vehicles aren't available on motorcycles, however. Electronic stability control, for instance, isn't designed for two-wheel vehicles.

  12. Are motorcycle antilock braking systems effective at reducing crashes?

    Yes. Studies by the Institute and HLDI compared crash rates for motorcycles equipped with optional ABS against the same models without the option. The rate of fatal crashes per 10,000 registered vehicle years was 31 percent lower for motorcycles equipped with antilocks than for those same motorcycles without them. Teoh, E.R. 2013. Effects of antilock braking systems on motorcycle fatal crash rates: an update. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Arlington, VA. In crashes of all severities, the rate at which insurance collision claims were filed was 20 percent lower for the antilock models. ABS was associated with a 28 percent reduction in the rate of medical payment claims, which pay for injury to the insured driver, and a 22 percent reduction in the rate of bodily injury liability claims, which cover injuries to other persons in a crash (including motorcycle passengers) when the insured driver is at fault. Highway Loss Data Institute. 2013. Evaluation of motorcycle antilock braking systems alone and in conjunction with combined control braking systems. HLDI Bulletin 30(10).

    In a separate study, HLDI found that ABS was even more effective during the first three months of an insurance policy. These new policies represent a number of different scenarios — for example, when a person is new to motorcycling, when an experienced rider buys a new motorcycle, when a rider changes insurance company or when a rider restarts coverage after pausing it based on seasonal riding habits. During the first 90 days of a policy, ABS motorcycles were 30 percent less likely to have a collision claim than the non-ABS versions of the same bikes. When policies were in effect 91-720 days, ABS motorcycles were 19 percent less likely to have collision claims than non-ABS versions. Highway Loss Data Institute. 2012. HLDI bulletin - motorcycle abs and time to claim. Vol. 29: 4. Arlington, VA.

    As a result of this research, the Institute and HLDI have petitioned the federal government to require antilock brakes on motorcycles sold in the United States.

  13. Do motorcyclists need special licenses?

    All 50 states and the District of Columbia require motorcyclists to pass a written knowledge test to obtain a license or endorsement to operate a motorcycle on public roads. Licensing requirements vary. Baer, J.D.; Baldi, S.; and Cook, A.L. 2005. Promising practices in motorcycle rider education and licensing. Report no. DOT HS-809-852. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. NHTSA recommends that people hold learner permits for at least 90 days before becomming fully licensed to operate a motorcycle. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. November 2006. Uniform guidelines for state highway safety programs: motorcycle safety. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation. Despite state requirements, about 1 out of 4 motorcycle drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2012 didn't have a valid license to drive a motorcycle. In comparison, 15 percent of passenger vehicle drivers involved in fatal crashes didn't have valid licenses in 2012. One study found that properly licensed motorcycle riders are less likely to be involved in fatal crashes than unlicensed riders. Billheimer, J.W. 1998. Evaluation of the California motorcyclist safety program. Transportation Research Record 1640:100-09.

  14. Are rider safety training and education effective in reducing crashes?

    Although rider education courses can teach novice motorcyclists basic operating skills and help experienced motorcyclists refresh their skills, they don't appear to reduce the risk of crashes. Most states offer rider education programs based on courses developed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. November 2006. Uniform guidelines for state highway safety programs: motorcycle safety. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation. Riders in some states are offered the incentive of automatic licensure in lieu of a state-administered written knowledge test or road test once they successfully complete a rider education course. Six states — Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Rhode Island, Texas and Oregon — require all new riders to complete a rider training course, and 19 states require training for license applicants younger than a specified age, usually 18 or 21. Laws requiring training for new riders younger than 21 do not reduce the rate at which collision insurance claims are filed for riders younger than 21. Highway Loss Data Institute. Bulletin - motorcycle collision coverage claims in states with required motorcycle rider training. Volume 26: 12. Arlington, VA.

