Testimony of Honorable Kathryn O'Leary Higgins
National Transportation Safety Board
on Senate Bill 1067
Jefferson City, MO
February 13, 2008
Good morning Chairman Stouffer, Vice Chair Rupp and members of the Senate Transportation Committee. It is my pleasure to be here in Jefferson City to discuss the use of motorcycle safety helmets.
The National Transportation Safety Board is an independent Federal agency charged by Congress to investigate transportation accidents, determine their probable cause, and make recommendations to prevent their recurrence. The recommendations that arise from our investigations and safety studies are our most important product. The Safety Board cannot mandate implementation of these recommendations. However, in our 40-year history, organizations and government bodies have adopted more than 80 percent of our recommendations.
The Safety Board is concerned about the growing number of motorcycle riders that have been killed or injured in motorcycle crashes. Since 1997, the number of motorcycle fatalities has increased 127 percent, an increase that far exceeds that of any other form of transportation. In fact, the number of motorcycle fatalities in recent years has been more than double the number of deaths in each year from accidents in aviation, rail, marine, and pipeline combined. In 2006, for example, 4,810 motorcyclists died in crashes, and motorcycle fatalities accounted for more than 10 percent of all motor vehicle crash fatalities. In 1997, 2,116 motorcyclists died. Although rising motorcycle use may partly explain this trend, increases in fatalities have outpaced increases in motorcycle registrations and vehicle miles traveled, measures used to determine accident and injury rates.
Head injury is a leading cause of death in motorcycle crashes. The use of a safety helmet, one that complies with U.S. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 218, is the “single critical factor in the prevention [and] reduction of head injury.” The main function of the helmet is to protect the rider’s head, especially the brain, during a fall or crash. The FMVSS 218-compliant helmet is designed with a hard outer shell, an impact-attenuating liner, and a retention system to protect the structure and contents of the head in a variety of impact scenarios.
Helmets can be effective in both low- and high-speed crashes because crash speed is not directly related to head impact speed. In the Hurt Report,1 the severity of head impacts was determined by examining crash-involved helmet damage. This study found that 90 percent of head impacts were less severe than the single test impact required in FMVSS 218. Thus, FMVSS 218-compliant helmets are well designed to protect the head for the vast majority of motorcycle crashes.
The effectiveness of appropriately designed motorcycle helmets in preventing and mitigating head injury is unequivocal. A 1991 report reviewing published studies concluded that motorcycle helmet use has lowered fatality rates, prevented serious head injuries, and reduced the need for ambulance service, hospitalization, neuro-surgical intervention, intensive care, rehabilitation, and long-term care in motorcyclist accidents. The 2003 independent Cochrane Review of published studies found that helmets substantially reduced the risk of head injury and fatality in motorcycle crashes, and found no evidence of an increased risk of any other types of injury.2 A 1996 DOT report noted that riders not wearing helmets are three times more likely to suffer brain injury than those riders wearing helmets. According to another DOT report published in 2004, helmets are 37 percent effective in preventing all fatalities in motorcycle crashes.
David Thom, one of the lead researchers involved with the Hurt Report, spoke at the Safety Board’s Motorcycle Forum in September 2006, about the “perceived” potential negative effects of helmets on safety. An active motorcyclist and researcher on motorcycle safety for three decades, Mr. Thom noted that helmets neither cause nor prevent neck injuries. A large number of scientific studies confirm Mr. Thom’s observations. Similarly, helmets do not cause problems with vision or hearing.
A number of motorcycle-related groups, including the National Association of State Motorcycle Safety Administrators, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, and the American Motorcyclist Association, encourage riders to wear motorcycle helmets, and most do not oppose laws mandating such use by minors. The National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety (NAMS) report, which was supported by NHTSA, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, and motorcycle manufacturers such as BMW, Ducati, Harley-Davidson, American Honda Motor Company, Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Yamaha, included an urgent recommendation to increase the use of FMVSS 218-compliant helmets. A national survey performed in 2006 by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University noted that, even of those individuals who had previously ridden a motorcycle without a helmet, 61 percent favored state requirements for motorcycle helmet use.
