Should mandatory helmet laws be enforced throughout the country, or are adult-option laws a better choice?
Motorcycle helmet laws are a contentious subject for many in America. Three states (New Hampshire, Illinois and Iowa) have no laws on the books, 28 states have partial laws and 19 have universal helmet laws, including the District of Columbia. Though advocates and opponents alike have statistics to support their side of the debate, mandatory helmet laws stoke the ire of many because they limit personal freedom of choice. Advocates, on the other hand, cite reduced health care costs and reduced incidents of serious injury and death, arguing that the limits put on freedom by such laws are a small price to pay for the societal benefits.
Michigan has been a temporary epicenter in the ongoing debate, thanks to the repeal of its mandatory helmet law in April 2012. The specifics of the adult-optional law indicate that to legally ride unhelmeted riders must carry $20,000 in additional medical insurance, be at least 21 years old, have held a motorcycle endorsement for at least two years or have completed an approved safety course, according to the Michigan Department of State
. Additionally, passengers without helmets must also be at least 21 years old and have $20,000 or more in first-party medical benefits insurance.
It’s been nearly one year since Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed the bill and annual crash data was recently made available, giving researchers and statisticians on both sides the chance to examine the numbers and see if any noticeable changes have taken place since the modification of the law. An initial analysis of crash data from 2012 was conducted by Assistant Research Scientist, Carol Flannagan, of University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI
) and her findings were presented during the 18th Annual Michigan Traffic Safety Summit
Flannagan isolated motorcycle crash data collected from April 13 through December 31, the time period in which the optional helmet law first went into effect. She compared the results to the same time frame in 2011 and the numbers reveal a spike in both fatalities and serious injuries for riders choosing not to wear helmets. In total, with numbers combined among helmeted and unhelmeted riders, there were eight more deaths during the period in 2012 than in 2011.
Among reported crashes in 2011 there were six fatalities and 23 serious injuries involving riders without helmets; in 2012 fatalities among those riding without helmets rose to 55 and serious injuries were registered at 194. The rough crash data comes from a statewide Michigan police database of reported crashes, and while there’s ample information included in such reports, such as age, helmeted/non-helmeted, severity of injuries, whether alcohol was a factor and speed at the time of crash, they currently lack specifics in terms of whether injuries were directly related to head trauma or not. Flannagan and her colleagues at UMTRI are currently seeking to improve crash reporting in this area to better assess the incidence of head-related injury and fatality.
Riding without a helmet has been an option for riders in Florida since changes were made to the State's law in 2000.
In addition to riding helmet-less, Flannagan had to take account of other risk factors so used a regression model to isolate incidents in which those factors were present. The most striking risk behavior was drinking before riding, which more than quadrupled the threat of death and nearly tripled the risk of serious injury. Riders under the influence of alcohol were also more likely to ride helmetless, according to the data. Factoring alcohol and other risk factors out, Flannagan found that riders not wearing a helmet among the crash reports between April 13 and December 31, 2012 were twice as likely as helmeted riders to die in a crash and faced 60% more risk of sustaining serious injury.
Since the information at Flannagan’s disposal only related to reported crashes, it’s impossible to know how many within Michigan’s riding population have stopped using helmets since the modification to the law. During her research and analysis, Flannagan found some takeaways that she feels are important to consider in the larger debate regarding helmet use.
“Number one, if you ride a motorcycle the risk of fatality is about 30 times more than riding in an automobile, (based on statistics provided by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety). Number two, if you drink when you’re on a motorcycle and get in a crash, Michigan data shows that you’re four times more likely to die than if you’re not drinking and get in a crash. Number three, if you wear a helmet and get in a crash you’re half as likely to die than if you don’t wear a helmet and get in a crash, regardless of everything else. Number four, when the helmet law was in effect in Michigan, the helmet use rate among crash-involved riders was 97%, when the helmet law was modified so that it was not required for 21 and up in 2012, the helmet use rate was 74%. I think those are pretty good facts on the ground, but that’s only one side of the equation.”
