The case for motorcycle helmets

On a road trip to the Twin Cities last weekend, a couple on a motorcycle passed me on Highway 7 east of Hutchinson. They were wearing T- shirts, shorts and flip-flops. No helmets.

I know how fast I was driving, and given how rapidly they flew by and disappeared into the distance, I’d estimate their speed (conservatively) at 70-75 mph.

I didn’t hear about any fatal motorcycle crashes afterwards that fit their description, so presumably they arrived safely at their destination. But the science and the statistics unfortunately are stacked against this kind of risk-taking.

A new study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concludes that motorcyclists are less likely to die in a crash if they’re wearing a helmet – and that states with universal helmet laws incur lower costs associated with motorcycle crashes.

A few key points from the study, which analyzed National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data on fatal crashes from 2008 to 2010:

- Although motorcycles accounted for less than 1 percent of all vehicle miles traveled, 14 percent of U.S. traffic deaths in 2010 involved motorcyclists.

- Of the 14,283 fatal motorcycle crashes that occurred during the three years analyzed in the study, 42 percent of these bikers weren’t wearing a helmet. In the 20 states with a universal helmet law, however, just 12 percent of the fatalities were among motorcycle operators and passengers who weren’t wearing a helmet. For the three states that didn’t have a helmet law of any kind, 79 percent of the fatalities occurred among motorcyclists without a helmet.

- Helmet laws were estimated to save $3 billion in medical costs and lost productivity in 2010.

The report was issued at almost the exact same time as Minnesota officials reported an unexplained spike this summer in motorcycle deaths. As of mid-June, 17 motorcyclists have died on Minnesota roads this year; a year ago it was 10. It’s not clear why, although the mild winter of 2011-12 and an early start to the motorcycle-riding season might be part of the reason.

Whatever the case, it has sparked a new round of debate about motorcycle safety and helmet vs. no-helmet laws. Does it impinge on individual freedom to enact universal helmet laws? Or are these laws necessary to help save lives and reduce the societal cost of motorcycle crashes?

The Star Tribune of Minneapolis didn’t mince words with an editorial this past weekend about the inadequacies of the state’s partial-helmet law, which requires helmets only for those with instructional permits or under age 18. The editorial points out that of the 574 Minnesotans who died in motorcycle crashes over the past 10 years, the majority weren’t wearing a helmet. “Minnesota should be a leader, not a laggard, on this critical public health issue,” the editorial concludes.

There was a speedy response today in the form of a letter to the editor from Mark Backlund, safety coordinator for ABATE of Minnesota, which promotes safety awareness and training for motorcycle operators.

Rather than heavy-handed regulation, the focus should be on preventing crashes in the first place, Backlund argues. “These are not ‘accidents,’ and whether or not one is wearing a piece of equipment has no bearing on why or how the crash took place.”

The motorcycle crash rate undoubtedly could be lower than it is. Whether all crashes are 100 percent preventable is debatable, though, and it seems a multi-pronged effort – crash prevention, operator training and protective gear – would be a more effective strategy at saving lives than relying on prevention or training alone.

To be sure, a helmet does not guarantee someone won’t be seriously injured or killed in the event of a crash. Nor do motorcycle crashes reflect negatively in some way on the operator’s driving ability; all drivers need to learn to share the road safely and watch out for the motorcyclists among them.

But who has a better chance of self-preservation in a crash: Someone on a motorcycle clad in shorts and not wearing a helmet, or someone encased inside a metal vehicle fortified with seatbelts and airbags? The freedom of riding a motorcycle is also the factor that puts operators and passengers most at risk if a crash were to happen.

I’d like to know what readers think. Should helmets be mandatory for all motorcycle operators and passengers? What’s the best way to keep motorcycle riding as safe as possible?

24 thoughts on “The case for motorcycle helmets

  1. Just leave people alone. If we want to die so be it. I dont ride motorcycles, but am sick of people driving down the road just looking for something to complain about.