The Safety Board recognizes, however, that some motorcyclists and many motorcycling organizations oppose mandating the use of motorcycle helmets by all riders. Most do not argue against the safety benefits of such helmets; instead, they contend that the government has no role in protecting the individual from foreseeable adverse outcomes if the individual chooses not to be so protected.
In the 1980s, opponents of seat belt use laws similarly asserted their personal freedom to drive without wearing seat belts. However, in 1985, the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association stated, “the evidence is clear and dramatic . . . safety belt users . . . experienced 80 percent fewer deaths from head injuries.” NHTSA estimates that from 1975 through 2005, seat belts saved more than 211,000 lives nationwide. During that same period, all states, except New Hampshire, enacted mandatory seat belt use laws; and usage rates have increased nationwide from about 12 percent in the early 1970s to 81 percent today. The Safety Board is confident that there is ample evidence that similar life saving results can be achieved through motorcycle helmet laws that apply to all riders and passengers.
By 1976, following passage of the 1966 National Highway Safety Act, which withheld federal funding for states that had not enacted mandatory helmet laws, 47 states, including Missouri, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico had mandatory helmet laws that applied to all motorcycle riders. Since that time, motorcycle groups have argued extensively against such laws, and restrictions on federal funding contingent on such laws were removed (in 1976), partially re-enacted (in 1991), and then removed again (in 1995). Currently, only 20 states, the District of Columbia, and 4 territories have universal helmet laws (requiring all riders to wear a helmet), 27 states and 1 territory have partial laws (requiring minors and/or passengers to wear such helmets), and 3 states have no helmet laws. Each removal of federal funding restrictions was followed by a wave of repeals of universal helmet laws.
These repeals have amounted to a vast experiment affirming the effectiveness of helmet laws and regulations in reducing death and injury. A 1991 review of studies of helmet use found that helmet use under universal laws ranges from 92 to 100 percent, while without a law or under a partial law (requiring only some riders, such as teens or novice riders, to wear helmets), helmet use generally ranges from 42 to 59 percent. A 1986 study concluded that the repeal of helmet use laws was associated with a 10.4 to 33.3 percent increase in the fatality rate (when calculated per accident). The study also found that between 158 and 420 fewer motorcycle rider fatalities would have occurred in 1984 had the laws not been repealed. More recently, studies of states that have repealed their mandatory helmet laws within the last 10 years have shown similar patterns.
For example, Arkansas repealed its universal helmet law in 1997, and, 18 months after repeal, saw helmet use drop by two-thirds (from 97 to 30 percent). After the repeal, Arkansas experienced more than double the number and rate of un-helmeted crash scene fatalities, and more than double the hospital admission rate for un-helmeted motorcycle crash survivors. Associated with this increase in death and injuries was a substantial increase in the amount of non-reimbursed charges for initial treatment.
After Texas repealed its universal helmet law in 1997, helmet use fell from 97 to 66 percent. More than 80 additional motorcyclists died in the 2 years following the law’s repeal than in the 2 years preceding it. The number of un-helmeted riders with traumatic brain injuries skyrocketed from 55 in 1997 to 511 in 2001, and the number of un-helmeted riders who were placed in rehabilitation facilities saw similar increases, from 9 in 1997 to 90 in 2001.
In Kentucky, helmet usage rates tumbled from 96 to 65 percent following repeal of the state’s universal helmet law in 1998; motorcycle fatalities increased from 26 in the year prior to repeal to 42 in the year following repeal. Accident-involved motorcycle riders who did not wear helmets in Kentucky were 4 times more likely to suffer a traumatic brain injury and severe head injury. In addition, hospital charges alone averaged more than $25,000 more for the un-helmeted motorcyclist than for the helmeted motorcyclist involved in an accident.
