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Status Report, Vol. 37, No. 1 | SPECIAL ISSUE: MOTORCYCLE DEATHS | January 12, 2002 Subscribe

Motorcyclist deaths go up when states roll back mandatory helmet laws

To some, the argument to "let those who ride decide" sounds reasonable. After all, many bikers say they'd wear a helmet even if there were no law on the books. They just don't like Big Brother telling them they have to.

Observations of helmet use tell a different story. Without a law or with one that applies only to some riders, about 50 percent of motorcyclists wear helmets. With a law covering all riders, use approaches 100 percent.

Helmet use directly affects the number of motorcyclist deaths and injuries as well as the public health care costs associated with treating injured riders. Unhelmeted riders are three times as likely as helmeted ones to suffer brain injuries, which often result in expensive lifelong disabilities or death.

States that have repealed or weakened their helmet laws have watched use rates go down and motorcycle deaths go up. For example, in 1997 Arkansas dropped the helmet requirement for riders 21 and older. In the same year, Texas dropped the requirement for people 21 and older who are insured or have training. A recent study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) looked at what happened, finding 97 percent helmet use before the laws were changed. In the year after the law changes, Arkansas' helmet wearing rate fell to 52 percent, and motorcycle deaths rose 21 percent. Helmet wearing in Texas went down to 66 percent in the year after the law was weakened, and deaths went up by about one-third. Head injuries increased in both states, and in Texas the cost of treating head injuries increased significantly.

The rate of fatalities also went up in Texas, Institute analyses have found. In 1996 (before the helmet law was changed to exempt some adult riders), the death rate per 100,000 motorcycle registrations was 74. Then it increased steadily, rising to 120 in 2000. In comparison, the rate increased much less — from 46 to 56 per 100,000 — in California and Ohio, where helmet laws covering all motorcyclists were retained.

Increasing helmet use is a stated goal of the National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety, a joint effort of NHTSA and the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. As a federal agency, NHTSA cannot make specific legislative recommendations regarding state helmet laws but "it should be a no-brainer for states to do the right thing," Institute chief scientist Allan Williams says. "This isn't rocket science. When you repeal helmet laws, people stop wearing helmets, and some of them wind up dying in crashes they would have survived."

Motorcyclist death rates per 100,000 motorcycles registered: Texas, where the helmet law was weakened, compared with Ohio and California, where laws cover all riders

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Helmet laws draw opposition

Universal helmet laws are effective but face widespread opposition in the United States.

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