The other side of the equation has to do with the costs and benefits to society related to helmet law modification, factors outside the realm of analysis Flannigan conducted with the 2012 crash data. The Michigan chapter of ABATE (American Bikers Aiming Toward Education, a well-known riders rights advocacy group with chapters throughout the country), addresses this issue from a number of angles. In the lead-up to the April 2012 law change, ABATE of Michigan provided an analysis which said shifting to an adult-optional law would boost Michigan’s economy by an estimated “1.2 billion and (would) bring 2700 jobs into Michigan. This includes increasing tourism, which has been failing for seven straight years in a row.” This forecast was made in a report by Michigan Consultants, a company based in Lansing, which is available in full
on the ABATE of Michigan website.
Events such as Laconia Bike Week in New Hampshire, a state
with no helmet laws in place, draw thousands of attendees and
help to invigorate the local economy.
The report goes on to explain that sales tax revenue, motorcycle registrations and related purchases, and the “increased attraction of out-of-state motorcyclists,” would yield the numbers cited by ABATE above. Tourism, in particular, garners attention due to the huge economic success of events like Laconia
and Daytona’s Bike Week
, all in states with less stringent helmet laws.
ABATE of Michigan
also challenges the validity of many claims made by organizations that advocate universal helmet use such as the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Administration) and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). In the explanatory article
, “Why Modify Michigan’s Mandatory Helmet Law for Adult Choice,” it’s suggested that “helmets may reduce some types of injuries OR they may intensify the severity of injuries.” The document goes on to present a chart that “PROVES that neither fatality rates nor accident rates increase with adult choice.” (Emphasis: ABATE of Michigan).
The article also stresses that “although ABATE questions the MANDATORY nature of a law that forces the usage of self-protecting equipment with questionable benefits, it is the use of DOCTORED statistics, the misrepresentation of facts, and outright lies used by safety-crats to support their position which is especially bothersome.”
A recent ABATE of Michigan press release highlights some of the misrepresentations of facts perceived in the most recent crash data. “‘Our primary concern about the accuracy of the data from OHSP (Office of Highway Safety Planning, a division of the Michigan State Police) is that two single points of data are being compared, when a multi-year comparison will give the clearest and most accurate depiction of motorcycle fatalities,” said statistician Vince Piacenti for ABATE Michigan.
Piacenti goes on to explain that, “The average fatality rate on motorcycles from 2005 – 2011 is 119.7 with a standard deviation of 8.4 (+/- 3% to make statistically significant). This means that the normal year-to-year fatality rate can vary from 95 to 145. Anything within this range is normal variation; the fatalities would have to be above 145 or below 95 to make a statement with statistical confidence. Fatalities in 2012 were 129, which fall within the normal range of variation and proves conclusively that the helmet-law amendment has had no adverse effect on motorcycle safety.”
For reference, of those 129 total fatalities, 111 occurred within the time frame of Flannagan’s analysis, 56 of which were helmeted, 55 unhelmeted.
Many of the crashes reported in Michigan after the helmet law repeal involved unlicensed or unendorsed riders.
The ABATE of Michigan release also asserts that “more than half of Michigan motorcycle fatalities are unlicensed—or unendorsed— motorcyclists,” suggesting that broader issues around motorcycle training are at play as well.
I had a chance to speak with ABATE of Michigan’s president and long-time advocate of the adult-optional law, Vince Consiglio, to find out more about ABATE’s position.
“I’ve been at every helmet hearing in the last 40 years,” said Consiglio. “It’s been a long, strenuous battle and many people in our group were ready to give up. When Governor Snyder was elected, he was not a supporter. When he was elected there was no guarantee and we had to convince him and his staff that we were correct in our facts.”
In response to the 2012 crash statistics, Consiglio went on to explain that, “Last year was the warmest summer in Michigan according to the national weather service. So naturally there were more people riding and there was a difference in the fact that people had the choice (to wear a helmet or not). Fatalities were up somewhat, but in 2009-2010 fatalities were around 125-127; in 2012 with higher registrations and the warmest weather there were 129.”
Consiglio also noted that bike events in the state showed a marked increase in participation as well, the Muskegon Bike Time in particular “reported a 30% increase in 2012 over 2011.”