  2. how many of the motorcycle crashes are from the motorcyclist just driving down the rode and wrecking,tipping over, running into something? now how many of motorcycle crashes are from ignorant people in cars, rushing to something, sitting on a cell phone running red lights, or stop signs, switching lanes and not looking then running into or hitting motorcyclist? i’m not saying helmets dont save lives, but it should be a riders choice, they are a pain sometimes, they do restrict view sometimes.. alot less wrecks would happen if other vehicles on the rode looked 3 or 4 times at intersections or switching lanes.

    • Yes people in cars should pay closer attention for motorcyclists, but people on motorcycle need to pay a little closer attention as well. I see people on motorcycles doing stupid stuff (on purpose to show off) in traffic all the time not to mention that a good % of people I see on motorcycles are greatly exceeding the speed limit. I enjoy riding motorcycles and think its a smart decison to wear a helmet because accidents do happen, though with EVERYONE on the roads paying more attention and driving smarter it would cut down on a lot of the accidents.

  3. Who appointed the article author to be nanny to the world? Safety Na zis have far too much influence in society.

    Wearing a helmet is not your decision to make. Stop trying to police the rest of the world, take care of yourself and let the rest of us make our own decisions.

    That is the premise of “freedom”. It’s time you quit dictating behavior to the rest of us.

    • For the record, I blog quite often in support of the individual’s right to make their own decisions. Everyone has the right to make a decision that others might perceive as risky, and if you go back and read this post again, you’ll see that nowhere did I specifically state I was in favor of mandatory helmets for everyone.

      The question I asked was this: In view of the nature of motorcycle riding, and in view of the statistics, how should we weigh the risks of helmets vs. no helmets? Some people will probably decide the risk is either minimal or acceptable. Others won’t. I don’t think there’s ever going to be a consensus on this issue but we should at least be able to acknowledge that there’s more than one valid perspective here.

      • I ride my motorcycle. I will not wear a helmet all the time. It just won’t happen. 75% of accidents I would easily say without looking at facts are not the riders fault. I was hit in 07′ and I now still ride and I drive the speed limit most of the time. Here’s another way to look at it, are there more speeders on motorcycles or cars? It’s obviously cars. I hope you at least ride a motorcycle often because your blog really isn’t anything but complaints to strap something to MY head.

  4. An individual’s freedom to choose not to wear a helmet ends when the public (that’s the rest of us) has to foot the bill when an injury isn’t covered by their insurance. If that individual can show that they have enough insurance to cover that liability, then they can choose. But if we’re all paying for their lack of responsibility, then we (the public) have a right to mandate all reasonable safety devices. And that should include mandatory safety training as well as protective gear.

    • if you dont ride a motorcycle, you should have zero say. it doesnt effect you, if your friend rides a motorcycle and doesnt wear a helmet gets in an accident and injured then that is their fault they didnt have a helmet on, not anyone else’s. if we force helmet laws, lets force laws at the drive thru’s for every overweight person at risk of heart disease….

    • Then you should stop drinking alcohol and eating sugar, should count your calories, driving on the lake in winter, going skydiving, and a whole raft of other pleasures that are none of my business… except under your premise what you do potentially costs me more in the long run! Do you suppose that just because you have insurance, that the cost to cover YOUR accidents isn’t absorbed by the REST of the insureds??

      What a great society you have envisioned! Live it with a ball and chain, if you wish, but for the rest of us.. Life was meant to be enjoyed, not DICTATED. Thank you.

  5. more people die from obesity, heart disease, diabeties so on so on so on, lets start enforcing laws against overweight and lazy people then active people with hobbies,

  6. Did you ever notice that the motorcyclists who roar through towns with loud pipes are not wearing helmets? I wonder why.

    • This same issue (an individual’s freedom to do what they want) plays out in many aspects of life. Smoking, drugs, helmets, seat belts, health insurance, guns, etc. But when what you do (or don’t do) as an individual affects the rest of the tax-paying public, usually financially, then you should have to accept some reasonable restrictions. As always, it’s a balancing act – lots of freedom with high public costs, or less freedom with limited public costs. And with government budgets this tight, these issues will become more important as we try to limit the public costs of these activities.

