Motorcycle Laws Impact the Rate of Head Injuries

There are a lot of things not to like about motorcycle helmets. Helmets are hot. They mess up your hair. They can feel heavy and restrictive. After donning a helmet before a bike ride, a rider might ask himself, who has the right to tell me how to dress when I ride?

Many motorcyclists and defenders of personal liberty have issues with helmet laws. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they are the single most effective way to prevent deaths and costly care for head injuries in motorcycle accidents. Since, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the rate for deadly crashes involving motorcyclists is about 27 times the rate of fatalities in accidents involving other vehicle types, there is a strong public interest in making motorcyclists safer.

What laws govern motorcycle riders?

Throughout the country, states require drivers to hold a Class M license to legally ride any motorcycle over 50ccs. Riders must pass a written exam. In many cases, individuals must complete a safety class or a test to get their motorcycle license. Since about one in four motorcycle accidents involve drivers who do not have a motorcycle license, experts believe that proper licensing and training is imperative for saving lives.

In addition, all but three states (New Hampshire, Iowa and Illinois) have some sort of helmet law on the books. In 28 states, only certain motorcyclists, such as those under the age of 18, must wear helmets. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have universal helmet laws that require all riders to wear helmets.

In some states, exceptions are made for smaller cycles with engine displacements under 50ccs or ones that cannot attain speeds higher than 30 miles per hour. However, research indicates that the average speed of a motorcycle prior to an accident is only 29.8 miles per hour, which indicates that lower speeds alone do not necessarily protect the driver.

What causes motorcycle crashes and fatalities?

Motorcycle crashes are far deadlier than passenger car crashes. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that, while motorcycles make up only three percent of registered vehicles and account for only 0.7 percent of all vehicle miles traveled, they account for 14 percent of all traffic fatalities.

In 2014, motorcyclists were 27 times as likely as those in passenger cars to die in a crash for each mile traveled. Motorcyclists were five times as likely to be injured in an accident.

One-quarter of people killed in motorcycle accidents did not have proper motorcycle licenses. Those killed in motorcycle fatalities are more likely than drivers in other fatal accidents to have their licenses suspended or to have past infractions for speeding.

Forty percent of motorcyclists killed in single-vehicle accidents in 2013 were under the influence of alcohol. In fatal multi-vehicle accidents, about 27 percent were alcohol-impaired. This is higher than any other vehicle type.

Three out of four motorcycle crashes involve frontal collisions, which occur when the motorcycle crashes into another vehicle. Only around six percent were struck from behind.

About a third of motorcyclists who were involved in fatal crashes in 2013 were speeding; by comparison, excess speed is implicated in 21 percent of fatal passenger car accidents.

Roughly 96 percent of people who die on motorcycles are men; however, female motorcycle passengers are more likely to die in an accident than female passengers of cars.

Older motorcyclists are most likely to die in a crash. In 2015, 54 percent of motorcyclists killed in crashes were 40 or over. Experts theorize that this is because older riders typically suffer more serious injuries than younger ones in a crash.

Do motorcycle laws save lives?

The answer - based on research in several states - is an unequivocal yes. The CDC says that helmets cut the risk of head injury by over two-thirds and the risk of death by 37 percent. They estimate that helmets saved 1,630 lives and $2.8 billion in economic losses in 2013 alone. Their research predicts that, if all motorcyclists had worn helmets in 2013, an additional $1.1 billion in economic costs could have been saved.

Nowhere is the research regarding helmets' benefits more apparent than in states that have partially repealed their motorcycle helmet laws. In 2012, Michigan repealed its universal helmet law and switched to a less restrictive law that did not require helmet use by people over the age of 20.

Researchers looked at injury reports from the 12 months before the repeal and the 12 months after. Their research shows that helmet use decreased by around one quarter among people who were in crashes or experienced physical trauma as the result of a crash. According to researchers, fatalities doubled after the repeal of the universal helmet law. Head injuries tripled. Researchers say that, in the first year after Michigan's helmet law was repealed, helmet use would have prevented 26 motorcycle crash deaths.

The Benefits of Helmet Laws

Researchers estimate that motorcycle crashes cost $12.9 billion in economic costs every year and $66 billion in societal harm. While motorcycle helmets prevent approximately $17 billion in societal harm every year, universal use could prevent an additional $8 billion.

Despite the loosening of helmet laws in many locations, universal helmet laws remain popular with voters. According to the Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety, four out of five Americans favor universal helmet laws.

When laws are stricter, more people are likely to use mandated safety equipment. Thus, universal helmet laws are the most powerful tool available for cutting the risk of motorcycle fatalities and keeping people safer on the road.

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