Motorcyclist deaths spike as helmet laws loosen
By John Yaukey
and Robert Benincasa
, Gannett News Service
WASHINGTON — Death rates from motorcycle crashes have risen steadily since states began weakening helmet laws about a decade ago, according to a Gannett News Service analysis of federal accident reports.
As deaths have increased, so has the proportion of older riders killed. Dying on a motorcycle could soon become a predominantly middle-aged phenomenon, the analysis shows.
Most states once required all motorcycle riders to wear helmets. A trend in the other direction began accelerating after 1995, during the same period the federal government decided to stop withholding highway money from states without helmet laws.
As states weakened or repealed the laws, the percentage of riders who wore helmets began dropping. And fatality rates increased.
In 1996, 5.6 motorcyclists were killed for every 10,000 registered motorcycles, according to Department of Transportation (DOT) statistics. By 2006, the most recent data available, the rate had risen to 7.3, the analysis shows.
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In raw numbers, the annual death toll rose from 2,160 to 4,810 over that same period.
Meanwhile, fatality rates for all other passenger vehicles have been falling, DOT officials say.
"The data are pretty compelling," said Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, herself an avid motorcyclist who survived a crash thanks to a helmet she displays in somewhat battered condition in her office. "It's discouraging to see the (fatality) numbers going up. But at least people are talking about it now."
Two decades ago, 47 states required helmets for all riders. Today, 20 do. Twenty-seven states require helmets only for younger riders. Three — Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire — don't require helmets at all.
The analysis of data from the government's Fatality Analysis Reporting System of motorcycle deaths between 2002 and 2006 also found:
• About 42% of riders killed were not wearing helmets.
• Half of those killed lost control and crashed without colliding with another vehicle. Motorcyclists account for about 2% of vehicles on the road but 10% of all traffic fatalities, according to federal statistics
• Southeastern states had some of the highest fatality rates in 2006. Some of these states require all riders to wear helmets, but they also have long riding seasons that expose bikers to more risk over time.
• Nearly half of motorcyclists killed in 2006 were 40 and older, and nearly a quarter were 50 or older. The average age of those killed was about 38.
Transportation officials say the age trends reflect the growing popularity of motorcycles among older people with increasing incomes but decreasing physical dexterity and reaction times.
Critics of motorcycle helmet laws say riders should be guided by common sense rather than a government mandate.
They promote their views through advocates like ABATE (American Bikers Aimed Toward Education), which, with chapters in most states, tracks helmet legislation and lobbies against it.
"It's my body, and I should have the right to do with it as I choose," said Terry Howard, state coordinator for ABATE of Colorado, which fought the state's recent adoption of a helmet law for riders under 18.
Not all bikers agree.
Simon Rosa, 22, of Northern Virginia, has no problem with the helmet law there. In 2003, he crashed his Honda sport bike making a turn.
"I still have the helmet and it has scratches all over it, so I could have suffered a nasty head injury," he said. "You just never know what's going to happen, regardless of how good a rider you are."
Federal statistics show that in states that weaken or repeal helmet laws, helmet use drops. In 1994, when the U.S. government still penalized states without helmet laws, 63% of riders wore helmets. By 2006, that percentage had dropped to 51%.
The National Transportation Safety Board unanimously recommended last year that states require all riders to wear helmets — the first time in its 40-year history that the independent panel weighed in on motorcycle safety.
"Medical and other costs for unhelmeted riders involved in crashes are staggering," the board notes on its website.
Opponents of helmet laws passionately dispute such claims.
"It's just a myth that states without helmet laws are an extra burden on society," said Jeff Hennie of the Motorcycle Riders Foundation.
Last year, 25 states considered laws to increase motorcycle safety, including laws mandating helmet use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Delaware, Hawaii, Kansas, Montana and Oklahoma took up bills that would have required all motorcyclists, not just young riders, to wear helmets. None passed.
The most notable change occurred in Colorado, which previously had no helmet law but now requires them for riders under 18.
Comparing accident rates by state can be tricky.
For example, New Hampshire and Iowa, which have no helmet laws, reported fatality rates of 3.0 and 3.5 per 10,000 motorcycles, respectively, in 2006. By comparison, the rates in Mississippi and Maryland, which require helmets for all riders, were much higher — 20 and 12 respectively.
Helmet law advocates note that cold-weather states like New Hampshire have a much shorter riding season and that roads in states like Iowa with flat, open terrain and extended visibility are less dangerous.
"There are a lot of factors at work here," said Russ Radar with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "You can't look at just the fatality rate of any given state and make judgments based entirely on that."