Why do we believe what we believe about motorcycle helmets?

In the last entry we saw that ordinary people in ordinary circumstances misjudge the actual ability of protective gear to reduce or prevent injury and take on more risk that uses up that safety margin. Motorcyclists are just as likely to fall prey to risk compensation as others. But how do motorcyclists—and non-riders—come to have an exaggerated belief that helmets, specifically, are more effective than they are?


Let’s first take a look at what experts say about helmets. For the sake of conciseness, I’m going to sum up and put longer quotes and links in footnotes:

NHTSA claims that “Motorcycle helmets provide the best protection from head injury for motorcyclists involved in traffic crashes.”[i]

The Michigan State Police claim that “Helmets decrease the severity of injury, the likelihood of death, and the overall cost of medical care…. Just like safety belts in cars, helmets can’t provide total protection against head injury or death, but they do reduce the incidence of both.[ii]

The American College of Emergency Physicians says  “Head injury is the leading cause of death in motorcycle crashes, and helmets provide the best protection from head injuries…”[iii]

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety—long seen as opposing motorcycling in general—says, “Motorcycle helmets have been shown to save the lives of motorcyclists and prevent serious brain injuries.”[iv]

The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) states the exact same thing in the exact same words as the Michigan State Police website so we’ll use a different part of the quote:  In the event of a crash, unhelmeted motorcyclists are three times more likely than helmeted riders to suffer traumatic brain injuries…”[v]

MSF has a .pdf flyer on helmets that states that “Helmet use is not a “cure-all” for motorcycle safety, but in a crash, a helmet can help protect your brain, your face, and your life.

“Combined with other protective gear, rider-education courses, proper licensing and public awareness, the use of helmets and protective gear is one way to reduce injury.”[vi]

MSF’s Basic RiderCourse handbook states, “Helmets work well in accomplishing their intended function to protect the head and brain from injury…helmet effectiveness has been confirmed by research, not just in the laboratory, but by decades of actual crash analysis as well. So, be safe and always wear a helmet while riding…Since head injuries account for the majority of motorcycle injuries, head protection is vital. The best helmet is no guarantee against injury, but statistics indicate that helmet use reduces the risk of brain injury by 67 percent (and gives the NHTSA 2004 “Traffic Safety Facts” report as the source of the statistic).[vii] However, the NHTSA 2004 Traffic Safety Report


does not contain that statistic.

Media articles on motorcycle safety also repeat the same claims.

Media articles typically include whether a rider was wearing a helmet or not—and do so far more often than whether drivers were wearing seatbelts as in this short news item on the death of a rider from The Geneva County Reaper,


“Motorcyclist killed in wreck” A 60-year-old motorcycle rider died on Easter Sunday in a single vehicle wreck on Walton County Road 181.

Ronnie Denza Hughes was headed west when the bike traveled across the eastbound lane and onto the shoulder, striking a tree, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. The bike rotated and came to rest facing south.

The accident took place around 7 p.m. Hughes was not wearing a helmet.”

WEAU 13 NEWS in Eau Claire, WI published an article on April 13 of this year,  “Motorcycle riders and law enforcement warn about motorcycle safety.” It said, in part, “…“We highly recommend people wear helmets they’re not required by law, unless your under 18 or have an instructional permit, but a helmet’s gonna definitely save you from serious injury in case you are involved in a crash,” Sgt. Jerry Voight with the Wisconsin State Patrol says.”[viii]

The Columbus Dispatch, published an article on April 3, “Caution urged in motorcycle season: Deaths a grim reminder for riders, motorists”.

The latter part of the article focuses on the human interest element. After first detailing how one unhelmeted rider died in a crash it goes on to tell about another fatality: “Computer developer Joseph Matello, 40, of Riverstone Drive in Columbus, died after a crash about 11a.m. Thursday on the Far West Side. Police said he crossed the center line on Feder Road and struck a car head-on.

“His wife, Stephani, said Matello was a strong believer in safety, and a helmet saved his life a few years ago when a car driver didn’t see him and struck him.”[ix]

Iow, even though the crash was—for whatever reason—his fault and though a helmet was worn and did not save his life, the article still stresses how important wearing a helmet is—and that it had saved his life years before.

Reasonable to believe helmets are effective

The above is just a fraction of all the repeated direct and implied claims by those who present themselves as experts. The story told by different groups circle around on themselves by citing each other—and most often NHTSA.

The very official status of the sources gives credibility to their claims. That story then is willingly propagated through the media that repeats those claims and adds testimonials from both dealers and riders—or in the last case, the dead rider’s spouse.

It’s highly likely that a reasonable person, after reading even a portion of the above would believe that helmets were highly effective in preventing death and reducing injuries. In fact, it would be unreasonable to disbelieve such repeated accounts.

