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NHTSA Study: Helmet Effectiveness Revisited

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ("NHTSA") in partnership with the National Center for Statistics and Analysis found that helmets are steadily improving in effectiveness, but they are hampered by a lack of regulation and enforcement. NHTSA is a bureau in the Department of Transportation and is responsible for improving traffic safety through studies, industry recommendations, regulations, investigation of major Wrecks, and enforcement. In pursuit of increased safety, NHTSA reviews a decades' worth of motorcycle collision data and compares it to previous decades to ascertain if (1) helmets are improving safety and (2) if yes, to what extent.

Motorcycle Wrecks by the Numbers

In 2013, motorcycle collisions killed 4,668 people who are a decrease of six percent from 4,986 in 2012. NHTSA estimates that there were around 88,000 motorcyclists injured in 2013, which is a decrease of five percent from 93,000 in 2012. Despite composing less than three percent of all motor vehicles on the road, motorcyclists accounted for 14 percent of traffic fatalities and four percent of injuries. In 2013, in two-vehicle crashes, 74 percent of motorcycles were involved in frontal collisions. In total, there were 2,182 two-vehicle crashes with motorcycles, among those crashes, 922 (or 42 percent) occurred when the vehicle was turning left and the motorcycle was proceeding straight, passing, or overtaking the car. Additionally, 22 percent motorcyclists struck fixed objects, compared to 18 percent for passenger cars and four percent for large trucks. NHTSA also found that speeding was a significant contributor to Wrecks, accounting for 34 percent of all motorcycle crashes.

The Old Standard

Since 1974, helmets are required to meet or exceed the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 218. The FMVSS is periodically updated to reflect the latest technology and material advances in helmet safety. The FMVSS is modernized based, in part, on NHTSA studies regarding helmet effectiveness.

NHTSA bases its "helmet effectiveness" rating on the most recent helmet effectiveness study. The last study was conducted in 1987, which reviewed data from the 1980s and late 1970s, and found that helmets, on average, improve rider's chance survival by 29 percent. Periodic studies are used to evaluate developments in helmet safety and improve NHTSA's baseline safety rating, to reflect the rising standards of safety and technology.

Many manufacturers voluntarily submit their helmets for testing and rating by NHTSA. The close cooperation between helmet manufacturers and government regulators reflects the shared goal of saving lives through improved technology and safety standards.

The Study: Helmet Effectiveness

The most recent study reviewed data from 1993 to 2002 from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System ("FARS"). FARS is a nationwide census database that collects data on fatal motor vehicle traffic crashes. The study defined "helmet effectiveness" to mean overall improvement in safety. The researchers noted that head injuries aren't the only cause of death among motorcyclists. Helmet effectiveness is a product of two factors, first, the function and performance of the helmet in the event of a crash, and second, the incidence of other fatal injuries. The researchers admit they cannot calculate the effectiveness of helmets in preventing head injuries alone. Therefore, their calculations are considered in light of overall survival value of wearing a helmet in the event of a fatal crash.

The study found that helmet effectiveness improved to 37 percent during the 1990s. NHTSA estimates that 7,808 lives were saved from improved helmets, about 2,400 more lives than would otherwise have been saved under the 1980's 29 percent effectiveness standard. The study cited rapid improvements in helmet design and material technology, which safeguards motorcyclists from more types of collisions. For example, carbon fiber, Kevlar, and polypropylene all significantly improve the manufacture of the helmet shells and protective linings.

However, the study also noted that substantially more lives could have been saved, up to 11,915, if helmets were properly utilized. Several states have enacted legislation that makes helmet-wearing optional for adults, rather than mandatory. This has resulted, since 2000, in a 13 percent drop in helmet-wearing riders. The study found that in 2000, 71 percent of motorcyclists reported wearing helmets, however, by 2002 the compliance rate dropped to 58 percent. Unfortunately, states continue to pass discretionary helmet laws, despite research consistently showing that un-helmeted motorcyclists are up to 3.4 times more likely to die in an Wreck than helmeted riders.

NHTSA noted a 2003 study examining fatality rates among motorcyclists in Louisiana and Kentucky before and after the repeal of mandatory helmet laws. Those studies found that helmet usage in Louisiana fell from 100 to 52 percent and in Kentucky, from 96 to 56 percent. Those states also saw a corresponding rise in fatalities.

Sadly, the researchers admit that there is a certain irony in that as helmet effectiveness rapidly improves, compliance rates drop thereby canceling out much of the anticipated gain in lives saved.

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