Women Riders

Helmet Laws, Usage and Stats

Written by  August 31, 2011

Before the year 1966, no state had a helmet law on the books. This began to change after the Highway Safety Act of 1966, requiring the Secretary of Transportation to set uniform standards for state highway safety programs. In 1967, one of these standards would deal with motorcycle safety and included the requirement that states adopt universal helmet use laws mandating the use of helmets by all motorcycle riders. State that did not comply would lose a portion of the federal aid for highway construction funds.

By the end of 1967, 22 states had universal helmet laws and 14 more in 1968 implemented them. By 1975, 47 states and the District of Columbia had adopted universal helmet laws. Almost immediately, helmet laws generated controversy and in 1969, the Illinois law was repealed after being declared unconstitutional by the Illinois Supreme Court. Michigan enacted their helmet law in 1967, repealed it in 1968 and enacted it again in 1969. Kansas and Oklahoma went back and forth as well until 1976.

In 1975, the Transportation Secretary was prepared to penalize three states that had still not enacted universal helmet laws. California, Utah and Illinois were in danger of losing their specified portion of federal aid highway construction funding. Because of this, Congress was prompted to revisit the Highway Safety Act. The motorcycle helmet law requirement was eliminated, and the withholding of funds from states without such helmet laws was withdrawn. By 1978, 25 states had repealed their universal helmet laws or amended them to cover only riders below a specified age. Two more states later did likewise, and, by 1980, the total number of states with helmet laws dwindled to 19 and Washington, DC.

In 1982, Louisiana reenacted the universal use law it had previously repealed in 1976 and, conversely, in 1983 Wyoming became the 28th state to repeal its law. The remainder of the 80’s was relatively quiet in the helmet law area until 1989 when both Oregon and Texas reenacted universal helmet law.

More states would either reenact their universal helmet laws or implement new ones. California, with more than 10 percent of the nations registered motorcycles and one of only two states who had not adopted any helmet law in 1967, implemented its universal helmet law in 1992, after extensive debate and publicity. Between 1992 and 1996, 25 states and Washington, DC had universal helmet laws in effect; 22 states had laws applicable to younger riders, usually under the age of 18; only three states, Colorado, Illinois and Iowa, had no use helmet law in effect at all.


During the 1990’s, Congress once more would take an interest in motorcycle helmets. April 1990 saw senators Moynihan and Chafee request the General Accounting Office (GAO) to review and evaluate the available information on helmet effectiveness in preventing death and serious injury. They also wanted to review the effect of helmet laws on helmet use and motorcycle rider fatalities as well as the costs to society of injuries to unhelmeted riders.

GAO’s report in 1991 concluded that “Helmet use reduces fatality rates and reduces injury severity among survivors of motorcycle accidents” and that “universal helmet laws have been very effective in increasing helmet use, virtually doubling use compared with experience without a law or with a limited law applying only to younger riders. Under universal helmet law, most states experienced 20% to 40% lower fatality rates than during periods without laws or under limited laws.” (GAO, 1991, p31)

The Stats

As I quoted from the American Journal of Health last month, when Maryland adopted helmet safety laws in 1992, their motorcycle fatalities saw a 37% decrease. Conversely and just as dramatically, Pennsylvania saw a 40% increase in injuries after their repeal and a startling 66% in head injury deaths. According to the NHTSA, Maryland saw a 36% decline in the number of motorcyclist fatalities in the 33-month period immediately after the law’s implementation in 1992 compared to the 33 months prior to the law.

California’s helmet law went into effect in 1992. In 1994, Kraus et al used data from 1991 (before the law) and from 1992. Motorcycle fatalities statewide were found to have decreased by 37% in 1992 compared to the prior year. The fatality rate per registered motorcycle decreased 26%. Further studies in California noted that in the five years prior to universal helmet law, the annual average of motorcyclists killed was 596. In the five years after the law’s adoption, 1992 to 1996, the average was 274, a 54% decrease. Severity and number of head injuries per rider also decreased after the law’s implementation.

Arkansas and Nebraska have had relatively low fatalities but very telling results. Arkansas first adopted the universal helmet law in 1967, but saw its repeal in 1997. Following the repeal, helmet use declined from 97% to just 52% while injuries and fatalities increased. In the three years before repeal, Arkansas saw an average of 21 fatalities a year; in the three years after repeal, the average increased to 25 fatalities per year. For Nebraska, who adopted the universal helmet law in 1989, the five years prior saw an average of 24 fatalities per year. This annual average declined to just 10 per year after the law’s adoption.

Texas went back and forth with its helmet use law, first enacting the universal helmet law in 1968, repealing it in 1977 with required helmet use only for riders under 18 and then reenacting it in 1989. Using police data, Mounce et al found an 11% decrease in serious injury crashes per registered motorcycle after the law’s implementation. Hospital data in Texas from the first 9 months after the law show that motorcyclists injured then suffered less serious injuries and were less likely to have head and face injuries than those injured before the law. Fleming and Becker (1992) found a 57% decrease in head related fatalities and a 55% reduction in sever head related injuries among hospital-admitted riders.

In September 1997, Texas once again repealed its universal helmet law (what??) and required helmet use by riders 21 years old or younger only or by those who had not completed a rider education course or who did not carry at least $10,000 in medical insurance coverage. Preusser et al (2000) found a marked increase in traumatic brain injury cases and in the costs of treating those cases. Also, in the three years following the repeal, an average of 180 riders were killed each year, a 51% increase from the three years prior to the law repeal.

Conclusions of independent studies

Sosin, Sacks and Wilson (1990): In the two states that dropped universal coverage during the study period (1979-1986), South Carolina saw a 184% increase in motorcyclist fatalities and Wyoming saw a 73 percent increase.

Sakar, Peek and Kraus (1995): Between July 1988 and October 1989, 173 fatally injured riders in Los Angeles County, California were studied. Their conclusion: Head and cervical spine injuries were more frequent in unhelmeted than in helmeted fatally injured motorcyclists.

Rowland et al (1996) In the state of Washington, 86 fatally injured and 386 hospitalized riders were studied. The conclusion: Motorcycle helmet use is strongly and independently associated with the reduced likelihood and severity of head injury, reduced overall injury severity and reduced probability or motorcycle related hospitalization and death attributable to head injury.

Other studies included in the NHTSA report had similar conclusions. These studies also concluded that universal motorcycle helmet laws raise helmet use to 90% or higher from the pre-law levels of 50% or lower. More recently, the NHSTA reports that 59% of the bikers killed in 2008 were not wearing helmets. They also report that helmets are estimated to be 37% effective in preventing fatal injuries to motorcycle riders and 41% for motorcycle passengers.

The GAO found 13 studies that included data on the societal costs of motorcycle accidents. These studies indicated that nonhelmeted riders were “more likely to need ambulance services, be admitted to a hospital as an inpatient, have higher hospital charges, need neurosurgery and intensive care, need rehabilitation and be permanently impaired and/or in need of long term care.”

Source: Evaluation of the Repeal of Motorcycle Helmet Laws: www.nhtsa.gov

Source: www.edgarsnyder.com

Source: http://ohsonline.com

By Louise Reeves