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Risky ride: More motorcycle deaths fuel new debate over helmet laws

Motorcycle deaths rose as states rolled back helmet laws

By JOHN YAUKEY and ROBERT BENINCASA, Gannett News Service

Dan Young, Marshfield (Wis.) News Herald

Emergency workers move a motorcyclist to an ambulance after an April 2004 crash in Marshfield, Wis. He was wearing a helmet, but federal surveys show about half of riders don't.

WASHINGTON Death rates from motorcycle crashes have risen steadily since states began weakening helmet laws about a decade ago, according to a Gannett News Service analysis of federal accident reports.

As deaths have increased, so has the proportion of older riders killed. Dying on a motorcycle could soon become a predominantly middle-aged phenomenon, the GNS analysis shows.

Most states once required all motorcycle riders to wear helmets. But a trend in the other direction began accelerating after 1995, when the federal government decided to stop withholding highway money from states without helmet laws.

As states repealed or weakened the laws, the percentage of riders who wore helmets began dropping. And fatality rates increased.

Craig Rubadoux, Florida Today

Frank Oliverio of Freehold N.J., heads north on U.S. 1 on his way to Daytona Beach, Fla. Oliverio loves to ride his Honda VTX 1800 in Florida because the state has no helmet law.

 

In 1996, 5.6 motorcyclists were killed for every 10,000 registered motorcycles on the road, according to federal transportation officials. By 2006, the most recent data available, the rate had risen to 7.3, the GNS analysis shows.

In raw numbers, the death toll over that period rose from 2,116 to 4,810. Meanwhile, fatality rates for all other passenger vehicles have been falling, transportation officials say.

In raw numbers, the annual death toll rose from 2,160 to 4,810 over the same period. Meanwhile, fatality rates for all other passenger vehicles have been falling, transportation officials say.

The numbers appear to contradict claims by some motorcycle groups that helmet laws alone don't save lives.

"The data are pretty compelling," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, herself an avid motorcyclist who survived a crash thanks to a helmet that she displays in somewhat battered condition in her office. "It's discouraging to see the (fatality) numbers going up. But at least people are talking about it now."

GNS analyzed data from the federal government's Fatality Analysis Reporting System on thousands of motorcycle deaths between 2002 and 2006. The analysis found that:

About 42 percent of riders killed were not wearing helmets.

Nearly half of the riders killed in 2006 were age 40 and older, and nearly a quarter were 50 or older. The average age of motorcyclists killed in accidents was about 38.

Transportation officials say the age trends reflect the growing popularity of motorcycles among older people with increasing incomes but decreasing physical dexterity and reaction times.

Half of motorcyclists killed between 2002 and 2006 lost control and crashed without colliding with another vehicle, underscoring the inherent risks involved in riding a motorcycle. Motorcyclists account for about 2 percent of vehicles on the road but 10 percent of all traffic fatalities, according to federal statistics.

Southeastern states had some of the highest fatality rates in 2006. Some of these states require all riders to wear helmets, but they also have long riding seasons that expose bikers to more risk over time.

A consistently large majority of those killed about 90 percent were men.

Critics of motorcycle helmet laws say riders should be guided by common sense rather than a government mandate when deciding whether to wear a helmet. They argue that wearing a helmet is uncomfortable and obstructs their view.

They promote their view through advocates across the country, including ABATE state groups, which track helmet legislation and lobby against it. The ABATE acronym stands for different names, depending on the state.

"It's my body and I should have the right to do with it as I choose," said Terry Howard, state coordinator for ABATE of Colorado, which vigorously fought the state's recent adoption of a helmet law for riders under 18.

Heather Wines, Gannett News Service

Simon Rosa, 22, of Springfield, Va., suffered road rash and bruises in a motorcycle accident in July 2007 on his Honda CBR 954 RR. His helmet was badly scratched, but he says without a helmet his injuries could have been worse.

 

Not all bikers agree.

Simon Rosa, 22, of northern Virginia, doesn't have a problem with the helmet law there. In 2003, he crashed his Honda sport bike in a steep turn.

"I still have the helmet, and it has scratches all over it, so I could have suffered a nasty head injury," he said. "You just never know what's going to happen, regardless of how good a rider you are."

Two insurance groups reported last year that supersport motorcycles, racing bikes modified for the highway, have the highest death rates among all types of motorcycles.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute reported in September that supersport riders have death rates nearly four times higher than riders using other types of motorcycles.

Federal surveys show that in states that weaken or repeal such laws, helmet use drops, sometimes precipitously.

In 1994, when the federal government still penalized states without helmet laws, 63 percent of riders nationwide wore helmets. By 2006, that had dropped to 51 percent.

Two decades ago, 47 states required helmets for all riders. Today, only 20 do. Twenty-seven states require helmets only for younger riders, a restriction that experts say is largely unenforceable. Three - Iowa, Illinois and New Hampshire - don't require helmets at all.

As states seek to save lives and cut government medical costs, there are signs that helmet laws may become popular again.

The National Transportation Safety Board unanimously recommended last year that states require all riders to wear helmets. It was the first time in its 40-year history that the independent panel had weighed in on motorcycle safety.

"Medical and other costs for unhelmeted riders involved in crashes are staggering," the board notes on its Web site.

Opponents of helmet laws passionately dispute such claims.

"It's just a myth that states without helmet laws are an extra burden on society," said Jeff Hennie, vice president of the Motorcycle Riders Foundation.

Also last year, 25 states considered laws to increase motorcycle safety, including laws mandating helmet use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Delaware, Hawaii, Kansas, Montana and Oklahoma took up bills that would have required all motorcyclists, rather than just young riders, to wear helmets. None of those measures passed.

The most notable change occurred in Colorado, according to both sides in the helmet law debate. The state, which previously had no helmet law, now requires that riders under 18 wear a helmet.

Comparing accident rates by state can be tricky.

For example, New Hampshire and Iowa, which have no helmet laws, reported fatality rates of 3.0 and 3.5, per 10,000 motorcycles, respectively, in 2006. By comparison, the rates in Mississippi and Maryland, which require helmets for all riders, were much higher - 20 and 12 respectively.

Helmet law advocates note that cold-weather states like New Hampshire have a much shorter riding season, and that roads in states like Iowa with flat, open terrain and extended visibility are less dangerous.

"There are a lot of factors at work here," said Russ Radar with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "You can't just look at the fatality rate of any given state and make judgments based entirely on that."

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Originally published March 26, 2008

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