The MC Safety Puzzle: Motorcycle Helmets

Now we turn to helmets. Without a doubt, helmets are the most controversial of all the motorcycle safety puzzle pieces. Because they do have a beneficial safety effect (and even helmet-law opponents agree that at least in some cases helmets save lives), they have been seen as an important part of the safety puzzle. Here in the USA, NHTSA claims that helmets are 37% effective in preventing fatalities and other research found that helmets are 25% effective in preventing lesser head injuries. A few motorcyclists disagree and claim that in a given (minute) number of cases helmets can cause injury or death.

However, how effective helmets are is a separate issue than if they should be mandated by law.

That they are two separate issues is something few in either the motorcycling or motorcycle safety issue communities seem to appreciate, but is critical to this puzzle: as we’ll see, laws affect compliance but laws don’t mean there’s less fatalities.

Since 1997, six states weakened helmet laws until there are only 20 states and the District of Columbia have them. In contrast, 27 states have laws that cover only some users and three states have no helmet law at all. However, just because there is no universal helmet law—or partial one—doesn’t mean that riders don’t wear helmets in that state.

For example, in 2002, NHTSA DOT HS 810 887W cites a survey in Florida that followed the universal helmet law repeal in 2002. It found 47 percent wore “compliant” helmets and 47 percent wore no helmets.[i]

In 2008—six years later—52 percent of the fatalities were helmeted and 46 percent of the fatalities were unhelmeted.

In fact, since 2005, helmeted fatalities have been between 49-52 percent. Iow, even though the helmet law was repealed, helmeted riders appear to be dying in slightly greater proportion to the percentage of helmet use.

Nationally, NHTSA reports that helmet usage was at 63 percent in 1994, rose to 71 percent in 2000 had dropped to 51 percent in 2006 and then rose to 63 percent in 2008.

Iow, helmet usage is now again what it was back in 1994 despite the repeal in universal helmet laws. Helmet usage, though, seems to be rather volatile (though that may or may not be from the rather dubious methodology NOPUS employs in its survey).

But look what happened in helmet vs. unhelmeted fatalities during the past 15 years:

Helmeted fatalities are up 6.2 percent since 2002, which is just within the realm of statistical significance and but unhelmeted fatatlities dropped by 2.5, which isn’t statistically significant—except that both the rise and drop have been a trend for six years now. Helmet usage is up—and motorcycle safety experts would say that’s a good thing. But so are helmet fatalities, which is a bad thing.

So even though fewer states have universal helmet laws the ratio of helmeted to unhelmeted fatalities has remained basically the same despite the enormous surge in ridership, despite fewer universal helmet laws and despite the greater protection helmets give to crash-involved motorcyclists. That’s at least puzzling—if not mysterious.

Both the higher percentage of usage and fatalities could mean that new riders choose helmets regardless of the law. It could mean that more non-helmet use riders are retiring—so no more people are wearing helmets, it’s that less aren’t.

Or it could mean that those who choose to wear helmets as a safety precaution ascribe too much power to them to protect them in a crash—and there is evidence of this from rider responses.

Or it could mean that riders who do take safety precautions—such as gear/helmet, training and licensing—are over-confident and take risks they do not realize they’re taking.

And that brings me to an article in a 1986 issue of Safe Cycling by John Bodeker—at that time with the Illinois State Program—recounts a survey done in 1986 in Illinois of those who took basic training and passed and those who failed. When it came to helmet use the results were, perhaps, counterintuitive: they found that 34% of graduates that passed were for mandatory helmet use while 69% of those who failed were for it.

“This could indicate that the increased skill and knowledge level obtained by passing students may lessen their perceived need for use of safety equipment, while failing students may become more aware of their shortcomings and vulnerability and perceive a greater need for safety equipment.”[ii]

We’ve seen, then, that the vast majority of fatalities in this bloody decade are licensed and now we see they’re helmeted. Clearly these puzzle pieces are not performing as experts have thought they should.

[i] Since there was no universal helmet law, the meaning of “compliant” helmets is rather…well…meaningless.

[ii] Bodeker, John. A View From Illinois, p. 15. Safe Cycling. May 1986.

