Can NTSB Move the Needle on Motorcycle Helmets?

Motorcycle fatalities in the United States dropped in 2009 for the first time in 11 years, according to NHTSA. The drop from 5,312 deaths and 96,000 injuries in 2008 to 4,462 deaths and 90,000 injuries was a welcome relief because 2008 was a record year for motorcycle deaths. NHTSA said the number of alcohol-impaired motorcyclists dying in crashes also fell by 16 percent, from 1,561 in 2008 to 1,314 deaths in 2009.

State authorities suggested several reasons for the declines: fewer miles driven because of the economy, fewer beginner motorcyclists, more attention to safety programs by the states, and even poor cycling weather, according to the April 2010 report published by the Governors Highway Safety Association. Indeed, Harley-Davidson's latest financial release indicated it will ship fewer motorcycles this year than in 2009.

The National Transportation Safety Board noted Nov. 16 that motorcycle deaths had fallen but said the 4,400 deaths still outnumber those in aviation, rail, marine, and pipelines combined. The leading cause of death for motorcyclists is head injury, NTSB said, as it explained a new Most Wanted Safety Improvement the board had voted to add to its list: "That everyone aboard a motorcycle be required to wear a helmet that complies with DOT's Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 218." Twenty states and Washington, D.C. have universal helmet laws that apply to all riders, but 27 states have partial laws requiring helmets for riders and/or passengers who are minors, but not for adult riders. Iowa, Illinois, and New Hampshire have no helmet laws.

How important are helmet laws? They are the only proven strategy to reduce motorcyclist fatalities, according to NTSB, which cites NHTSA as the source for this statement. Illinois' motorcyclist deaths did not decline in 2009 from 2008, but Vermont, which has a universal helmet law, also saw its motorcyclist deaths increase.

Will the NTSB's recommendation cause universal helmet laws to increase? It's unlikely; the agency lacks regulatory authority and sometimes must wait years before its Most Wanted recommendations are fully implemented. Remember, some states repealed helmet laws a few years ago when motorcyclists pushed the issue, calling it a question of individual rights and freedom. Other safety organizations made the same recommendation during the 11-year period when deaths were rising relentlessly.

Posted by Jerry Laws on Nov 19, 2010