Safety programs, not mandates, work best
June 25, 2012
The following originally appeared in the June 23 edition of the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel:
A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claimed that annual cost savings in states with universal motorcycle helmet laws were nearly four times greater than in states without universal helmet laws. Unfortunately, the CDC conclusions were not based on independently sourced figures but rather data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (a longtime proponent of universal helmet laws), including a discredited 2010 report on the economic costs saved by motorcycle helmet use.
For many years, my organization has strongly encouraged the voluntary use by adult riders of helmets certified by their manufacturers to meet the U.S. Department of Transportation standard as part of a comprehensive motorcycle safety program to help reduce injuries and fatalities in the event of a motorcycle crash.
However, helmet mandates are not the solution because helmets do not prevent crashes. The American Motorcyclist Association believes that comprehensive motorcycle safety programs must promote strategies that are designed to prevent motorcycle crashes from occurring in the first place.
Helmet mandates have unintended consequences: Tragically, the enforcement of mandates siphons funds from effective crash prevention programs.
The efficacy of rider education has been documented by research, including the landmark "Hurt Study" (1981). Even NHTSA has acknowledged this in its 2005 report, "Promising Practices in Motorcycle Rider Education and Licensing."
Motorist awareness programs have become an increasingly valuable strategy in reducing motorcycle crashes. One of the most frequent causes of motorcycle accidents is the violation of motorcyclists' right of way by other drivers. As traffic density and the frequency of distracted vehicle operation have increased, motorcyclists benefit when drivers are regularly reminded to watch for motorcyclists. Many states do not dedicate enough funding for these kinds of programs.
Recent reports calling for helmet mandates have failed to note that the rate of motorcycle fatalities has been decreasing. NHTSA reported in October 2011 that the motorcycle fatality rate from 2000-'09 declined 15.59% per 100,000 registered vehicles and 22.48% per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.
The wisdom of helmet mandates is questionable. The Governor's Highway Safety Association reported in May 2012 that 11 states that do not have universal helmet requirements reported fewer motorcycle fatalities in 2011, and seven states that have universal helmet laws reported greater fatalities in 2011.
Clearly, there is a need for additional research to better understand the causes of crashes, which is why the AMA supports the comprehensive motorcycle crash causation study underway at Oklahoma State University. Scheduled for completion in 2014, the study is being conducted under a $2.8 million Federal Highway Administration grant approved by Congress, along with more than $125,000 committed by the AMA and a total of $750,000 from six state safety programs, including Wisconsin.
In closing, we'd like to thank U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who for years has taken on powerful anti-motorcycling interest groups and worked to support the motorcycling lifestyle.
Wayne Allard is vice president for government relations of the American Motorcyclist Association.