As Motorcycle Deaths Rise, Feds Urge States Adopt Strict Helmet Laws

September 12, 2007

States should require motorcycle riders to wear proper helmets, government investigators urged as part of several recommendations that seek to stem a steady rise in motorcycle deaths.

Members of the National Transportation Safety Board unanimously approved the motorcycle safety recommendations, wading into a contentious issue that has pitted motorcycle rights’ groups against safety organizations in many states.

Iowa, Illinois and New Hampshire have no helmet laws.

“The simple act of donning that helmet can begin the process of preventing that type of fatality and serious injury,” said NTSB chairman Mark V. Rosenker.

As motorcycle riding has become more popular, motorcycle deaths have more than doubled since 1997. In 2006, motorcycle deaths increased for the ninth straight year, to 4,810 motorcycle deaths, compared with 4,576 in 2005.

NTSB officials noted that non-helmeted riders were three times more likely to suffer a brain injury in a crash than those wearing a helmet.

Motorcycle groups questioned the ability of helmets to provide complete protection and prevent internal injuries in a crash. They said more rider education programs are needed.

“If a truck pulls out in front of you and runs a stop sign, how is that helmet going to prevent an accident?” asked Steve Rector, state coordinator for ABATE Iowa, a motorcycle rights’ group. He also noted that motorcycle registrations and the number of miles traveled by motorcyclists have increased in recent years.

Judith Lee Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said there was “no scientific evidence that motorcycle rider training reduces crash risk and is an adequate substitute for an all-rider helmet law.”

Currently, 20 states, including Michigan, and the District of Columbia, require riders to wear protective helmets, a significant change since the late 1970s, when nearly every state required helmet use. Twenty-seven states only cover some riders, typically those under 21.

In six states that repealed their universal laws beginning in 1997 — Arkansas, Texas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Florida and Pennsylvania — helmet use plummeted following the repeal of the laws, NTSB officials said. Louisiana reinstated its mandatory requirement in 2004.

The agency also recommended that federal safety officials develop a plan for states and others to improve motorcycle safety and the government develop guidelines for states to gather accurate data on riders.

The NTSB only has the power to make recommendations, but its staff and board members personally lobby for changes the board considers most important.


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