  7. Anne, there’s also an unusual spike in drownings this year in Minnesota. How about writing another blog on how everyone should be required to be wearing a “safety jacket” when they go swimming? (sarcasm intended).

    What you have failed to mention, is that motorcycle registrations have increased dramtically. The number of deaths per registered motorcycles have actually been going down.

  8. You know what they call a motorcyclist without a helmet? An organ donor. It just makes sense to cover the most important part of your body. All motorcyclist should have to visit the TBI ward of a hospital as part of their training. Maybe then they would make the CHOICE to wear a helmet.

  9. Have you ever seen what a person not wearing a helmet looks like after a wreck. Have you held a mother after she has been told her son or daughter is dead. Nobody wants to be told what to do but before you decide not to put that helmet on go visit a few who survived,because it sure isn’t living. You cant compare car and motorcycle wrecks. There are many more cars on the roads. so yes there are more car wrecks. I know both sides are at fault but when your brains are spilled out on the highway you won’t have to worry about someone telling you what to do. You will just leave your family behind to grieve. The first thing they will say is If only he or she was wearing a helmet. If only.My son rides so don’t think I don’t watch for riders,I do. I care.

  10. There are definitely points to consider on both sides. Every day we step out our front door we face risks. We can’t live life in a state of fear. I agree we all have a personal “choice” to make regarding whether or not to wear a helmet. Once that choice crosses the line and costs the public more money to foot health care costs then it’s wrong…. I don’t want to pay for someone elses stupidity. It just makes plain sense to wear a helmet. I see so many guys and gals with this cocky attitude riding down the road as if they “own it.” It can be a simple accident that one has no control over whatsoever…. Such as running into a deer. My boyfriend hit a deer on June 3rd I believe between Belgrade and Sauk Centre. I am sooooo very thankful he had his helmet on!! He is still with us because of it. Dr. said if he weren’t wearing a helmet he would have been dead. Most of the people that are so adamant about having “a choice” would think much different IF (God forbid) they were the unsuspecting victim of a crash such as what my boyfriend had three weeks ago. When it comes to the public safety especially I “choose” to be safe rather than sorry.

  11. I live in Colorado there is no helmet law here , I am a rider and I always wear mine . In the even I do get in an accident I want the best chances I can get . I can live with a broken arm but not a busted head ..

  12. I agree with most everyone else here. Being forced to wear a Helmet, seat-belt or being forced to put plastic plugs into the outlets is just another way for the Government to run our lives. Yes there have been more motorcycle deaths this year than in the past, but that statistic is mis-leading because the number of motorcyclists has also gone up by over 100%. Most of the accidents that have resulted in death, have been a result of a driver in a car/truck NOT paying attention. GET OFF THE PHONE…..

    Someone brought up the point about the taxpayer having to pay money for me not wearing my helmet, well I am also a taxpayer and I am sick of paying for obese and lazy people living off welfare. If you are sick of paying money for stupid things, then why are we building a stadium….

    DO NOT LET GOVERNMENT RUN OUR LIVES… STAND UP AMERICA

    • Not sure why that got cut out..

      More people die from illnesses related to obesity, cancer, and aids. Yet I have to keep paying more premiums to my insurance company to cover those CHOICES…

      I am not overweight, and I dont smoke…but I could give a dang less if anyone else does.

      Next, our Government will tell us how to run our private businesses… OH WAIT, They do!!

      Before the smoking ban, if a smoker went into a non-smoking place to eat, that was THEIR CHOICE… If someone wants to allow smoking in their bar, then we as non-smokers are MAKING A CHOICE to go inside… dont like it, dont go in….

  13. This is the problem with this world, everyone has an opinion on everything and thinks that people should live the way they see fit. This country has been taken over by the corrupt, the weak, the stupid and everyone butts their noses into everyone else’s business. I die when God calls me home period. Whether I am riding helmetless or taking a dump, when he comes calling, I have to go home. The last thing I will ever do is allow a bunch of people who don’t ride tell me how to ride.

  14. In terms of total numbers, more TBIs are caused by auto crashes than bike crashes. I don’t see any car drivers wearing helmets. Why not?