Louisiana saw its helmet usage rate drop from 100 to 52 percent after it amended its helmet law in 1999 to remove the universal requirement for helmet use. The motorcycle fatality rate increased by more than 25 percent following the repeal, with un-helmeted accident-involved riders experiencing head injuries at twice the rate of helmeted riders. Nearly 60 more motorcyclists died in the 2 years following the law’s repeal than in the 2 years preceding it. In spite of a legal requirement for un-helmeted riders to carry health insurance, the insurance coverage for un-helmeted riders involved in accidents actually decreased by half following the change in the law. In 2004, in response to the continuing rise in deaths and injuries, Louisiana reenacted the universal helmet law and saw the total number of motorcyclist deaths decline in 2004 and 2005.
Florida repealed its universal helmet law in 2000. After the repeal, helmet wear decreased from 100 to 53 percent, motorcycle deaths increased by almost 50 percent, and the number of serious brain injuries doubled. An estimated 117 motorcycle deaths in Florida could have been avoided from 2001 to 2002 if the universal law had remained in place.
The results of this experiment on motorcycle riders are the same in every state where it has been performed. When universal helmet laws are repealed, helmet usage rates decrease dramatically, while motorcycle deaths and injuries increase markedly, even when accounting for the changes in rider ship that may be associated with the repeal of the universal law. It is likely that hundreds of deaths and thousands of serious injuries could have been avoided had the states that recently repealed their universal helmet laws not done so.
Most states that have repealed universal helmet laws recognize that younger riders may be unable to make a fully informed decision regarding helmet use. They have, therefore, required that riders under a certain age wear helmets. Unfortunately, it is difficult to ascertain the age of a motorcycle rider for the purposes of enforcing such a requirement without verifying the rider’s age during a traffic stop. As a result, the young motorcyclist helmet law becomes unenforceable and helmet usage rates for minors drop dramatically when universal helmet laws are repealed. These younger riders are likely to be among the least experienced riders and are the most likely to engage in risky behaviors, often with an incomplete understanding of potential consequences. Thus, the most vulnerable and least risk-averse segments of the motorcyclist population are more likely to be unprotected in the absence of universal laws.
The argument regarding helmet laws is often framed in terms of personal choice (for example, “it’s my head”). Such an argument typically invokes the idea that motorcyclists are only hurting themselves by deciding to ride unprotected. For over 10 years, the Safety Board has been responsible for assisting families of those killed and injured in transportation accidents. We do not accept the notion that surviving friends and family are not affected when riders decide not to wear a helmet and are killed or injured.
In addition to family and friends, society as a whole pays the well-documented excess costs for un-helmeted riders: medical care costs; the potentially even greater costs from productivity losses of individuals injured, disabled, or killed; and the costs incurred for first responders. Especially tragic are the fatalities and injuries involving un-helmeted riders in accidents that would have required only a new helmet and cosmetic repairs to the motorcycle, had the rider been wearing a protective helmet.
It is because of the costs to society and survivors that personal freedoms must be balanced with the need to protect individuals from preventable illness, injuries, and fatalities. We are likely to hear passionate debate today about the personal freedom of motorcycle riders to not wear helmets, however, the remarkable effectiveness of universal helmet laws in the prevention of death and disability among motorcyclists operating on public roads, particularly in light of rising rates and total numbers of individuals killed and injured in motorcycle crashes in Missouri and across our country, is a powerful argument for the adoption of such laws.
Senate Bill 1067, and its companion bill House Bill 1393, are not good public safety policy. When universal helmet laws are repealed, helmet usage rates decrease dramatically, while motorcycle deaths and injuries increase markedly, even when accounting for changes in ridership that may be associated with the repeal of the universal law.
Moreover, the proposed legislation covers only motorcycle operators and passengers under age 21 (only 8 percent of motorcycle fatalities in the last 5 years) and operators and passengers riding on interstate highways (only 18 percent of motorcycle fatalities in the last 5 years). That leaves a significant portion of the motorcycle rider population unprotected.
Missouri currently has a good law that requires use of helmets that meet federal protective standards. It is a sound public safety law. It should not be weakened. The Safety Board, therefore, urges this Committee and the Senate of Missouri to reject this bill, (SB 1067) and its companion bill HB 1393.