'Alarming Increase' in Motorcyclist Deaths Reported

Summer officially begins today, and the Washington, D.C.-based Governors Highway Safety Association has greeted its arrival with a new "Survey of the States: Motorcycle Safety Programs" report that warns motorcyclist deaths are rising fast. Separately, the August issue of the American Journal of Public Health includes a study that examined discharge data from all of Pennsylvania's acute care hospitals. The study shows motorcycle-related head injury deaths increased 66 percent while non-head injury deaths increased 25 percent, and motorcycle head injury hospitalizations increased 78 percent while non-head injury hospitalizations increased 28 percent, after the 2003 repeal of Pennsylvania's helmet law.

The GHSA report says motorcycle fatalities rose in 2006 for the ninth straight year and more than doubled in a decade, from 2,110 in 1997 to 4,810 in 2006. In 2006, 67 percent of all motorcycle fatalities occurred in 15 states; in 2004, 2005, and 2006 nearly one-third of all fatalities occurred in California, Texas, and Florida alone. Last year, GHSA asked state highway safety agencies to complete a survey on motorcycle safety activities designed to curb the annual increase in motorcycle crashes. All 50 states and the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico completed surveys.

The surveys show "a patchwork of helmet laws, scant enforcement and a lack of helmet promotion exist despite clear evidence that proper helmet use saves lives," GHSA said. Twenty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have universal motorcycle helmet laws. "Twenty-seven states and Guam have laws that cover certain riders, and three states have no motorcycle helmet laws. In states with partial laws or without helmet laws, most riders who died were not wearing helmets. Only nine states and Puerto Rico indicated special efforts to help law enforcement identify helmets that don’t meet safety standards. Although it is widely accepted that proper helmet use dramatically reduces the likelihood of a fatality in a crash, only 17 states reported special efforts to promote the benefits of helmet use and other protective gear."

Motorcycle sales almost quadrupled from 1997 to 2006, from 356,000 to almost 1.1 million, and as a result, 29 states "indicated they have capacity problems with delays ranging from one day to 12 weeks for training classes. Only three states, Florida, Maine, and Rhode Island require rider education for all riders, regardless of age," according to the association. The report also says many motorcyclists drive without valid licenses: In 2006, 25 percent of operators in fatal motorcycle crashes did not have a valid motorcycle license, compared to 13 percent of drivers of passenger vehicles. To read survey responses by state, visit www.statehighwaysafety.org/html/publications/survey/motorcycle/motorcycle.by.state.html.

In the journal's article, the researchers suggest Pennsylvania's repeal was most likely responsible for the increase in head injuries, and they said their study is significant for two main reasons: It used population-based hospital discharge data compiled from all acute care hospitals in the state, whereas most previous studies of post-repeal changes in motorcycle-related hospitalizations included data only from selected trauma centers. Second, the researchers attempted to control for non-helmet factors by comparing changes in head injuries to non-head injuries.

"Data alone, however, are not sufficient to reverse helmet law repeal; many states maintain repeals despite multiple studies showing increases in deaths, injuries and costs. Until life-saving mandatory helmet policies are reinstated, voluntary helmet use programs should be developed and evaluated," the study's authors wrote. The American Journal of Public Health is the monthly journal of the American Public Health Association.

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