Should States Require Motorcycle Helmets?

There was an old joke about a former President who was said to have played too much football without a helmet. These days there has been a groundswell of support for the repeal of mandatory helmet laws in several states, and, after looking at the objective data, one must wonder how often proponents of that policy have played without their helmets.

Michigan is the latest state to look at repealing its mandatory helmet law. A state House bill sponsored by Rep. Gene DeRossett (R-Manchester), would remove the mandatory helmet requirement for all riders and passengers 21 years of age or older. The bill was immediately met with harsh criticism from safety experts, including those from the American Automobile Association.

"This bill just doesn't make sense," said Richard J. Miller, manager of Community Safety Services for AAA Michigan. "The evidence in support of helmet use is overwhelming. Head injury is the leading cause of death in motorcycle crashes. Riders who don't wear helmets and who experience a crash are 40 percent more likely to sustain a fatal head injury."

AAA Michigan's position is backed up by strong data from both the Federal General Accounting Office and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The GAO reviewed 46 studies of motorcycle helmets and helmet laws and reported helmeted riders have up to a 73 percent lower fatality rate than unhelmeted riders. In addition, helmeted riders have up to an 85 percent reduced incidence of severe, serious, and critical injuries than unhelmeted riders. The GAO concluded, "Because there is convincing evidence that helmets save lives and reduce society's burden of caring for injured riders, Congress may wish to consider encouraging states to enact and retain universal helmet laws."

In its Report to Congress: Benefits of Safety Belts and Motorcycle Helmets, the NHTSA confirmed the GAO's opinion. It found motorcycle helmets are 67 percent effective in preventing brain injuries, and unhelmeted motorcyclists are over three times as likely to suffer a brain injury as were those who are helmeted.

"When I had my motorcycle crash and suffered my head injury, it changed my life and it took a huge toll on my family," said Doug Wilson, a motorcycle crash victim from Maryland. "If anyone has the opportunity to reduce the number of head injuries, I would personally urge them to do whatever they can to spare another person from this ordeal."

When you look at the data compiled after Arkansas and Texas repealed their mandatory helmet use laws, you would be hard-pressed not to agree with Wilson's assessment. In 1997, Arkansas and Texas became the first states since 1983 to repeal "universal" laws requiring all motorcycle riders to wear helmets. Helmet use under the universal law was 97 percent in statewide surveys (1996 in Arkansas and 1997 in Texas). By May of 1998, observed helmet use had fallen to 52 percent in Arkansas and to 66 percent in Texas.

With the decline in helmet use came injuries to unhelmeted riders. Arkansas EMS data showed an increase in the number of motorcyclists with head injuries, while Texas Trauma Registry data showed that the proportion of cases involving head injury increased and that the cost per case of treating head injury increased substantially after the law change.

As to the bottom line, after the repeal of the mandatory helmet law in Arkansas, motorcycle operator fatalities were 21 percent higher in 1998 than in 1996, and in Texas, motorcycle operator fatalities were 31 percent higher in 1998 (after the repeal) than in 1996 (when the law required mandatory helmet use).

"Motorcycle riders are much more at risk than persons driving or riding in a passenger vehicle," said the AAA's Miller. "In fact, more than 80 percent of all motorcycle crashes result in injury or death to the motorcyclist."

Isn't in the best interest of all of us to protect those motorcycle riders with helmets?

Driving Today editor Jack R. Nerad is a former motorcycle rider who lost one of his high school friends to a motorcycle accident.