As we’ve seen, ordinary people—which fulfills the legal definition of a reasonable person—take more risks in ordinary ways simply because they believe they are safer because they are wearing some kind of protective gear.

Iow, it’s reasonable that a reasonable person would act upon such repeated safety claims and to take on risks he or she wouldn’t if they weren’t wearing a helmet. For example—the risk of riding a motorcycle at all. We

Iow, we believe that helmets are effective because we’ve been told over and over by credible sources that they are. And we don’t just act upon that belief, we stake our lives on it.

But the thing is—we don’t have to take on anything more than the most ordinary risks of riding to outride the protection a helmet can give in the most ordinary circumstances.

Given the strong chorus of approval and recommendations from safety and transportation interests and experts, it’s exceedingly interesting and illuminating and especially surprising—what helmet manufacturers say about their products. Or rather, what they don’t say.

[i] Helmet Use Laws. NHTSA. http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/new-fact-sheet03/motorcyclehelmet.pdf

[ii] “They’re designed to cushion and protect riders’ heads from the impact of a crash…. Motorcycle crash statistics show that helmets are about 37 percent effective in preventing crash fatalities. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates an unhelmeted rider is 40 percent more likely to suffer a fatal head injury and 15 percent more likely to incur a nonfatal head injury than a helmeted motorcyclist.” http://www.michigan.gov/msp/0,1607,7-123-1593_3504_22760-13677–,00.html

[iii] “Helmets are estimated to be 37 percent effective in preventing fatal injuries to motorcycle riders. (NHTSA)… Everyone is only one step away from a medical emergency….Helmet use is the single most important factor in people surviving in motorcycle crashes. They reduce the risk of head, brain and facial injury among motorcyclists of all ages and crash severities. Unhelmeted motorists are 40 percent more likely to die from a head injury, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).” http://www.acep.org/pressroom.aspx?id=26118

[iv] http://www.safroads.org/issues/fs-helmets.htm

[v] “Helmets decrease the severity of head injuries, the likelihood of death, and the overall cost of medical care. They are designed to cushion and protect riders’ heads from the impact of a crash. Just like safety belts in cars, helmets cannot provide total protection against head injury or death, but they do reduce the incidence of both. NHTSA estimates that motorcycle helmets reduce the likelihood of crash fatality by 37 percent….Helmets are highly effective in preventing brain injuries, which often require extensive treatment and may result in lifelong disability.” http://www.iihs.org/research/qanda/helmet_use.html This quote appears verbatim on several other websites.

[vi] “Second, a good helmet makes riding a motorcycle more fun, due to the comfort factor: another truth.

“Third, wearing a helmet shows that motorcyclists are responsible people; we take ourselves and motorcycling seriously. Wearing a helmet, no matter what the law says, is a projection of your attitude toward riding. And that attitude is plain to see by other riders and non-riders alike.” http://www.msf-usa.org/downloads/helmet_CSI.pdf

[vii] http://msf-usa.org/CurriculumMaterials/BRCHandbook2009.pdf

[viii] “State troopers say just wearing a helmet and the proper gear could help save your life People who drive motorcycles say the feel of the wind on your face is a thrilling experience, Wisconsin doesn’t require helmets, but those who sell motorcycles and those who enforce the law, say safety needs to be of utmost importance. http://www.weau.com/news/headlines/90705479.html?ref=479

[ix] “She said she has a message for other motorcyclists: “For riders, wear as much protective gear as possible.

“For cars, watch for them. They’re everywhere, and it only takes a second to take somebody’s life.” http://www.dispatch.com/live/content/local_news/stories/2010/04/03/caution-urged-in-motorcycle-season.html?sid=101

Explore posts in the same categories: Motorcycle Awareness, Motorcycle crashes, Motorcycle culture, Motorcycle fatalities, Motorcycle helmet use, Motorcycle injuries, Motorcycle Safety, Motorcycle Safety Foundation, Motorcycle Training, NHTSA, Uncategorized

18 Comments on “Why do we believe what we believe about motorcycle helmets?”

  1. Jim Says:

    We can presume that a helmet provides a level of protection.
    That level of protection can be defined with in a small range in the laboratory.
    But we can’t predict how the inherent level of protection will preform in a real world accident due to the introduction of variables.

    At the end of the day we are better of with helmets than w/o and it is up to the rider to measure the level of risk in their riding style.

  2. BONES Says:

    How many fatalities are reported to the media when the rider was wearing a helmet that snapped his neck or due to the fact that he had the helmet had a false sense of security and hit the back of a car at 120mph?

  3. wmoon Says:

    I’ve read hundreds of fatality articles and I have yet to see one that says the rider died from a broken neck. Since almost no riders die from a broken neck that’s not unusual. Also, among the few ones that do have a broken neck almost all of them would’ve had that broken neck with or without a helmet because of the kinetics of the crash and/or had severe head or chest trauma that would’ve killed them anyhow.

