Study Hits States Without Helmet Laws

August 24, 2006

According to a study by Jeffrey Coben, M.D., a researcher at West Virginia University, states that do not require motorcycle riders and passengers to wear helmets may be contributing to the unnecessary deaths, hospitalizations, and long-term disabilities.

Traffic deaths last year reached the highest level since 1990, due to an increase in motorcycle and pedestrian fatalities. Motorcycle deaths rose for an eight straight year.

“Almost nine percent of all U.S. traffic deaths are attributed to motorcycle riding,” said Dr. Coben, director of the Center for Rural Emergency Medicine at West Virginia University. “In 2004 more than 4,000 people were killed in motorcycle accidents – an 89 percent increase since 1997 – and more than 76,000 were injured.”

Coben is lead author of a new research study that compares motorcycle injuries in states with helmet laws with those in states with little or no helmet regulation.

The researchers found that states without universal helmet laws reported a higher number of motorcycle crash victims hospitalized with a primary diagnosis of brain injuries: 16.5 percent versus 11.5 percent in states with mandatory use laws. The in-hospital death rate among states without mandatory helmet laws was also higher – 11.3 percent versus 8.8 percent.

“Helmets are estimated to be 37 percent effective in preventing fatal injuries,” said Coben. “Analyzing injuries by state, we found that patients from states that do not have universal helmet laws had a 41 percent increase in risk of a Type 1 traumatic brain injury. Type 1 brain injuries include head injures likely to result in permanent disability, including paralysis, persistent vegetative state, and severe cognitive deficits.

Coben, a practicing emergency physician at WVU and researcher at the WVU Injury Control Research Center added, “Our research shows that a large proportion of patients with severe brain injuries will require long-term care. Hospitalized patients in states without universal helmet laws are also more likely to lack private health insurance, which leaves the public to bear the brunt of the resulting financial burden associated with choosing to not wear a helmet.”

Universal helmet laws require all motorcyclists to wear this protective gear while riding. States with partial laws require that only some motorcyclists, such as those under age 18 or age 21, wear a helmet while riding. The study is based on data from 33 states, and represents the largest study and most current data available on the hospital care of motorcycle accident victims. Of the 33 states that were studied, 17 had universal helmet laws at the time of the study, 13 had partial use laws, and three had no helmet laws at all.

The study findings also suggest that partial use laws may be ineffective because researchers found little difference in the age distribution of hospitalized cases when comparing states that require those under a certain age to wear helmets to states with no laws.

Coben’s co-authors were Claudia A. Steiner, M.D., of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and Ted R. Miller, Ph.D., of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. Their study “Characteristics of Motorcycle-Related Hospitalizations: Comparing States with Different Helmet Laws” was published online in the “Articles in Press” section of Accident Analysis and Prevention. The study was funded by the AHRQ.

Sources: West Virginia University
Accident Analysis and Prevention

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