Scott Ellis, Executive Director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, backs claims of an increase in motorcycle-related tourism, saying in the ABATE release that, “Our members have reported an increase in motorcycle tourism since the enactment of the rider choice law. From Monroe to Muskegon to the Keweenaw Peninsula, more out-of-state motorcyclists are stopping, staying and spending money at our restaurants, hotels and attractions.”
Consiglio went on to stress that in many of the legislative hearings regarding motorcycle safety, particularly in the sessions which dealt with funding and expanding Motorcycle Safety Foundation classes throughout the state, many helmet law advocates were absent. ABATE of Michigan has been instrumental in ensuring funding for MSF courses, an endeavor of particular importance to Consiglio, who has been an instructor of such courses many times over the years.
When asked about what he thinks motivates advocates of mandatory helmet laws, Consiglio offered these remarks.
“They’re part of the argument is that motorcycle helmets will save lives and to certain extent I agree with that. It might, and that’s why a rider should be able to decide. But at the same time there’s no guarantee, any time you ride you take a risk. Motorcycle safety, tougher licensing and awareness are a better way to go than a mandatory law.”
Riding helmet-less is considered by many to be an expression of individual freedom.
Expanding out from Michigan, the debate is far from decided and advocates have conducted studies in various areas throughout the years, many which lead to conclusions that support mandatory law rather than adult choice. Many of these studies sought to address issues raised by opponents of mandatory law, one of which is alluded to in the ABATE of Michigan “Why Modify Michigan’s Mandatory Helmet Law for Adult Choice,” that helmets “may intensify the severity of injuries.”
A study copyrighted to the American College of Surgeons
in 2010 “reviewed cases in the National Trauma Databank involving motorcycle collisions,” in response to the fact that “opponents of the universal helmet law have successfully claimed that helmets should not be required because of greater torque on the neck, which is thought to increase the likelihood of cervical spine injury.” They had over 40,000 complete case records to analyze and the findings are conclusive that, “helmeted motorcyclists are less likely to suffer a cervical spine injury after a motorcycle collision.”
Issues regarding the price to society and the strain on public health are also of primary concern to many advocates.
In terms of cost savings and societal benefit, a June 2012 study
by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determined that in 2010, “economic costs saved from helmet use by society in states with a universal helmet law were, on average $725 per registered motorcycle, nearly four times greater than in states without such a law.”
The report goes on to conclude that “In 2010, approximately $3 billion in costs were saved as a result of helmet use in the United States; however, another $1.4 billion could have been saved if all motorcyclists had worn helmets.”
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety cites numerous studies
that confirm the cost savings to society of wearing a helmet
Organizations like SMARTER
(Skilled Motorcyclist Association – Responsible, Trained & Educated Riders), NHTSA, CDC, IIHS and others have mountains of research to suggest that, in addition to protecting the lives of riders, helmets also provide a measurable benefit to society. This study
by Marian Moser Jones, MPH and Ronald Bayer, PhD., was a particularly compelling read.
These issues are part of a larger, ongoing, philosophical debate on the extent to which an individual’s risk behavior should be supported by public funding, at least in cases when that individual is not privately insured. The Michigan law attempts to alleviate the burden on society by mandating $20,000 in additional coverage but, as is evinced in the fact that over half of those who crashed in 2012 weren’t licensed or endorsed, the mandate can do nothing about riders who choose to ride outside the bounds of the law.
Consiglio raises many valid points, particularly in respect to the ancillary issues such as weather, number of riders on the road and the validity of numbers utilized in these types of studies. Michigan, for example, is vague when reporting an “incapacitated rider.” According to Consiglio, “Michigan deems a rider incapacitated for any injury in which he or she doesn’t ride away. The rider could have had a broken clutch hand finger and be considered incapacitated.” His points also legitimize questions into the validity of the statistics ABATE provides as well.
The federal government has attempted to mandate mandatory helmet use in the past, largely by withholding highway funds and creating incentives for states to enact mandatory laws. By 1995 all sanctions were lifted on states without helmet use laws, and many moved to partial laws. By the writing of this article, there are more states who give riders the choice than do not. In the meantime, the debate between freedom of choice as adults and the costs to society at large as a result of those decisions continues.