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Remarks before the 10th Annual Motorcycle Industry Council Communications Symposium, Long Beach, CA
Mark V. Rosenker
10th Annual Motorcycle Industry Council Communications Symposium, Long Beach, CA

Good morning, Chairman Little (Larry), President Buche (Tim) and members of the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC) and invited guests. Also, I wish to recognize MIC’s Senior Vice President for Government Relations Ms. Van Kleeck (Kathy) who assisted us in scheduling this event.  I would note that the MIC and the Motorcycle Safety Foundation have been working with the States and motorcycle groups to improve motorcycle safety for many years through meaningful education and training courses.  I congratulate the MIC and MSF for these efforts.

With me today are 2 members of my staff, Mr. Tom Doyle, my special counsel and Mr. Bill Gossard from our Office of Safety Recommendations and Advocacy.  I am very pleased to be here this morning because the topic I want to discuss, motorcycle safety, has always been a subject of personal concern.   As many of you may know, I once worked for a public affairs organization that supported the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.  So let me thank you again for the invitation to be here today.

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.  Additionally, the Board conducts safety studies and public forums on safety-related issues.  Recent forums have been held on aviation runway safety (a concern for all of us who fly), boating safety, driver education, and motorcycle safety.  The recommendations from our investigations, safety studies, and public forums are our most important product.  The Safety Board cannot mandate implementation of these recommendations.  However, in our 42-year history, organizations and government bodies have adopted more than 80 percent of our recommendations.

The Safety Board is very 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 143 percent, (from 2,116 in 1997 to 5,154 in 2007) an increase that far exceeds that of any other form of transportation. Reported injuries have also climbed from about 53,000 in 1997 to 103,000 in 2007, a 94 percent increase. 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. It is the only highway vehicle category that had an increased proportion of fatalities in 2007.

 In 2007, for example, motorcycle fatalities accounted for more than 12.6 percent of all motor vehicle crash fatalities (41,059 for all vehicles and 5,154 for motorcycles).    Although rising motorcycle use may partly explain this trend, increases in fatalities and injuries have far outpaced increases in motorcycle registrations and vehicle miles traveled, measures used to determine accident and injury rates.  We know that the estimates for these activity numbers are not perfect, and we have called for their improvement, but we cannot, in good conscience, ignore these trends.  Something must be done to turn these fatality and injury rates around.

This morning I would like to address in more detail the 3 areas in which the Safety Board made safety recommendations as the result of a public forum we held in September 2006 in Washington, D.C.  Specifically, I want to address the need for increased State legal requirements for wearing DOT-approved safety helmets; the need to reprioritize the National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety (NAMS) based on objective criteria, and known safety outcomes; and the need to gather more accurate information on motorcycle registration and vehicle miles traveled.

Head injury is a leading cause of death in motorcycle crashes.  The use of a safety helmet 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. 

Let’s look at the facts:

  • The main function of the helmet is to protect the rider’s head, especially the brain, during a fall or crash.
  • A 1996 DOT report noted that riders not wearing helmets are three times more likely to suffer brain injury than those riders wearing helmets. 
  • 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. 
  • In 2003, the 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. (1)  In fact, a DOT report published in 2004, found that helmets are 37 percent effective in preventing all fatalities in motorcycle crashes.

Now some riders say that helmets cause injuries.  David Thom, one of the lead researchers involved with the Hurt Report, spoke at the Safety Board’s 2006 Motorcycle Forum about the “perceived” potential negative effects of helmets on safety.  Mr. Thom noted that helmets neither cause nor prevent neck injuries. A large number of scientific studies confirm Mr. Thom’s observations.

Reviews of scientific research studies conducted by the GAO, the Hurt Report, and a NHTSA study have confirmed that motorcycle helmets do not interfere with a rider’s ability to hear or visually detect potential traffic hazards; nor do they cause a crash to occur.  Further, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation points out that helmets can benefit a rider’s ability to hear and see by limiting wind noise, protecting the face and eyes from wind, and by repelling objects flying through the air.

Most motorcycle-related groups, including all of you here this morning representing the Motorcycle Industry Council, 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 groups do not oppose laws mandating such use by minors.

The MIC also deserves congratulations for advancing a new safety internet service that deals with helmet safety.  MIC’s soon to be released initiative will provide motorcyclists the opportunity to visit the internet to identify motorcycle helmets that meet DOT-safety requirements.  Additionally, your motorcycle helmet task force, I understand is working very closely with NHTSA on addressing federal labeling to reduce misleading labeling of novelty helmets. The Safety Board will comment on the proposed rulemaking and I believe the proposed rule will bring clarity and integrity to the motorcycle helmet issue.

 Even the NAMS, which many of you in the room helped to create or have worked to implement, included an urgent recommendation to increase the use of FMVSS 218-compliant helmets.  We know from the experience of States that repealed helmet laws, that the only successful way to increase helmet use is through enactment of a State law. 

The Safety Board recognizes, however, that some motorcyclists and a few, rider 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 even when riding on highways that are publicly funded and maintained and have publicly funded fire, police, emergency services and medical support.