    And nobody knows if risk compensation was at work in any fatality–unless the rider had, previously, made statements about feeling safe to take more risks because of a helmet.

  4. wmoon Says:

    Jim. Good points. However, if the rider has been misled into a level of confidence that is unwarranted by the actual protection, then they cannot make an informed decision on the level of risk.

  5. DataDan Says:

    I think we need to recognize the difficulty of the communications problem riding safety advocates must overcome to get out a message that encourages helmet use without exaggerating their effectiveness.

    Helmets can save lives (37% of unhelmeted deaths according to NHTSA’s Helmet Effectiveness Revisited),

    Click to access 809715.PDF

    and they can prevent brain injuries (75% of unhelmeted brain injuries according to NHTSA’s CODES report to Congress).

    Click to access 808-347.PDF

    So MSF, NHTSA, insurers, and regular Joe motorcyclists naturally encourage riders to wear them, and they do so with the best intentions.

    The problem isn’t helmet advocacy. A close reading of the statements you’ve quoted above shows some fairly conservative claims (and others that are a bit extravagant). The problem is that the message is so pervasive that those who hear it can’t help but elevate their expecations based on the volume and frequency of repetition.

    Since there doesn’t seem to be any way to send a “Goldilocks” message about helmets–one that’s neither too hot nor too cold, but just right–maybe the way to induce more accurate perception is to supplement the pro-helmet message with one that emphasizes what helmets cannot do. That can get very delicate, though.

    One time in response to an “Ain’t gear great!” forum post about a crash that the rider walked away from (thanks mainly to a lucky trajectory), I posted an account of a crash that occurred on the very same day, 50 miles away, in which a properly geared rider had no chance of survival due to an extremely unlucky trajectory. My reality check was not welcome. 😦

    Somehow, the message that protective gear can mitigate certain injuries must be tempered with the message that there are more, and more serious, injuries against which it offers little protection. And that not crashing is a far more effective strategy.

  6. gymnast Says:

    After thinking about this a bit, it is my opinion measuring an individuals ability to make decisions as to what constitutes an acceptable level of risk (or conversely, an acceptable level of safety) is a philosophical rather than a scientific exercise comparable to the measurement of an acceptable level of pain or discomfort (or conversely, an acceptable of pleasure and comfort). That said, ones knowledge of the risks and protective measures available as well as ones attitude towards risk taking behavior and potential injury appear to, in combination, influence helmet (and other protective gear) use when it is not mandated. If the energy absorbing capabilities of the helmet are not exceeded in a given crash scenario, then it is all to the good. If, on the other hand, the energy exchange is so great that the forces are lethal, then no matter.

    The larger question, that of risk homeostasis or behavior leading the acceptance or taking of greater “levels of risk” with consequence that negate or exceed the beneficial effects of the energy attenuation devices (helmets and protective gear) is largely a matter of philosophical debate and anecdotal evidence. The problem is indeed one of the variability among individuals in terms of homeostasis or balance between risk of injury and the satisfaction of the adventure of the activity.

    One thing that is absolutely clear in my mind is that riding a motorcycle, regardless of the use of a full face helmet and full gear, is absolutely one of the most dangerous activities that a person can legally engage in and that the probability of eventual “significant” injury approaches unity.

    -2 cents worth of random thoughts-

  7. wmoon Says:


  8. wmoon Says:

    Gymnast, I am very curious if you will modify the above after the next entry. Because, as you’ll see, something rather fascinating has been hiding in plain sight for a very long time when it comes to helmets…

  9. DataDan Says:

    I like gymnast’s characterization of the “acceptable” risk question as a philosophical one. I would call that “risk tolerance”, and it’s different for each of us and doesn’t change easily. There’s some evidence that it’s partially genetic (via an earlier link of yours), but it also changes over time as we take on responsibilities in our lives. When you’re 20 and one step ahead of an arrest warrant, you’re more likely to take chances than at 40 when you have a family you dearly love.

    But risk tolerance isn’t something you can alter as an act of will. You can’t make yourself feel uncomfortable today with risk that felt comfortable yesterday. Like hot or cold, it’s just something you feel.

    That brings up the question of how a safety campaign can effectively influence riders. If it can’t persuade them to reduce their tolerance for risk, what can it do to help them ride more safely? My opinion is that such efforts should be directed at two other pieces of the risk compensation model: perceiving risk accurately and making effective adjustments for it.

    Accurate perception of risk, both in detail (understanding the threat posed by an oncoming left-turner, for example) and overall (the general level of danger in motorcycling) is an essential input to the risk compensation process. And understanding the effectiveness of available adjustments (tactical response to a threat or wearing a helmet and other protective gear), enables us to complete the risk compensation computation and maintain risk at a level we find acceptable.

