By Jim Witters
Properly constructed motorcycle helmets save lives and reduce injuries when crashes occur.
Every motorcyclist should wear a helmet on every ride, whether a cross-country excursion or a quick jaunt to the corner market.
Statistics support what common sense tells us: Wearing a helmet provides more protection to a rider’s head.
Put another way, would you rather have your face or your face shield hitting and sliding along the asphalt at 30 mph or faster?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls helmets the most important piece of motorcycle safety gear.
The AMA believes that a properly fitted motorcycle helmet certified by its manufacturer to meet the U.S. Department of Transportation standard should be part of every rider’s gear on every ride, along with gloves, sturdy footwear and long pants.
“We promote all the gear, all the time,” said Rob Dingman, AMA president and CEO. “In the event of a crash, you’ll want all the protection you can get.”
Many studies report statistics and offer research that conclude helmets can, in many scenarios, prevent injury in the event of a crash. Indeed, it’s common sense that protective gear can reduce or eliminate the physical harm that could result from striking the ground at a high rate of speed.
Nevertheless, some riders opposed to helmets will claim that helmets increase the risk of injury by, among other things, limiting peripheral vision or adding extra weight to the head.
Still others argue that the empirical data show the opposite: that motorcycle helmet use may reduce the risk of neck and spine injuries.
At the same time, helmets offer protection throughout the ride, not just when a crash occurs.
Helmets provide a measure of defense from the sun and rain, birds and bugs and flying debris. There are less tangible benefits, as well. With fewer sources of distraction or potential injury, riders can more easily concentrate on—and enjoy—the ride.
Each year, a handful of state legislatures consider bills that would require all adults to wear helmets while riding motorcycles, while others consider eliminating an existing requirement or adding provisions that include minimum health insurance coverage.
In 2017, Missouri and Nebraska took up bills that would have allowed adult riders to decide for themselves whether to wear a helmet. Neither bill passed.
Meanwhile, a Utah proposal to raise the legal age for helmet choice from 18 to 21 sparked a broader debate about head injuries, insurance coverage and the need for more rider training programs.
That bill passed the legislature and was signed into law by the governor in March.
Other states that took up helmet bills this year include Arizona, Washington, Virginia, New York and Oregon.
The AMA believes that adults are capable of making personal safety decisions for themselves.
Society’s role is not to mandate personal safety, but, rather, to provide the education and training necessary to aid adults in making these decisions for themselves.
Lane Triplett, a 21-year AMA member who serves as government relations officer for the Idaho Coalition for Motorcycle Safety, put it this way: “Motorcycle helmet laws are not the panacea to reducing fatalities. Personal responsibility is the answer.”
Whether living in a state that requires helmets or one where their use is optional, the AMA strongly encourages riders to choose and wear the right motorcycle helmet.
Helmet makers self-certify that their products meet DOT standards. Full-face helmets provide the best protection. And today’s high-tech helmets are lightweight, with many comfort features.
But some riders choose to wear novelty helmets because they are smaller and less expensive. Others grab cheap helmets at swap meets or online, without checking the certification.
“They think they are protected, because they have something on their heads,” said Chuck Stiteler, state program coordinator for the Ohio Department of Public Safety’s Motorcycle Ohio program. “Those helmets are absolutely worthless.”
A 2013 study by Thomas Rice at the University of California Berkeley found that, compared to riders wearing full-face, DOT-approved helmets, those using novelty helmets were 2.5 times as likely to suffer head injury and twice as likely to suffer fatal injury.
Rice calls novelty helmets “bogus helmets” in his report.
Some motorcyclists go so far as to buy fake “DOT” decals or stickers at rallies or flea markets and stick them on a novelty helmet to try to fool law enforcement in states with helmet mandates.
Stiteler said the National Association of State Motorcycle Safety Administrators is working toward getting those false stickers banned.
No matter what gear a motorcyclist wears, when a crash occurs, the rider faces considerable risk of injury.
Mandatory helmet laws do nothing to prevent crashes. The goal is to reduce the number of crashes that occur.
Better training for riders, improved licensing and testing, and greater public awareness can reduce the likelihood of crashes and increase the safety of all road users.
In addition, the resources and efforts directed toward passing and enforcing mandatory motorcycle helmet laws would be better used on efforts to prevent crashes from occurring.
“The way to save lives is for riders to ride unimpaired and improve their skills by taking experienced rider training classes,” Triplett said. “A beginner’s course is just that, a beginning. Riders of all skill levels will improve by taking additional training.”
Travis Wolford and Melissa Ritz received their Saved by the Helmet awards in 2016.
Motorcycle Ohio oversees a statewide program called Saved by the Helmet, which presents awards to riders who were involved in crashes and who believe that the use of a helmet prevented their death or serious injury.
The program has been around since the late 1990s, but Stiteler breathed new life into it when he joined Motorcycle Ohio in 2013.
“The purpose of the Saved by the Helmet Club is to increase public awareness about the lifesaving value of motorcycle helmets by publicly recognizing individuals who survive serious traffic crashes while wearing a helmet,” Stiteler said.
Each May, state officials gather at Quaker Steak & Lube restaurants in Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati to kick off Motorcycle Awareness Month and present the Saved by the Helmet Award.
In 2016, five people were recognized. This year, there were eight.
“The key point is that wearing safety gear is the right thing to do, for us and for those who love us,” Stiteler said. “We all think it’s not going to happen to us. But it only takes a second to make that decision to wear a helmet. Take that second, and make the right choice.”
On social media, in letters and phone calls, some motorcyclists—including AMA members—call the AMA “anti-helmet,” because the organization opposes laws mandating helmet use by adults.
Others think that when the AMA encourages helmet use, the organization favors universal laws mandating helmets.
But the official AMA position statement is clear: “The AMA believes that adults should have the right to voluntarily decide when to wear a helmet. The AMA does not oppose laws requiring helmets for minor motorcycle operators and passengers.”
Fast facts on crash prevention
Motorcycle safety programs that promote licensing and testing can further reduce motorcycle crashes. Slightly more than one in five motorcycle operators (22 percent) involved in fatal crashes in 2011 was operating with an invalid license.
More than one-third (37 percent) of all fatally injured motorcyclists had consumed alcohol. Alcohol awareness campaigns and intervention programs can drastically reduce alcohol-related crashes and fatalities.
About one-half (49 percent) of all fatal motorcycle crashes involve another vehicle. The most common crash involves the driver of the other vehicle turning in front of the motorcyclist (38 percent), followed by both vehicles colliding while going straight (23 percent). Motorist awareness campaigns and motorcyclist conspicuity programs can reduce the frequency and/or severity of these types of crashes.