     A 1996 review of the effects of motorcycle rider training in the United States, Canada and Europe on crash risk concluded that there is "no compelling evidence that rider training is associated with reductions in collisions." Mayhew, D.R. and Simpson, H.M. 1996. Effectiveness and role of driver education and training in a graduated licensing system. Ottawa, Ontario: Traffic Injury Research Foundation. The New York Department of Motor Vehicles conducted a large-scale analysis of motorcycle rider training between 1981 and 1985. New York State Department of Motor Vehicles. 1987. Motorcycle rider education evaluation project. NHTSA Contract no. DTNH 22-80-C-0512. Albany, NY. In the NHTSA-sponsored study, motorcycle operator's license applicants were randomly assigned to one of four groups. One group took the state's existing knowledge and driving test and another took a skills test developed by NHTSA. The two remaining groups were assigned to rider training courses, plus the skills test. Riders who took the state's standard knowledge and driving test had fewer motorcycle crashes in the subsequent two years than riders in the three experimental groups. A 2010 review of international research also found no established link between motorcycle rider training and crash risk. Kardamanidis, K.; Martiniuk, A.; Ivers, R.Q.; Stevenson, M.R.; and Thistlethwaite, K. 2010. Motorcycle rider training for the prevention of road traffic crashes (Review). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2010, Issue 10, Art. no. CD005240. Oxfordshire, England: The Cochrane Collaboration.

May 2014

  1. Why is it important for motorcyclists to wear helmets?

    Compared with cars, motorcycles are an especially dangerous form of travel. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that per mile traveled, the number of deaths on motorcycles in 2011 was more than 30 times the number in cars. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 2013. Traffic safety facts, 2011: motorcycles. Report no. DOT HS-811-765. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation.  Motorcycles often have excessive performance capabilities, including especially rapid acceleration and high top speeds. They are less stable than cars in emergency braking and less visible to other motorists. Motorcyclists are more prone to crash injuries than car occupants because motorcycles are unenclosed, leaving riders vulnerable to contact with hard road surfaces, other vehicles and fixed objects such as trees. This is why wearing a helmet, as well as other protective clothing, is so important. 

  2. How effective are helmets?

    Helmets decrease the severity of head injuries, the likelihood of death and the cost of medical care. Helmets are highly effective in preventing brain injuries, which often require extensive treatment and may result in lifelong disability. NHTSA estimates that in the event of a crash, unhelmeted motorcyclists are 3 times more likely than helmeted riders to suffer traumatic brain injuries, and that motorcycle helmets reduce the likelihood of a crash fatality by 37 percent. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 2008. Traffic safety facts, laws: motorcycle helmet use laws. Report no. DOT HS-810-887W Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation. Norvell and Cummings found a 39 percent reduction in the risk of death after adjusting for the effects of rider age, gender and seat position. Norvell, D.C. and Cummings, P. 2002. Association of helmet use with death in motorcycle crashes: a matched-pair cohort study.American Journal of Epidemiology 156(5):483-7. A recent literature review estimated that helmets reduce the risk of death in a crash by 42 percent and the risk of head injuries by 69 percent. Liu, B.C; Ivers, R.; Norton, R.; Boufous, S.; Blows, S.; and Lo, S.K. 2009. Helmets for preventing injury in motorcycle riders (Review), Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2009, Issue 1. Oxfordshire, England: The Cochrane Collaboration.  

  3. Are some helmets more effective than others?

    No real-world crash studies have evaluated the effectiveness of helmets that do not meet federal performance standards for preventing injury or death, often referred to as novelty helmets. NHTSA laboratory tests suggest that head injuries are much more likely with these helmets than with ones certified to the NHTSA standard. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 2007. Summary of novelty helmet performance testing. Traffic safety facts, research note. Report no. DOT HS-810-752. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation.

    Helmets are available in different styles, including half-coverage (covering the upper half of the head, generally above the ears), open-face and full-face. A recent study evaluated the effectiveness of these different styles and found that crash-involved riders wearing half-coverage helmets were twice as likely to suffer traumatic brain injuries than riders wearing open-face or full-face helmets. Yu, W.; Chen, C.; Chiu, W.; and Lin, M. 2011. Effectiveness of different types of motorcycle helmets and effects of their improper use on head injuries. International Journal of Epidemiology 40(3):794-803.