  10. wmoon Says:

    DataDan, Of course you can feel uncomfortable taking a risk today that felt comfortable today as an act of will. For example–giving up smoking or drinking, etc. And people change their driving/riding styles as an act of will with or without feeling it–like deciding to buckle up or wear a helmet, etc.

    As for the rest of it I agree with you in the main. Though I think part of it will be getting people to understand that risk compensation isn’t just a one time “oh, I do this, I have to adjust risk down” but that it’s something that constantly needs to be guarded against.

  11. Jeff Brenton Says:

    DataDan, Of course you can feel uncomfortable taking a risk today that felt comfortable today as an act of will. For example–giving up smoking or drinking, etc. And people change their driving/riding styles as an act of will with or without feeling it–like deciding to buckle up or wear a helmet, etc.

    The point I take from Dan’s statement is that just deciding something is bad now isn’t going to work, unless you have also accumulated additional knowledge that shows that your previous decision was bad. Such as, going around corner X at 45 MPH might seem like a good speed on Tuesday, but discovering that there was an oil slick just off your path of travel on Wednesday can make you think the previous “acceptable” decision is no longer so. Same with smoking or drinking; those addicted to either think the risks are “acceptable”, even if told otherwise, until something happens that makes those warnings real to them.

    The lack of perceived consequences is the important part. Without that, the whole calculation of risk, and, therefore, acceptance of said risk, has no context or value.

  12. wmoon Says:

    Jeff, I would totally agree that the lack of perceived consequences is the important part–and the most critical failure of MSF’s Basic RiderCourse is the lack of education and training in how to assess risk and be prepared to re-evaluate that as you ride.

    MSF deliberately downplayed the danger of riding in the BRC–it’s clear when you compare this iteration to earlier versions. When I took the MRC:RSS (modified) in LA back in Jan. 1998, we were sent the summary of the Hurt study along with pertinent facts such as the chances of women falling in the course and new rider’s chance of having a crash. Those things were sobering–and I think made people take it all more seriously. But, according to those who participated in the development of the BRC, that was seen as discouraging people from riding (and therefore buying motorcycles) and were discarded. Along with a lot from the handbook.

  13. DataDan Says:

    Thanks for clarifying my point about tolerance, Jeff. Before spotting the oil slick, the rider felt a certain degree of comfort in that turn at 45mph. At 50, lean angle, sight distance, and off-pavement obstacles would induce pucker that made him wish he’d entered slower. After seeing the surface hazard, he gets that feeling at 45. But it was the revelation, not a purely self-induced lowering of the threshold, that changed things.

    I read an interesting exchange today on the subject of loud pipes that meshes with your discussion of risk compensation, Wendy. One person argued the “loud pipes save lives” side, and another held that a strategy of seeking out threats and actively avoiding them was better. The first responded that you can’t really relax and enjoy the ride if you’re always worrying about hazards, and that’s why he counts on his loud pipe. This is one of the “passive” safety measures–along with day-glo apparel, headlight modulators, etc.–that riders seem to over-rely on for protection. BTW, I’m not saying they aren’t effective, but they should be a backup to an active crash-prevention strategy.

    Unrelated, here’s a 5-part series of articles on risk in Slate from last week:
    I found some of them very good and relevant to what you’ve been saying about risk.

    Going back to your post on Louisiana motorcycle deaths, here’s a news article from today about a 28% increase in LA deaths in 2009 over 2008, and a 48% increase since helmet law re-enactment in 2004.

  14. Dave B Says:

    Risk is subjective. What is risky to one may seem like nothing to another. As “The Ladder of Risk” in the BRC refers to, one person may be comfortable on the first rung but uncomfortable on the third rung. And another may be uncomfortable on the first rung.

    A lot of people don’t think they’ll ever get into an accident.

    I think that risk level needs to go along with skills level. If you’re going to take on more risk, you better have the skills to handle the risk

    Motorcycle racers accept more risk but they have much greater skills than the average rider. There’s a lot of riders out there who try to ride like racers and have never taken a skills course or constantly work on their skills.

  15. wmoon Says:

    Dave–I agree that part of the problem is that people just can’t believe–for real–that they’ll be in a crash. Even those who are afraid (even terrified) that they will crash don’t really believe that they will crash. But humans also don’t really believe that they’ll get sick or lose their job, etc.

    But I also believe that people believe that their skill level is greater than it is–and that they are riding, for the most part, within their limits and when they take a chance and it turns out all right for whatever reason (even sheer luck) that they think–ah, my skills are up to it, and take the risk more confidently the next time.

  16. wmoon Says:

    DataDan, I look forward to reading the articles.

  17. Jeff Brenton Says:

    But I also believe that people believe that their skill level is greater than it is …

    You mean that 95% of drivers aren’t really above average, like they think they are?!? 😉

  18. wmoon Says:

    Jeff, 95% are a legend in their own mind. : )

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