By Nicholas Worrell
The NTSB stands behind universal motorcycle helmet laws because they save lives. But over time, states with such laws have weakened or abandoned them. At present, several states are contemplating the repeal of such laws. As a rider myself – and one who values his helmet and other protective gear – I am working in favor of states keeping these life-saving helmet laws.
As most readers know, to “repeal” a law means, in essence, to take it back. However, states that have repealed such laws have seen an increase in motorcycle fatalities.
The fact is many families who have lost loved one as the result of a motorcycle related accident wish they could take back or repeal that day, especially if they were not wearing the proper protective gear. Head injury is a leading cause of death in motorcycle crashes. And wearing a DOT compliant helmet is the number one defense against head injuries.
When I ride in states with such laws, the difference in helmet use is obvious, and the statistics on helmet use bear this out: Where there is a universal helmet law, almost nine out of 10 riders wear their helmets. Where there is not such a law, the proportion drops to a little over half.
So when I think about helmet laws, I think about the guys who I ride with. I think about half of them riding without helmets – even though we all know that at one time or another we’ll be forced to “lay down” the bike, or may even be involved in a motor vehicle-motorcycle crash.
Today, I had the an opportunity to testify before Nebraska Unicameral Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee urging them to table L.B. 31, their helmet law repeal bill. The NTSB opposes its enactment, because when universal helmet laws are repealed, motorcyclist deaths and injuries rise – it’s just not good public safety policy. The NTSB does not want to see deaths and injuries rising in Nebraska as we have seen in every state that has taken a repeal action.
To illustrate the point to the legislature I cited the story of Jim Lumley, a rider in his fifties who took his Kawasaki Ninja 650 to work on the morning of April 13, 2012. Jim rode to work that morning with his lights on, not to see the road more clearly, but so that drivers would see him. As Jim approached an intersection where a car was waiting to make a left turn, by all indications, the driver had seen him. He proceeded through the intersection at about 25 miles per hour. But the car turned into Jim’s path so suddenly that he did not even have time to touch his brakes. Jim’s motorcycle struck the car’s right front side, and Jim was catapulted over his bike and onto the car’s hood. His head crashed into the car’s windshield.
That date – April 13, 2012 – was the date that Michigan repealed its helmet law. And yes, Jim Lumley was a Michigan resident. It was legal for Jim to ride to work that morning without a helmet. But Jim was wearing his. When his head hit the car’s windshield, the helmet was destroyed, but Jim survived.
Jim says he was lucky. One of his daughters worked in a hospital and constantly reminded him of the grisly consequences she’d seen when riders took to the road without helmets, or with “skullcap” helmets that did not protect their faces.
So like me, Jim always wore his helmet. But not everybody gets frequent reminders, as Jim did, and not everybody works at a safety organization, as I do.
I reminded Nebraska legislators that according to NHTSA, there were nearly 5,000 motorcyclist fatalities in 2012, and 93,000 motorcyclist injuries. More than one out of every seven people who is killed on our roads is a motorcyclist. From 2009 to 2014 Nebraska experienced a total of 89 motorcycle fatalities.
I reminded them of the experience of other states that had repealed their helmet laws, resulting in increases in injuries and fatalities. I let them known that some Nebraskans will die, and others will suffer unnecessarily severe injuries, if Nebraska enacts L.B. 31 and repeals its helmet law.
In 2007, the NTSB issued safety recommendations to all the states that did not at that time have a universal helmet law for motorcyclists. Because Nebraska protected all of its riders with such a law, it was not one of the states which received such a recommendation.
The NTSB stands by universal helmet laws, and continues to see proof that they work: For every rider without a helmet who died in a state with a universal helmet law in 2012, 10 died in states without one.
We urge states with such lifesaving laws to continue to protect their motorcyclists by defeating repeal efforts.
Nicholas Worrell is a Safety Advocate in the NTSB Office of Communications.