  4. Are there drawbacks to helmet use?

    Claims have been made that helmets increase the risk of neck injury and reduce peripheral vision and hearing, but there is no credible evidence to support these arguments. A study by J.P. Goldstein often is cited by helmet opponents as evidence that helmets cause neck injuries, allegedly by adding to head mass in a crash. Goldstein, J.P. 1986. The effect of motorcycle helmet use on the probability of fatality and the severity of head and neck injuries: a latent variable framework. Evaluation Review 10(3):355-75. More than a dozen studies have refuted Goldstein's findings. A 1994 study analyzed 1,153 motorcycle crashes in four Midwestern states and determined that "helmets reduce head injuries without an increased occurrence of spinal injuries in motorcycle trauma." Orsay, E.M.; Muelleman, R.L.; Peterson, T.D.; Jurisic, D.H.; Kosasih, J.B.; and Levy, P. 1994. Motorcycle helmets and spinal injuries: dispelling the myth. Annals of Emergency Medicine 23(4):802-6. More recently, a review of cases in the National Trauma Data Bank found that helmeted riders were less likely to have cervical spine fractures in crashes than unhelmeted riders. Crompton, J.G.; Bone, C.; Oyetunji, T.; Pollack, K.M.; Bolorunduro, O.; Villegas, C.; Stevens, K.; Cornwell, E.E. 3rd.; Efron, D.T.; Haut, E.R.; and Haider, A.H.  2011.  Motorcycle helmets associated with lower risk of cervical spine injury: debunking the myth.  Journal of the American College of Surgeons 212(3):295-300. 

    Regarding claims that helmets obstruct vision, studies show full-coverage helmets provide only minor restrictions in horizontal peripheral vision. A 1994 study found that wearing helmets does not restrict the ability to hear horn signals or to see a vehicle in an adjacent lane prior to initiating a lane change. McKnight, A.J. and McKnight, A.S. 1994. The effects of motorcycle helmets upon seeing and hearing. Report no. DOT HS-808-399. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. To compensate for any restrictions in lateral vision, riders increased their head rotation prior to a lane change. There were no differences in hearing thresholds under three helmet conditions: no helmet, partial coverage and full coverage. The noise typically generated by a motorcycle is so loud that any reduction in hearing capability that may result from wearing a helmet is inconsequential. Sound loud enough to be heard above the engine can be heard when wearing a helmet.

  5. What is the history of helmet use laws in the United States?

    In 1967, the federal government began requiring states to enact motorcycle helmet use laws to qualify for certain federal safety and highway construction funds. By the end of 1969, 39 states had universal helmet laws. By 1975, all but three states mandated helmets for all motorcyclists.

    As the U.S. Department of Transportation moved in 1976 to assess financial penalties on states without helmet laws, Congress responded to state pressure by revoking federal authority to assess penalties for noncompliance. Between 1976 and 1978, 20 states weakened their helmet use laws to apply only to young riders, usually those younger than 18. Eight states repealed helmet use requirements for all motorcyclists.

    In the 1980s and early 1990s, several states reinstated helmet laws applying to all riders. In the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, Congress created incentives for states to enact helmet use and safety belt use laws. States with both laws were eligible for special safety grants, but states that had not enacted them by October 1993 had up to 3 percent of their federal highway allotment redirected to highway safety programs.

    Four years after establishing the incentives, Congress again reversed itself. In the fall of 1995, Congress lifted federal sanctions against states without helmet use laws, paving the way for state legislatures to repeal helmet laws. Now only 19 states and the District of Columbia helmet laws covering all riders, and 28 states have laws covering some riders, usually people younger than 18. three states (Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire) do not have any helmet requirements.

  6. How do helmet laws affect helmet use?

    Helmet use approaches 100 percent when all motorcyclists are required to wear helmets, compared with about 50 percent when there is no helmet law or a law applying only to some riders. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 2005. Without motorcycle helmets, we all pay the price. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation. Ulmer, R.G. and Northrup, V.S. 2005. Evaluation of the repeal of the all-rider motorcycle helmet law in Florida. Report no. DOT HS-809-849. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2013, 98 percent of motorcyclists observed in states with universal helmet laws were wearing helmets. In states without such laws, helmet use was 54 percent. Use of helmets judged to be compliant with federal safety regulations was 88 percent among motorcyclists in states with universal helmet laws and 49 percent in states without such laws. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 2014. Motorcycle helmet use in 2013 — overall results. Report no. DOT HS-812-010. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation.

