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?