Study Claims Helmets Reduce Spinal Injury

February 17, 2011
Bart Madson
By Bart Madson
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Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for nine years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to industry analysis and motorcycle racing reports.

A recent study from Johns Hopkins has linked motorcycle helmet use to a reduced chance of spinal injury. Utilizing data gathered from 40,588 accidents, researchers cite a 22% reduction of cervical spine injury for helmeted riders compared to their helmetless counterparts. The study results contradict beliefs by some in the anti-helmet lobby that the heavier weight of a helmet can increase spinal injury.

“We are debunking a popular myth that wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle can be detrimental during a motorcycle crash,” said Johns Hopkins assistant professor of surgery and the study leader Adil H. Haider, M.D., M.P.H. in a press announcement. “Using this new evidence, legislators should revisit the need for mandatory helmet laws. There is no doubt that helmets save lives and reduce head injury. And now we know they are also associated with a decreased risk of cervical spine injury.”

The study sourced data from the National Trauma Databank (NTDB) of accidents occurring between 2002 and 2006. Of the 62,840 motorcycle collisions entered in the NTDB for that time period, 40,588 contained completed data and were the focus of the study’s conclusions.

Aside from observing a reduced risk of cervical spine injury, the study’s findings also confirm the other safety benefits of wearing a helmet. Helmeted riders showed a 65% reduction in traumatic brain injury and a 37% decrease in death.

Published in the Journal of American College of Surgeons, the study’s conclusion doesn’t mince words, stating: “Helmeted motorcyclists are less likely to suffer a cervical spine injury after a motorcycle collision. This finding challenges a long-standing objection to mandatory helmet use that claims helmets are associated with cervical spine injury. Re-enactment of the universal helmet law should be considered in states where it has been repealed.”

Over the past decades a number of states have repealed universal helmet laws. Currently only 20 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico require mandatory helmet usage for all riders. The remaining states either have no helmet laws on the books, or only mandate helmets for riders under various age restrictions – usually 18 or 21.

This Johns Hopkins report (presented in January at the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma, January 2010, Phoenix, Arizona) comes amidst renewed efforts on both sides of the mandatory helmet wars. Some states, like Motorcycle USA’s own home state Oregon, are currently considering a repeal of standing universal helmet laws. The city of Myrtle Beach saw its mandatory helmet statute struck down by the South Carolina Supreme Court – with a city ordinance deemed unable to supersede state laws.

On the national stage, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) stirred up debate in a universal helmet law. The federal agency placed the measure on its Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements in November 2010. The NTSB used to be able to mandate universal helmet use on state governments as a condition for receiving federal highway funds. However, Congress repealed this requirement in the ‘90s allowing states to make their own laws requiring helmet use.

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