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.  Surely, we would celebrate if we could show similar numbers of lives saved in motorcycle crashes.  During that same period, 1975 to 2005, 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 82 percent today. The Safety Board is confident that similar life saving results can be achieved through enactment of motorcycle helmet laws requiring use of DOT-compliant helmets that universally apply to riders and passengers.

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.

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, helmet use generally ranges from 42 to 59 percent.  More recently, studies of states that have repealed their mandatory helmet laws within the last 10 years have shown that fewer motorcycle rider fatalities would have occurred had the laws not been repealed.

Let me share with you what we’ve seen when States with universal helmet laws repealed them.  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 fatalities, and more than double the hospital admission rate for un-helmeted motorcycle crash survivors. 

Texas repealed its universal helmet law in 1997 and 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 (an 829 percent increase), and the number of un-helmeted riders who were placed in rehabilitation facilities saw similar increases, from 9 in 1997 to 90 in 2001.

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 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 – what is essentially an 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 ridership 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.  How can we know this and not take action to save our sons and daughters, friends and relatives from these needless deaths and often life-long debilitating injuries? 

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.

It is exactly because of the costs to society and survivors that personal freedoms must be balanced with the need to protect individuals from preventable injuries, and fatalities.  The remarkable effectiveness of universal helmet laws in the prevention of death and disability among motorcyclists operating on public roads (Township, County, State, or National), particularly in light of rising rates and total numbers of individuals killed and injured in motorcycle crashes across our country, is a powerful argument for the adoption of such laws.

Let me be very clear on this.  Repeal of a universal motorcycle helmet use law is a very costly and very poor public policy that is unsupported by the facts.  We recognize that these are controversial recommendations, but they are recommendations that will save lives.  That is our job.  To examine the facts and propose corrective action to make the transportation of individuals as safe and free from risk of injury as possible, including action to minimize personal injuries that occur in transportation accidents.

Let me move on to another important recommendation that the Board issued to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). We asked FHWA to develop guidelines for the States to use to gather accurate motorcycle registrations and vehicle miles traveled data.   Furthermore, the Board asked that the FHWA provide information to the States on the various methods to collect registrations and vehicle miles traveled and how these methods can be put in place.

Having accurate data is important for several reasons.  We need it to calculate safety rates such as fatalities, injuries or accidents per registered vehicle or vehicle mile traveled, to allocate funding at Federal, state, and local levels, to determine whether roadways are handling average daily traffic, to identify whether implemented safety measures are working and to develop and improve legislation.  Because motorcycle activity data are used in such a variety of important ways, it is critical that the data reflect motorcycle activity accurately.  The FHWA has been very responsive to our recommendations

In April 2008, the FHWA distributed a supplement to its Traffic Monitoring Guide (TMG) that provided guidance on motorcycle travel data collection and reporting practices.  In May 2008, the FHWA demonstrated Motorcycle Travel Monitoring Equipment at its Virginia test facility.  The purpose of the demonstrations was to test a number of technologies that could detect motorcycle travel in different riding patterns and formations.  The Safety Board is pleased with the FHWA’s response to our recommendations and we look forward to seeing their future products.

I’d like to turn my attention now to the last recommendation the Board issued which was to NHTSA, asking that it reprioritize the national agenda for motorcycle safety (NAMS).  NAMS is one of the most comprehensive documents concerning motorcycle safety to appear in the last decade.  Unfortunately, during the eight years since the NAMS was published, fatalities have continued to climb at an alarming rate.

The publication of the NAMS was an important step toward improving motorcycle safety, and the implementation guide published in 2006 to support it, may be useful for those who are seeking ideas for how to implement the recommendations.  However, the Board believes that the NAMS and its recommendations would be more relevant if they were reprioritized based on objective criteria such as whether implementing the recommendation has been shown to reduce accidents and fatalities, or if it reduces other known risks associated with safety. 

As a result, the Safety Board asked NHTSA to reprioritize the NAMS based on objective criteria including safety outcomes and to create an action plan for those who can carry out those recommendations.  We also asked the states to share information with NHTSA about the effectiveness of their current motorcycle safety efforts to assist NHTSA with its reprioritization.

Finally, I would like to thank the MIC and the industry as a whole for supporting the need for a crash causation study.  The Hurt study had a substantial impact on motorcycle safety, so I am pleased to hear that the industry has offered to provide funding of $3 million dollars to assist the federal government through the FHWA with NHTSA support to complete an updated thorough and methodical study of motorcycle industry crash causation.  I expect that this will be a rigorous, peer-reviewed study and I look forward to its findings at the earliest possible time.

Let me close by sharing with you my perspective.

  • For many people riding a motorcycle is a sport, and it should be fun.
  • It shouldn’t result in needless deaths and injuries.
  • We all have a common interest in improving motorcycle safety and we need to work together; we need your help, and
  • Finally, safety is good for everyone and is good for business.

I would like to once again thank the Motorcycle Industry Council for this opportunity to speak with you on motorcycle safety.  Thank you.


 1. B.Liu et al, “Helmets for Preventing Injury in Motorcycle Riders,” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 4 (2003).


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