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Status Report, Vol. 47, No. 4 | May 31, 2012 Subscribe

Michigan drops helmet requirement for most motorcycle riders

Michigan has abandoned its four-decade-old helmet requirement for motorcycle riders, a decision that's likely to lead to increased fatalities and traumatic brain injuries.

Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bill on April 12. His predecessor, Jennifer Granholm, had vetoed similar legislation twice.

Under the new law, only riders younger than 21 are required to wear helmets. All others have the option of riding bareheaded, provided they have either passed a motorcycle safety course or held the motorcycle endorsement on their driver's license for at least two years. They also must carry at least $20,000 in medical coverage.

"Michigan has just taken a big step backward," says Anne McCartt, the Institute's senior vice president for research. "Just like safety belts and airbags for vehicle occupants, a helmet is a crucial piece of safety equipment for people on motorcycles."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that helmets cut the risk of a motorcycle fatality by 37 percent. Motorcycle deaths have risen in other states that have weakened helmet laws. For example, the fatality rate among motorcyclists in Florida rose about 25 percent after that state exempted riders over 21 years old with medical coverage in 2000. An Institute study found the change led 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).

Michigan's original helmet law dates back to 1967, when the federal government required states to pass helmet requirements in order to qualify for certain highway funds. It was repealed the next year but reinstated in 1969.

The change in Michigan leaves just 19 states and the District of Columbia with universal helmet laws. Twenty-eight states require some motorcyclists — usually those under a certain age — to wear helmets, while Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire don't have helmet-use laws.

Universal helmet laws are effective. Nearly all motorcyclists report that they always wear helmets in states where the laws apply to all riders, but only about half report doing so in states with no laws or laws that apply to some riders (see "Riding is risky fun: Motorcyclist deaths increase," March 31, 2010).

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