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AMA responds to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention helmet study

June 15, 2012

A study released on June 14, 2012, by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claimed that annual cost savings in states with universal motorcycle helmet laws were nearly four times greater (per registered motorcycle) than in states without universal helmet laws, the American Motorcyclist Association reports.

A press release announcing the study stated: “According to a CDC analysis of fatal crash data from 2008 to 2010, 12 percent of motorcyclists in states with universal helmet laws were not wearing helmets. In comparison, 64 percent of riders were not wearing helmets in states with partial helmet laws, and 79 percent of riders were not wearing helmets in states with no helmet laws.”

CDC reported that researchers analyzed data from two national sources: 2008-2010 Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data and 2010 data on economic costs saved by motorcycle helmet use, both from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The report concluded: “Universal helmet laws are the most effective strategy for increasing helmet use and protecting motorcycle riders and their passengers.”

For many years, the AMA 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 do not prevent crashes. The AMA believes that comprehensive motorcycle safety programs must promote strategies that are designed to prevent motorcycle crashes from occurring in the first place.

“The AMA opposes helmet mandates because they have unintended consequences,” said Wayne Allard, AMA vice president of government relations. “Historically, the enforcement of helmet mandates has siphoned away scarce funds from effective crash prevention programs such as rider education and motorist awareness.”

The efficacy of rider education has been documented by research conducted by Professor Hugh “Harry” Hurt Jr. in a landmark study entitled: “Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures Volume I: Technical Report,” published in 1981. Furthermore, NHTSA stated in its 2005 report, "Promising Practices in Motorcycle Rider Education and Licensing," that several studies have shown that trained riders tend to have fewer crashes, less severe crashes, and overall lower cost of damage resulting from crashes.

Motorist awareness programs have become an increasingly valuable strategy in reducing motorcycle crashes. One of the most frequent causes of motorcycle accidents cited by the Hurt study was the violation of motorcyclists’ right-of-way by other drivers. As traffic density, the prevalence of large SUVs, and the frequency of distracted vehicle operation have increased, motorcyclists benefit when drivers are regularly reminded in the media and on highway signs to watch for motorcyclists.

“Many states do not dedicate funding for these kinds of programs throughout the riding season, and additional funding would be very welcome by the motorcycling community,” said Allard.

Since the mid-1990s, motorcycle fatalities have increased as motorcycle sales and registrations soared due to the growing popularity of motorcycling. Fortunately the rate of motorcycle fatalities has been decreasing. NHTSA reported in October 2011 that the motorcycle fatality rate from 2000-2009 declined 15.59 percent per 100,000 registered vehicles, and 22.48 percent per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.  

The Governor's Highway Safety Association reported in May 2012 that motorcycle fatalities in 2011 were expected to be the same as 2010, and in 2010 fatalities were only marginally higher than 2009 – when the GHSA reported a significant 16 percent decline. The same GHSA report indicated that 11 states that do not have universal helmet requirements (Arkansas, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Wyoming) reported fewer motorcycle fatalities in 2011, and seven states that have universal helmet laws (Alabama, California, Georgia, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Virginia) 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 motorcycle crash causation study currently underway at Oklahoma State University,” said Allard.

The OSU study is being conducted at the Oklahoma Transportation Center under a $2.8 million Federal Highway Administration grant approved by Congress, along with more than $125,000 committed by the AMA. Funds from six state safety programs—New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Wisconsin—contributed an additional $750,000.

“The AMA is hopeful that the results of the study, scheduled for completion in 2014, will shed new light on the most current causes of motorcycle crashes, and that research-based strategies will be proposed to reduce the likelihood of motorcycle crashes,” Allard said.

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