    In a national telephone survey of motorcyclists, 22 percent of those who said they believe helmets keep riders safer reported not always wearing helmets while riding. McCartt, A.T.; Blanar, L.; Teoh, E.R.; and Strouse, L.M. 2011. Overview of motorcycling in the United States: a national telephone survey. Journal of Safety Research 42(3):177-194. However, only 6 percent of motorcyclists in states with universal laws reported not always wearing helmets, suggesting that education alone would not be as beneficial in increasing helmet use as a universal helmet law.

  7. How do helmet laws affect deaths and injuries?

    In states that either reinstated or enacted universal motorcycle helmet laws, deaths and injuries of motorcyclists decreased. In states that repealed or weakened their universal helmet laws, deaths and injuries rose.

    Some examples of helmet laws and their effect on helmet use and death and injury rates:

    • When California's helmet use law covering all riders took effect on January 1, 1992, helmet use jumped to 99 percent from about 50 percent before the law, Kraus, J.F.; Peek, C.; and Williams, A.F. 1995. Compliance with the 1992 California motorcycle helmet use law. American Journal of Public Health 85(1):96-9.  and the number of motorcyclist fatalities decreased 37 percent. Kraus, J.F.; Peek, C.; McArthur, D.L.; and Williams, A.F. 1994. The effect of the 1992 California motorcycle helmet usage law on motorcycle crash fatalities and injuries. Journal of the American Medical Association 272(19):1506-11.
    • Nebraska reinstated a helmet law on January 1, 1989, after repealing an earlier law in 1977. The state then saw a 22 percent reduction in serious head injuries among motorcyclists. Muelleman, R.L.; Mlinek, E.J.; and Collicott, P.E. 1992. Motorcycle crash injuries and costs: effect of a re-enacted comprehensive helmet use law. American Journal of Emergency Medicine 21(3):266-72.
    • From 1968 to 1977, Texas had a universal helmet use law estimated to have saved 650 lives, but the law was amended in 1977 to apply only to riders younger than 18. The weakened law coincided with a 35 percent increase in motorcyclist fatalities. Texas reinstated its helmet law for all motorcyclists in September 1989. The month before the law took effect, the helmet use rate was 41 percent. The rate jumped to 90 percent during the first month of the law and rose to 98 percent by June 1990. Lund, A.K.; Williams, A.F.; and Womack, K.N. 1991. Motorcycle helmet use in Texas. Public Health Reports 106(5):576-8. Serious injury crashes per registered motorcycle decreased 11 percent. Mounce, N.; Brackett, Q.; Hinshaw, W.; Lund, A.K.; and Wells, J.K. 1992. The reinstated comprehensive motorcycle helmet law in Texas. Arlington, VA: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. But in September 1997, Texas again weakened its helmet law, requiring helmets only for riders younger than 21. Helmet use in Texas dropped to 66 percent by May 1998, and operator fatalities increased 31 percent in the first full year following the repeal. Preusser, D.F.; Hedlund, J.H.; and Ulmer, R.G. 2000. Evaluation of motorcycle helmet law repeal in Arkansas and Texas. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
    • Kentucky repealed its universal helmet law in 1998, followed by Louisiana in 1999. These actions resulted in lower helmet use, and quickly increased motorcyclist deaths in these states by 50 percent and 100 percent, respectively. Ulmer, R.G. and Preusser, D.F. 2003. Evaluation of the repeal of motorcycle helmet laws in Kentucky and Louisiana. Report no. DOT HS-809-530. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
    • In 2000, Florida's universal helmet law was weakened to exempt riders 21 and older who have at least $10,000 of medical insurance coverage. An Institute study found that the motorcyclist death rate in Florida increased by about 25 percent after the state weakened its helmet law. Kyrychenko, S.Y. and McCartt, A.T. 2006. Florida's weakened motorcycle helmet law: effects on death rates in motorcycle crashes.Traffic Injury Prevention 7(1):55-60. The death rate rose from 31 fatalities per 1,000 crash involvements before the law change (1998-99) to 39 fatalities per 1,000 crash involvements after (2001-2002). An estimated 117 deaths could have been prevented during 2001-02 if the law had not been changed.  A study of the Florida law found a similar effect; motorcyclist deaths per 10,000 motorcycle registrations increased 21 percent during the two years after the law was changed compared with the two years before. Ulmer, R.G. and Northrup, V.S. 2005. Evaluation of the repeal of the all-rider motorcycle helmet law in Florida. Report no. DOT HS-809-849. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
    • Michigan weakened its universal helmet law in 2012 to exempt riders 21 and older who have at least $20,000 of medical insurance coverage and have either passed a motorcycle safety course or held a motorcycle license endorsement for at least two years. Accounting for the new medical insurance requirement, this law change was associated with a 22 percent increase in the average insurance payment for injuries to motorcyclists. Highway Loss Data Institute. 2013. The effects of Michigan's weakened motorcycle helmet use law on insurance losses. HLDI Bulletin 30(9).  

