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Remarks on Improve Motorcycle Safety, Most Wanted List Press Conference: State Issues, Washington, DC
Christopher A. Hart
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Most Wanted List Press Conference: State Issues, Washington, DC

Today, the National Transportation Safety Board is adding motorcycle safety to its Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements. From 1997 through 2008, motorcycle fatalities more than doubled, from 2,116 to 5,290. Although the number of motorcycle fatalities declined in 2009 to 4,462, that's still an average of more than 12 motorcyclists killed every day, in addition to the 90,000 motorcyclists who were injured that year.

Although only about 3 percent of the 257 million vehicles on the road today are motorcycles, motorcyclists represent 13 percent of highway fatalities. Motorcycling has enjoyed a steady growth in popularity, and motorcycle registrations have increased by more than 50 percent in the last decade. Unfortunately, the number of fatalities and injuries are greatly outpacing these increases in registrations.

Another fact is very clear: head injuries are a leading cause of deaths in motorcycle crashes. One very simple safety step is key to saving those lives: the universal wearing of motorcycle helmets that are approved by the Department of Transportation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that helmets are 37 percent effective in preventing fatal injuries to motorcycle riders.

These helmets, however, need to meet DOT standards to provide the optimum level of protection. In 2007, the NTSB issued recommendations to states to require all motorcyclists and their passengers to wear helmets that comply with DOT's Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 218. FMVSS 218 is designed to maximize protection against:

  • Impact forces,
  • Penetration, and
  • Loss of the helmet due to crash forces.

Thus, FMVSS 218-compliant helmets are designed with a hard outer shell, an impact-attenuating liner, and a retention system to protect the head, especially the brain, in a variety of impact scenarios. These characteristics are vital to provide motorcyclists the greatest protection possible against head injuries that are too often fatal.

Universal helmet laws have proven effective in mitigating injuries and preventing fatalities. Currently, 20 states, the District of Columbia, and 4 territories have laws requiring all riders and their passengers to wear a helmet, although not all of these laws require helmets to meet the federal standards. Twenty-seven states and 1 territory have partial laws that require minors and/or passengers to wear helmets. Three states have no helmet laws.

After Louisiana amended its helmet law in 1999 to remove the universal requirement for helmet use, the motorcycle fatality rate increased by more than 25 percent, with unhelmeted 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 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.

After Texas repealed its universal helmet law in 1997, 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 unhelmeted riders with traumatic brain injuries skyrocketed from 55 in 1997 to 511 in 2001, and the number of unhelmeted riders who were placed in rehabilitation facilities saw similar increases, from 9 in 1997 to 90 in 2001.

In Pennsylvania, in the two years following repeal of its helmet law, there was a 32 percent increase in head injury deaths and a 42 percent increase in head injury-related hospitalizations.

Too many lives are lost in motorcycle crashes. The most important step riders can take in terms of protecting themselves is to wear a DOT-compliant helmet every time they ride. The NTSB urges the Governors and legislative leaders in those states where helmet laws are partial or non-existent to act promptly and decisively to implement a law that requires all motorcycle riders to wear FMVSS-compliant helmets every time they ride.