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Status Report, Vol. 42, No. 9 | SPECIAL ISSUE: MOTORCYCLES | September 11, 2007 Subscribe

Helmets are key to reversing growing trend of rider deaths

Motorcycle ridership is climbing and so are motorcyclist deaths, while helmet use is on the decline across the nation. Only 51 percent of riders wear regulation helmets, compared with 71 percent in 2000, according to the federal government's National Occupant Protection Use Survey. Meanwhile, fatalities among motorcyclists have more than doubled in 10 years and now account for more than 4,500 deaths and 87,000 injuries each year.

The rise in deaths is pronounced among riders 40 years and older (see "Motorcyclist fatalities push total crash deaths up," Nov. 21, 2006). In 2005, 47 percent of motorcyclists killed were 40 and older, up from 15 percent in 1991. At the same time sales of motorcycles have risen. They topped 1.1 million in 2006, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

"With more motorcyclists on the road and fewer of them wearing helmets, the result is bound to be an increase in deaths and injuries," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research. "Motorcycles are inherently risky, and when crashes occur head injury is a leading cause of death. The most effective way we know to reduce head injury risk is to wear helmets that meet federal safety standards. Wearing a helmet would have saved at least 700 motorcyclists' lives in 2005, an Institute analysis shows."

Unhelmeted motorcyclists are 3 times as likely as helmeted ones to suffer traumatic brain injuries in crashes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that helmets reduce the likelihood of fatalities by 37 percent.

Mary E. Peters, U.S. Secretary of Transportation and herself a motorcycle rider, says manufacturers could help reverse declining helmet use by providing free or discounted helmets that are certified by her department or rider safety training with every new motorcycle they sell. "We shouldn't be letting any customer take a bike out of the store without a helmet as part of the package," Peters told a gathering of the Motorcycle Industry Council in February.

Helmet use laws

McCartt notes that encouraging manufacturers to provide certified helmets is a good idea, but the best way to reverse the trend of declining helmet use and rising deaths is to require all motorcyclists to wear helmets. Laws covering all motorcyclists are effective, but only 20 states and the District of Columbia have such laws. Twenty-seven other states require only the youngest riders to wear helmets. In July, Colorado became the latest state to adopt a partial law covering riders 17 and younger.

These so-called partial helmet laws are easily skirted and difficult to enforce, McCartt says. Repealing or weakening helmet laws has been followed by sharp declines in helmet use and increases in deaths. Florida is a case in point. In 2000 the state weakened its universal law 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 per crash involvement subsequently increased by about 25 percent. The death rate went up among riders of all ages, including drivers 20 and younger.

Helmet use among fatally injured riders fell to 39 percent compared with 88 percent before the law was watered down (see "More deaths follow weakening of Florida's motorcycle helmet law," Sept. 28, 2005). Helmet use is down overall, even in states with universal laws, NHTSA says. In 2006, 68 percent of motorcyclists in states with universal laws were wearing certified helmets, down from 73 percent in 2002. In states without universal helmet laws, use of certified helmets fell to 37 percent in 2006 from 46 percent in 2002.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s when the government tied highway construction funding to state highway safety laws, nearly every state had a universal helmet law, and helmet use approached 100 percent. Congress in 1976 revoked federal authority to penalize states without helmet laws, spurring 20 to dilute their laws and 7 to abolish them. In 1991 Congress created incentives for states to adopt universal helmet laws, prompting several states to reinstate such laws. But the grants were removed in 1995, paving the way for legislatures to repeal helmet laws.

Legislative moves

Fueled by pressure from motorcyclist rights groups, moves are under way to repeal or weaken helmet laws in California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, and Washington. Attempts failed this year to dilute the universal laws on the books in Maryland, Missouri, Mississippi, Nevada, Virginia, and West Virginia. Fewer states in 2007 have seen legislation introduced to toughen or enact helmet laws, and only Colorado has adopted a new law. Efforts in Arkansas and Montana to extend coverage to all motorcyclists failed. Similar legislation died in Illinois, one of three states without a helmet law (Iowa and New Hampshire don't have helmet laws, either).

Bills are pending in Delaware, Hawaii, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania to reinstate universal laws. In Iowa a bill is pending to require helmets for riders and passengers younger than 18.

One of the goals of NHTSA's 2006 Motorcycle Safety Program Plan is to increase helmet use, and the agency acknowledges that "helmet use laws are the most effective way to get all motorcyclists to wear helmets." McCartt says that "if the federal government is serious about tackling the problem of motorcyclist fatalities, then Congress should penalize states that fail to adopt helmet use laws that apply to riders of all ages."


Universal laws are crucial not only for safety "but also for economic reasons," McCartt points out. "Governments spend vast amounts of public money to treat people who get injured in motorcycle crashes, especially those with brain injuries. Such injuries can last a lifetime — and so can the treatment costs."

Unhelmeted riders involved in crashes are less likely to have insurance and more likely to have higher hospital costs, compared with helmeted riders involved in similar crashes (see "Without a motorcycle helmet, there's no easy ride," April 4, 1998). Several studies have found that just over half of injured motorcyclists have health insurance, and taxpayers usually pick up the tab for the uninsured patients. The socioeconomic costs of motorcycle crash injuries in the United States totalled $17.4 billion in 2005, and nearly half of this amount went for medical bills and lost wages, the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation estimates.

Rider training

Motorcyclist rights groups often tout skills training as an alternative to wearing helmets and enacting universal laws. Forty-seven states have legislated rider education and training programs, according to NHTSA. Under a program authorized by Congress in 2005, the U.S. Department of Transportation in September 2006 awarded more than $6 million in grants to states to support motorcycle safety including rider training, motorist awareness, and impaired driving programs. Many manufacturers offer rider training courses through their dealerships, and some, such as Harley-Davidson, donate helmets to various rider education programs. "Rider education is no magic bullet, and there's no scientific evidence that it reduces crash risk," McCartt says. "No amount of education can protect a motorcyclist in a crash. That's the job of helmets. Skills training shouldn't be presented as an alternative to wearing a helmet."

Safety features

Daytime running lights make motorcycles more visible to other drivers, and improved brake systems can shorten stopping distances. Some manufacturers are exploring ways to adapt safety features commonly found in passenger vehicles to motorcycles. These could help in certain crashes.

Airbags are one such feature. When a car pulled out in front of a Honda Gold Wing touring motorcycle in Florida a few months ago, the driver couldn't stop. He says he knew he was about to fly over the handlebars when he hit the side of the car. But then the motorcycle's frontal airbag inflated and the rider walked away. The Gold Wing is the only model so far with an optional airbag.

"An airbag would be a good thing to have. It might even be lifesaving in some crashes," McCartt says. "But many serious motorcycle crashes aren't straight-on frontal impacts, so airbags aren't the be-all solution. They won't keep as many people alive or prevent as many head injuries as wearing a helmet."

Novelty helmets don't hold up in tests

Federal researchers tested seven popular novelty helmets and found they don't offer the same protection as helmets that comply with regulations.

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