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Motorcycle Helmet Safety

Key Facts

  • In 1999, 2,472 motorcyclists died and approximately 50,000 were injured in highway crashes in the United States.
  • Per mile traveled in 1998, a motorcyclist is approximately 16 times more likely to die in a crash than an automobile occupant.
  • Head injury is a leading cause of death in motorcycle crashes.
  • An unhelmeted motorcyclist is 40 percent more likely to incur a fatal head injury and 15 percent more likely to incur a nonfatal injury than a helmeted motorcyclist when involved in a crash.
  • NHTSA estimates that motorcycle helmets reduce the likelihood of a fatality by 29 percent in a crash.
  • The Crash Outcome Data Evaluation System (CODES) study found that motorcycle helmets are 67 percent effective in preventing brain injuries and that unhelmeted motorcyclists involved in crashes were three times more likely to suffer brain injury than those using helmets.
  • From 1984 through 1999, NHTSA estimates that helmets saved the lives of 9,525 motorcyclists. If all motorcycle operators and passengers had worn helmets during those years, NHTSA estimates that 7,450 additional lives would have been saved.
  • A study conducted at the University of Southern California, which analyzed 3,600 traffic crash reports covering motorcycle crashes, concluded that helmet use was the single most important factor governing survival in motorcycle crashes.
  • A 1994 study by the National Public Services Research Institute concluded that wearing motorcycle helmets does not restrict a rider's ability to hear auditory signals or see a vehicle in an adjacent lane.
  • All motorcycle helmets sold in the United States are required to meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 218, the performance standard which establishes the minimum level of protection helmets must afford each user.
  • Helmet use laws governing all motorcycle occupants significantly increase helmet use and are easily enforced because of the occupant's high visibility. In NHTSA's latest survey, helmet use was reported to be essentially 100 percent at sites with helmet use laws governing all motorcycle riders, as compared to 34 to 54 percent at sites with no helmet use laws or laws limited to minors.
  • Data on crashes in states where only minors are required to wear helmets show that fewer than 40 percent of the fatally injured minors are wearing helmets even though the law requires them to do so. Helmet laws that govern only minors are extremely difficult to enforce.
  • Public support for motorcycle helmet use laws in the United States is very strong: four out of five persons ages 16 and older support such laws, according to NHTSA's 1998 Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey. This support reflects little difference from the 1996 (81%) and 1994 (82%) occupant safety surveys. Support was more prevalent among females (89%) than males (71%), and among non-motorcyclists (83%) than those who rode motorcycles (47%), with this gap seeming to have widened in the past two years. Support also was higher in states requiring all riders to wear helmets (84%), compared to states having lesser requirements (75%) or no requirement (79%).
  • In 1976, the Highway Safety Act was amended to remove sanctions against states without motorcycle helmet laws. Between 1976 and 1980, when compared to 1975--the year before repeals began--motorcycle fatalities increased 61 percent while motorcycle registrations increased only 15 percent.
  • Caution must be employed when comparing states to each other with motorcycle crash statistics. States differ in their propensities for motorcycle fatalities. The most accurate method of evaluating the impact of traffic safety measures is to compare the states crash experience against itself.

Reported helmet use rates for fatally injured motorcyclists in 1999 were 55 percent for operators and 47 percent for passengers, compared with 54 percent and 45 percent, respectively, in 1998.