Motorcycle Mania and Helmet Laws

In Florida, it is shocking to see motorcyclists without helmets. In the jurisdictions in and around Washington, DC wearing a helmet is mandatory.

My immediate reaction is concern for the guy's safety. I do not ride motorcycles; my mother thought it was too dangerous. Moms are usually right. The common sense of this is obvious: You can get hurt – badly – or killed riding a motorcycle without a helmet.

Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson magnificently conveyed the feeling of an easy life and freedom from convention in the 1969 movie, Easy Rider.

Motorcyclists tenaciously rally around the freedom sentiment, and argue that their right to self-determination is at issue when the matter of wearing a helmet is discussed. The problem is that these arguments do not consider the bigger picture.

Personal freedom is a small part of a picture that includes the social costs imposed on society by motorcycle accidents. A United States Center for Disease Control study (2010) showed that the social costs of motorcycle accidents are billions of dollars. These costs include lost worker productivity and the enormous medical costs that can accrue to the public because of the staggering level of care that can be required to attend to someone who has suffered a catastrophic injury.

There is a strong analogy between helmet laws and the requirement that people wear seatbelts in cars. The costs of their medical care to the rest of us are so large that it makes sense to impose safety laws.

Statistically, riding a motorcycle is a dangerous thing to do.

The number of motorcycle accidents continues to increase as a proportion of all vehicular accidents, and motorcyclists are much more likely to be injured or killed in a collision than is someone riding in a car or truck. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, a motorcycle rider is 18 times more likely to die in a collision than is someone in a car, and far more likely to suffer serious injuries. Some 80 percent of motorcycle collisions result in serious injury or death, and the fact that the motorcyclist might not have been at fault is of little comfort

There's an old ER joke: What do you call a motorcyclist who will not wear a helmet? An organ donor.

A common kind of serious injury associated with motorcycle accidents is head injury. Traumatic brain injuries, such as the closed-head injuries that result when an impact causes the brain to hit the inside of the skull, cause over one-third of the injury deaths in the United States. Since motorcyclists are often thrown off of their bikes in a collision, such injuries are ten times more common in motorcycle accidents than in other vehicle accidents.

Studies have shown that the number one way to prevent these serious injuries is the most obvious one-wear a helmet! Motorcyclists should make sure that the helmet they choose has been approved by the Department of Transportation. If it has, it will have a sticker on it saying "DOT." Heavy riding boots, gloves, vests, and long pants can also help protect riders if they do crash.

I came across the perfect one-liner to address the common sense issue here:

"If you have a $ 10 head, get a $ 10 helmet."

Motorcycle crash statistics (NHTSA 2010) show that helmets are about 29 percent effective in preventing crash fatalities. That is, on average, riders wearing a helmet have a 29 percent better chance of surviving a crash than riders without a helmet.

Statistics also show that:

  • Helmet use among fatally injured motorcyclists is below 50 percent
  • More motorcyclist fatalities are occurring on rural roads
  • Half of the fatalities are related to negotiating a curve prior to the crash
  • Over 80 percent of the fatalities occur off roadway
  • Undivided roadways account for a majority of the fatalities
  • Almost 60 percent of motorcyclist fatalities occur at night
  • More riders age 40 and over are getting killed

A higher proportion of crashes involving large bikes (500cc or bigger) result in death rather than injury – riders of large motorcycles make up 42 percent of all casualties but 69 percent of deaths. This is, at least partly, a result of riding patterns. Small motorcycles and scooters tend to be used for 'around-town' riding, where speeds are low, whereas large bikes spend a much greater proportion of time on the open road and travelling at higher speeds

The Laws

  • Laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear a helmet are in place in 19 states and the District of Columbia
  • Laws requiring only some motorcyclists to wear a helmet are in place in 28 states
  • There is no motorcycle helmet use law in 3 states (Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire)
  • Where there are helmet laws, often they only require younger riders, ages 17-20, to wear a helmet
  • When a state requires motorcycle operators and / or riders to wear a helmet, the helmet must, at a minimum, comply with the United States Department of Transportation's Federal Motorcycle Vehicle Safety Standard.

Only half as many states require helmet laws as required them in the 1970s. This largely reflects the efforts of grass-root motorcyclists who, state by state, have pushed the issue of personal liberty.

According to Rick Schmitt, from an organization called, there have also been efforts to stop helmet laws at the federal level. Every time an effort is made to restore any kind of a federal helmet mandate, which was in effect in this country in the '70s and in the' 90s, motorcycle rider groups have been effective in defeating those efforts promptly.

The images and warm feelings evoked by Easy Rider attract me. I think I will continue to stay off of motorcycles, allow others the pleasures, and hope they will wear helmets.