Explore posts in the same categories: History, Instructors, Motorcycle crashes, Motorcycle fatalities, Motorcycle Safety, Motorcycle Safety Foundation, Motorcycle Training, Uncategorized

5 Comments on “The MC Safety Puzzle: Motorcycle Helmets”

  1. Alena Says:

    I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. Jim Says:

    The difficulty in sorting then interpreting death statistics simply by helmet/non-helmet is that it doesn’t compare the cause of death, e.x. head hitting the pavement vs. being impaled on a road sign, but whether the deceased wore/didn’t wear a helmet. Or another gruesome example, Carl Cruiser’s foot slips in the parking lot and the bike goes over and hits his head on a curb, resulting in death. Harry Hooligan launches his CBR off a decreasing radius turn at 80MPH and hits a tree, the only undamaged part of the corpse is the helmet protected head, which didn’t hit anything.

    If you can find accident data that details head injuries, helmet use and if the accident results in death, what particular injury caused the death, a clearer picture might emerge.

  3. wmoon Says:

    Jim, that’s true–and, if you want to drill down even farther, what if Carl Cruiser had just taken off his helmet when his foot slips and he hits his head? And then add in the problems of reporting. One of the stories that, to me, illustrated problems was a media report on a fatality which said something like “the police found a helmet near the body but weren’t sure the rider was wearing it. As Australian researchers point out, accuracy is difficult because of situations like that.

    As you say, studies on helmet success or unhelmeted failures seem to gloss over whether the rider would’ve died of other injuries anywhere–and we have absolutely no idea of how many head injuries (regardless of helmet use) were of the type that wouldn’t have been helped had the rider been wearing a helmet. Another huge gap is exposure and riding habit information on riders of both types–is their mileage/frequency of riding (exposure) comparable, for example? And another question–with so many states (and many of those with the highest mc registrations) not having universal laws AND having low NOPUS observed helmet use–are unhelmeted fatalities out of proportion to the living unhelmeted use?

    Nor can we overlook the medical profession (and safety experts) vested interest in finding that helmets are effective and how that bias could affect how they design their studies, what information they (unwittingly or wittingly) ignore, etc.

    For example, a recent helmet study, Risk Factors for Riding and Crashing a Motorcycle Unhelmeted (2009) was set in Texas and found that 59% of those admitted to the hospital had health insurance–this led to a conclusion that one of the risk factors that can PREDICT crashes is lack of insurance. However, 28% of all Texans don’t have health insurance–and that should at least be factored in and wasn’t. Nor did they ascertain how many car drivers didn’t have health insurance when they were admitted to the hospital–and other studies (such as one in Colorado on rehabilitation costs) found car drivers were less likely to have insurance. Nor did it consider whether the injuries could’ve been prevented by a helmet and eliminate those that wouldn’t have been (on both sides of the equation). This kind of sloppy research is very popular and easily funded.

    But without intelligent study design that looks deeper than the surface and gathers the kind of information we really need the helmet v. non-helmet issue is murky indeed. And I say this as a rider who chooses to wear a helmet regardless of the law but has ridden without one for one weekend to understand how the other side views the issue.

  4. vstromer Says:


    Murky is a good word to use. Helmet usage numbers have been bent and manipulated to prove the point one is trying to make. Anti-helmet law and pro-helmet law folks sometimes use the same numbers to “prove” different points. The raw numbers are what they are, but as you indicate the raw numbers may not (and probably do not) tell the whole story.

    One group I really have issue with are those on the anti-helmet law side stating that helmets are dangerous and cause deaths and injuries (ran into these folks at an MRF conference). It is hard to fathom a motorcyclist surviving a crash unhelmeted but dying in the same crash while/because they were wearing a DOT-compliant and properly fitting helmet.

    ATGATT for me,

  5. wmoon Says:

    Vstromer, too have a problem with the anti-helmet law advocates arguing that helmets are dangerous–it’s an argument that is not effective with anyone but those who are already in their choir. And it makes them appear stupid to others.

    Otoh, it’s not at all hard to understand how someone could survive a crash unhelmeted but another die in a similar crash even though helmeted since riders die of more than head injuries. I assume that’s not what you meant–but this idiotic obsession on both sides’ part with helmets. On the safety experts side, it’s as if that’s the only injuries we suffer and if we all wore them we’d be fine and as if helmets were more effective than they are.

    My position is: helmets are not the balm in Gilead. If wearing a helmet leads to risk compensation that’s a huge problem–and if not wearing a helmet leads to taking less risks–that could be, counterintuitively, safer. But we don’t know. And that’s the point: helmets AREN’T doing as good a job as people in the training/safety communities make out. And that’s irresponsible and unethical if it leads others to take on additional risk unknowingly.

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