    In two studies, researchers modeled state motorcyclist fatality rates by helmet law type, after controlling for factors such as per capita income, population density and annual precipitation amounts. Houston, D.J. and Richardson, Jr., L.E. 2007. Motorcycle safety and the repeal of universal helmet laws. American Journal of Public Health 97(11):2063-9. Houston, D.J. and Richardson, Jr., L.E. 2008. Motorcyclist fatality rates and mandatory helmet-use laws. Accident Analysis and Prevention 40(1):200-8. Death rates were lowest in states with helmet laws that cover all riders. Rates in states with helmet laws that cover only some riders were lower than those in states with no helmet law, but not as low as rates in states with helmet laws that cover all riders. These results held for all three types of rates considered: deaths per 10,000 registered motorcycles, deaths per 100,000 population and deaths per 10 billion vehicle miles traveled. 

  8. Are there other benefits of helmet use laws?

    Helmet use laws may lead to a decline in motorcycle thefts, possibly because some potential thieves do not have helmets, and not wearing a helmet would attract police notice. Motorcycle thefts dropped dramatically in three European countries after the introduction of laws that fined motorcyclists for failure to wear helmets. Mayhew, P.; Clarke, R.V.; and Elliott, D. 1989. Motorcycle theft, helmet legislation, and displacement. The Howard Journal 28(1):1-8.  

  9. How do helmet use laws impact health care costs?

    Unhelmeted riders have higher health care costs as a result of their crash injuries and many lack health insurance. A 2002 review of 25 studies of the costs of injuries from motorcycle crashes reported that helmet use reduced the cost of medical treatment, length of hospital stay and probability of long-term disability for riders injured in a crash. Lawrence, B.A.; Max, W.; and Miller, T.R. 2002. Cost of injuries resulting from motorcycle crashes: a literature review. Report no. DOT HS-809-242. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Studies that looked at who pays for injured riders’ medical care found that just over half of injured riders have private health insurance coverage. For those without private insurance, most of the medical costs are paid by the government. A more recent study confirmed the earlier findings that unhelmeted riders had much higher hospital charges than helmeted ones. Heldt, K.A.; Renner, C.H.; Boarini, D.J.; and Swegle, J.R.  2012. Costs associated with helmet use in motorcycle crashes: the cost of not wearing a helmet.  Traffic Injury Prevention 13(2):144-9. 

    Here are a few examples of how states' helmet law changes affected health care costs:

    • After California introduced a universal helmet use law in 1992, health care costs associated with head-injured motorcyclists declined. Max, W.; Stark, B.; and Root, S. 1998. Putting a lid on injury costs: the economic impact of the California motorcycle helmet law.Journal of Trauma 45(3):550-6. The rate of motorcyclists hospitalized for head injuries decreased by 48 percent in 1993 compared with 1991, and total costs for patients with head injuries decreased by $20.5 million during this period. 
    • When Nebraska reinstated its universal helmet use law, acute medical hospital charges for injured motorcyclists declined 38 percent. Muelleman, R.L.; Mlinek, E.J.; and Collicott, P.E. 1992. Motorcycle crash injuries and costs: effect of a re-enacted comprehensive helmet use law. American Journal of Emergency Medicine 21(3):266-72.
    • When Florida weakened its universal helmet law in 2000 to exclude riders 21 and older who have at least $10,000 of medical insurance coverage, hospital admissions of motorcyclists with head injuries increased 82 percent during the 30 months following the law change. Ulmer, R.G. and Northrup, V.S. 2005. Evaluation of the repeal of the all-rider motorcycle helmet law in Florida. Report no. DOT HS-809-849. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The average inflation-adjusted cost of treating these injuries went up from about $34,500 before the helmet law was weakened to nearly $40,000 after  4 times as high as the $10,000 minimum medical insurance requirement. 
    • Studies conducted in Nebraska, Washington, California and Massachusetts illustrate the burden that injured motorcyclists place on taxpayers. Forty-one percent of motorcyclists injured in Nebraska from January 1988 to January 1990 lacked health insurance or received Medicaid or Medicare. Muelleman, R.L.; Mlinek, E.J.; and Collicott, P.E. 1992. Motorcycle crash injuries and costs: effect of a re-enacted comprehensive helmet use law. American Journal of Emergency Medicine 21(3):266-72. In Seattle, 63 percent of trauma care for injured motorcyclists in 1985 was paid by public funds. Rivara, F.P.; Dicker, B.G.; Bergman, A.B.; Dacey, R.; and Herman, C. 1988. The public cost of motorcycle trauma. Journal of the American Medical Association 260(2):221-3. In Sacramento, public funds paid 82 percent of the costs to treat orthopedic injuries sustained by motorcyclists during 1980-83. Bray, T.; Szabo, R.; Timmerman, L.; Yen, L.; and Madison, M. 1985. Cost of orthopedic injuries sustained in motorcycle accidents.Journal of the American Medical Association 254(17):2452-3. Forty-six percent of motorcyclists treated at Massachusetts General Hospital during 1982-83 were uninsured. Bray, T.; Szabo, R.; Timmerman, L.; Yen, L.; and Madison, M. 1985. Cost of orthopedic injuries sustained in motorcycle accidents.Journal of the American Medical Association 254(17):2452-3.
  10. Are helmet use laws that apply only to young motorcyclists effective?

    No. Helmet use laws that apply only to young riders are virtually impossible to enforce. Helmet use for all riders is low in states where partial laws are in effect, and death rates are 20 to 40 percent lower in states with universal laws than in those with weak laws or no laws. U.S. General Accounting Office. 1991. Highway safety: motorcycle helmet laws save lives and reduce costs to society. Washington, DC.

    In 2000, Florida weakened its helmet law to exclude riders 21 and older with at least $10,000 of medical insurance coverage. Even though riders younger than 21 still were required to wear helmets, an Institute study found that they were 97 percent more likely to die in crashes after the law change than before. Kyrychenko, S.Y. and McCartt, A.T. 2006. Florida's weakened motorcycle helmet law: effects on death rates in motorcycle crashes.Traffic Injury Prevention 7(1):55-60. Helmet use among fatally injured motorcyclists younger than 21 declined from 72 percent before the law change to 55 percent after.

  11. How have courts resolved challenges to helmet use laws?

    Courts have repeatedly upheld motorcycle helmet use laws under the U.S. Constitution. In 1972, a federal court in Massachusetts told a motorcyclist who objected to the law: "The public has an interest in minimizing the resources directly involved. From the moment of injury, society picks the person up off the highway; delivers him to a municipal hospital and municipal doctors; provides him with unemployment compensation if, after recovery, he cannot replace his lost job; and, if the injury causes permanent disability, may assume responsibility for his and his family's subsistence. We do not understand a state of mind that permits plaintiff to think that only he himself is concerned." The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this decision without hearing arguments in the case. Simon v. Sargent, 346 F. Supp. 277 (D.Mass.), aff’d, 409 U.S. 1020 (1972).

  12. Do people support mandatory helmet use laws?

    According to a 2000 national telephone survey, 81 percent of respondents reported that they favored mandatory helmet use laws for motorcyclists. Support was more prevalent among females (88 percent) than males (72 percent) and among non-motorcyclists (83 percent) than those who drove motorcycles (51 percent). Support was higher in states requiring all riders to wear helmets (84 percent) compared with states with lesser requirements (75 percent) or no requirements (79 percent). National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 2000 Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey. Report no. DOT HS-809-389. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Transportation.

    In an Institute survey of motorcyclists conducted in 2009, 45 percent said they favor universal helmet laws. McCartt, A.T.; Blanar, L.; Teoh, E.R.; and Strouse, L.M. 2011. Overview of motorcycling in the United States: a national telephone survey. Journal of Safety Research 42(3):177-194. Those who favor universal laws were more likely to report that they believe helmets keep riders safer than those who do not favor universal helmet laws (87 percent vs. 65 percent). Among motorcyclists who reported not always wearing helmets while riding, 57 percent said that a helmet law would encourage full time helmet use.