Motorcycle Deaths Soar as State Helmet Laws are Repealed

It does not take a genius to figure out that safety helmets prevent serious head injuries or deaths. They do so in sports (hockey, football, and auto racing), at work (hardhats), and in the military and law enforcement (fighter pilots, and SWAT teams).

The human head was simply not made to be struck with dangerous flying objects or to be crushed in violent collisions.

Yet, there is enormous resistance on the part of motorcycle riders to wear protective helmets. Maybe it’s the feel of the wind in their hair or the desire to be free spirits. Whatever it is though, they have used rallies, protests, emails, and other tactics to pressure several state legislatures into repealing helmet laws since the mid-1990s when Congress removed federal sanctions against states without such laws.

Although twenty states and the District of Columbia still require all motorcycle riders to wear protective helmets, that figure is down from 47 states in 1975.

Recent reports indicate that helmet laws help prevent motorcycle deaths. In the three years since Florida repealed its helmet law in 2000, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found deaths of motorcyclists increased 81 percent from 1997 to 1999 period.

The repeal seems to have a significant impact on the deaths of those under 21, who are still required by law to ware a helmet. Fatalities in that age group have nearly tripled and 45% of the victims were not wearing helmets.
A second study released Monday, by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, showed that the death rate of motorcyclists from 2001-02 had increased 25% compared with the two years before the repeal of the helmet law in Florida.

Similar findings were reported across the country. A study conducted by the Connecticut-based Preusser Research Group found that fatalities increased by more than 50% in Kentucky and 100% in Louisiana after those states rescinded their mandatory helmet laws.

Nationally, fatalities increased nearly 8% to 4,008 in 2004, the first time they have surpassed 4,000 deaths since 1987. Deaths have been rising for seven consecutive years.

The findings have sparked a debate between safety groups and motorcycle riders. Riders argue that helmets should be a personal choice and that accidents can be prevented through education.

All the education in the world, however, cannot protect you from other drivers’ mistakes, highway debris and objects flying from vehicles, or unseen road conditions that cause motorcycles to go out of control.

In opposition, the safety groups point out the greater number of fatalities and the higher medical costs associated with more serious injuries.

Within 30 months of the no helmet law, the cost of hospital care for motorcycle injuries more than doubled from $21 million to $44 million (figures were adjusted for inflation).

Currently, Florida requires helmet use for those who do not carry a minimum of $10,000 medical insurance coverage.

Despite the overwhelming evidence against riding without a helmet, Tom Lindsay, a spokesman for the American Motorcyclist Association, believes more research is still needed. He observed that both studies failed to show the causes of crashes, such as the rider’s behavior, road and weather conditions or the motorcycle itself.

Congress has approved the funding for a study of motorcycle crash data, the first major examination since the late 1970’s. Lindsay says "We’re looking forward to real research that surveys many factors of motorcycling crashes and comes up with ways that we can reduce this number.”

It is difficult to imagine, however, why anyone would intentionally refuse to use safety equipment that has been proven to save lives and prevent serious head injuries in every occupation and activity where it is used as a matter of course.

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