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Do Motorcycle Helmets Save Lives?

pMotorcycleRider_Dollarphotoclub_818740-240x161.jpgAccording to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), motorcycle helmets significantly reduce the risk for serious head injury and death in motorcycle accidents. A recent report reveals that the NHTSA estimates that approximately 1,669 lives were saved by the use of motorcycle helmets in 2014 alone. For motorcycle operators, helmet use is estimated to be 37 percent effective at preventing deadly injuries in the event of a crash, and 41 percent effective for passengers of motorcycles.

Unfortunately, many motorcyclists remain resistant to the use of helmets, and they lose their lives as a result. Of the 4,586 individuals who were killed in motorcycle crashes in 2014, a disturbing 39 percent were not wearing helmets. In 19 states (including Tennessee) and the District of Columbia, those riders would not have had a choice. Current laws in those states require all motorcycle riders regardless of age to wear helmets, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). 28 other states have helmet laws that are age specific, and the remaining states have no helmet laws at all.

In early 2015, motorcycle helmet law in Tennessee faced a challenge when a bill that was sponsored by Senator Kerry Roberts moved to loosen the state's regulation. The proposal, which would have allowed riders over the age of 21 to go without helmets, was rejected by a 6 to 5 vote. Like many other advocates for helmet-free riding, Roberts stated that the evidence doesn't fully support that helmets are safer. According to Roberts, most motorcycle helmets are only designed to withstand a crash at 13 mph., and only about 50 percent of helmets meet that standard. Roberts also claims that the mere weight of a motorcycle helmet could cause fatal neck injuries.

States that Have Mandatory Helmet Laws Have Fewer Fatalities

According to a report by NHTSA, about 89 percent of motorcyclists in states with mandatory universal helmet laws wear helmets, compared with just 48 percent of riders in other states. Not surprisingly, states without mandatory helmet laws saw 10 times more fatalities for unhelmeted riders (1,565) than those that required helmets for all ages (151) in 2014. Additionally, in 2013 approximately 59 percent of motorcyclists who were killed in crashes were not wearing helmets, compared to only 8 percent of riders in states with universal helmet laws.

Motorcycle Helmets and Head Injuries

Head injuries are one of the leading causes of disability and death in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) reports that helmets can provide effective protection for riders faces, brains, and heads overall, and according to the NHTSA, motorcyclists who wear helmets are an astounding 85 percent less likely to suffer severe, critical or disabling head injuries than those who do not wear helmets. The NHTSA report also confirms that helmets are 67 percent effective for preventing brain injuries, and unhelmeted riders are three times more likely to suffer a brain injury than individuals who use helmets.

The Most Effective Motorcycle Helmet

Unfortunately, not all motorcycle helmets are created equally and some helmet users still sustain severe injuries. Design, added features, and even fit influence the safety and effectiveness of helmets significantly. A recent study evaluated three types of motorcycle helmets for their effectiveness in preventing serious injuries and death. Full-face helmets, open-face helmets, and those that offer partial coverage were examined. Findings of the study include:

  • While helmets that offer partial coverage are less protective in the event of a crash, the difference between protection offered by full-face helmets and open-face helmets is not significant.
  • Half-coverage helmets do not provide a visor or any type of facial guard, and are less likely to meet safety standards.
  • Improper fit, helmets in disrepair or poor condition, and failure to correctly use added features like chin straps play such a role in the safety of motorcycle helmets that it is difficult to accurately determine the safety of varying types in an uncontrolled study.

Choosing the Right Motorcycle Helmet

With such a wide variety of motorcycle helmets available on the market, it is easy for an inexperienced rider to choose one that may not offer the maximum amount of protection. To help ensure that motorcyclists purchase and use helmets that adequately protect the brain and head from injury in a crash, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) requires that motorcycle helmets on the market in the U.S. comply with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 218. To avoid purchasing a novelty helmet or one that does not meet federal safety standards, riders should look for:

  • Firm polystyrene foam lining at least one inch thick
  • Sturdy chin straps
  • Solid rivets
  • Approximately three pound weight
  • DOT sticker (note: some novelty sellers provide separate "DOT" stickers to be placed after purchase.)

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