Hitting the Open Road



The debate over requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets revs up once again.

By Doug Shinkle

There are two kinds of motorcycle riders, goes a popular saying: Those who have crashed and those who will.

Motorcycle deaths have increased and so have riders. The number of people killed while riding or driving a motorcycle has increased 138 percent since 1997. And the number of registered motorcycles has shot up from 3.8 million in 1997 to 8.4 million in 2011.

Meanwhile, the debate over whether to require everyone to wear a helmet—pitting concerns over public health costs versus the loss of individual freedoms—has accelerated as well.

Motorcycles and Safety

Over the last several years, motorcyclists continue to be overrepresented in traffic-related fatalities, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). They now account for 14 percent of all traffic-related fatalities but represent only 3 percent of all motor vehicles. In 2012, motorcycle crashes killed 4,957 people, 57 percent more than in 1997. At the same time, fatalities from crashes in other vehicles dropped 32 percent, from 33,609 to 22,912.

Safer vehicles and highways, coupled with better law enforcement and medical treatment, have reduced car and truck fatalities. Motorcycle deaths have not followed suit, although recently released data from NHTSA show a 6.4 percent decrease in deaths in 2013, the first decline since 2009.

Fewer riders don helmets, particularly in states that don’t  require all riders to wear them, and head injuries continue to be the leading cause of motorcycle deaths. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 700 more lives could have been saved in 2010 if wearing a helmet was required everywhere.

Motorcycle advocates point out that motorcyclist deaths have actually decreased in proportion to the vast increase in bikes on the road. A recent report from the Motorcycle Riders Foundation calculated that the number of fatalities per 100,000 motorcycles registered fell between 2005 and 2011, from 74 to 55.

Many motorcyclists believe riding without a helmet is an unalienable right in America. Groups such as ABATE, which has chapters in several states, argue that instead of passing mandatory helmet laws, states should concentrate on making the roads safer for motorcyclists by increasing drivers’ awareness of motorcyclists and imposing stiffer sanctions against drivers who cause motorcycle crashes.

The American Motorcyclist Association points out that wearing a helmet does nothing to prevent a crash. The group “strongly encourages” the use of protective gear including helmets, but notes on its website that “adults are capable of making personal safety decisions for themselves. Society’s role is not to mandate personal safety, but rather to provide the education and experience necessary to aid adults in making these decisions for themselves.”

Helmet Use Down

In 1975, helmets were mandatory for all riders in 47 states and in Washington, D.C., partly because federal highway funding was tied to having such laws. But Congress removed that requirement in 1976, and more recently, in 1995, repealed financial incentives offered to states in the early ’90s.

In response, since 1995, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Texas have relaxed or repealed their mandatory, universal helmet laws.

Currently, 19 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands still require all riders to wear helmets. Another 28 states require helmet use for certain groups, typically those under age 21 or age 18.

The laws in Florida, Michigan and Texas exempt riders who carry a certain amount of insurance or who pass a safety course or both, despite evidence showing those exemptions have no safety benefit. Three states—Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire—do not have any helmet requirements. Louisiana weakened its motorcycle helmet use law in 1999, but reenacted it in 2004. It is the only state to do so in the past decade.

The rates of helmet use correlate with the states’ requirements: 88 percent of motorcyclists in states with a universal requirement wore U.S. Department of Transportation-compliant helmets, compared with 49 percent in non-universal states. Riders in the western United States had the highest use rates (82 percent) while those in Midwestern states had the lowest (49 percent). Overall, 60 percent of riders and passengers wore compliant helmets in 2013. That’s up from 48 percent in 2005, but down from 71 percent in 2000. Florida, for example, repealed its mandatory helmet law in 2000; 12 years later, motorcyclist deaths increased from 259 to 456. In 2011, 56 percent of Florida motorcyclists killed in crashes were not wearing helmets.

Some explained the increase as merely a reflection of the aging population of riders, whose reflexes and senses aren’t as keen as they once were.

Motorcycle advocates in Florida liked to point out that the higher death rates were likely the result of the increasing popularity of motorcycling, in general, especially during events like Daytona Bike Week.

Safety officials believe helmet use among Floridian riders under age 21, who are still required to wear helmets, has fallen as well since the requirements were lifted, although that’s hard to prove. Age-specific laws are nearly impossible for police officers to enforce, so they usually result in much lower helmet use overall.

The Cost Factor

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that helmet use saved the government and individuals more than $3 billion in injuries in 2012. Another $1.4 billion could have been saved if all motorcyclists had worn helmets. Total costs saved from helmet use ranged from $394 million in California to $2.6 million in New Mexico. Another way to look at it is per rider: Cost savings from helmet use per registered motorcycle ranged from $1,627 in North Carolina to $48 in New Mexico, with a median of $286. And direct measurable costs from motorcycle crashes were approximately $16 billion in 2012, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Legislative debate over motorcycle helmet use continues to be heated in statehouses, although no changes were made in 2014. Nine of the 19 states that still require all riders to wear helmets—Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington—considered legislation to weaken or repeal their state’s universal helmet law. The measures, with the exception of pending bills in Massachusetts and New York, all failed. Maryland, Missouri and Tennessee have also debated bills in the past two years that would exempt those carrying a certain amount of insurance and who met certain other requirements from wearing a helmet.

On the flip side, a few state legislatures have considered bills to strengthen their helmet requirements. Iowa, one of the three states with no requirements, debated a universal requirement in 2012, but it failed. “I think it’s a personal responsibility question,” Representative Kraig Paulsen (R) told the Cedar Rapids Gazette after the bill’s defeat.

In Maine, where only those under 18 years of age must wear a helmet, former Representative Paulette Beaudoin (D) has sponsored a couple of bills requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets. “When a brain is splattered on the ground, it’s a little too late to think, ‘I should have put a helmet on,’” she says. Rhode Island and South Carolina also considered expanding helmet requirements to everyone in 2013.

Researchers continue to search for definitive evidence of what works. If safety is the biggest concern, providing better training and licensing, lowering the number of drunken riders, and increasing car drivers’ awareness of motorcycles would also help reduce fatalities, James Hedlund, author of a recent report on helmet use published by The Governors Highway Safety Association, told Michigan Public Radio.

Still, the facts show that the single best way to prevent death and serious injuries in a motorcycle crash is to wear a helmet, he says. “If you’re not wearing a helmet and you crash, your chances of getting killed are 37 percent higher.”

Clearly that message doesn’t resonate well with the “I ride I decide” group who feel the risk is worth the ride, ensuring that helmet requirements will continue to be a topic of debate down the legislative road.

Doug Shinkle covers transportation issues for NCSL.

Additional Resources

NCSL Resources