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NTSB Recommends Mandatory Helmet Laws for Motorcyclists

For the first time in 12 years, motorcycling fatalities in the United States declined in 2009. While the reasons for the decline are not known, worsening economic conditions causing fewer new riders, fewer miles ridden, and casual riders selling their motorcycles have been cited as possible supporting factors.

Yet, while the drop in deaths of approximately 10 percent is certainly a step in the right direction, many experts felt that the numbers had nowhere to go but down after a particularly steep 5-year climb. In 2009, 4,462 motorcycle riders lost their lives in crashes.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), this is still far too many fatalities. Their solution? – nation-wide helmet laws.

The Drive for Helmet Laws

In November, the NTSB challenged resistance in a number of state capitols by announcing their stance that states should require all motorcycle riders to wear federally approved helmets.

But why such a push after a year in which fatalities actually declined? The Governors Highway Safety Association (“GHSA”) warns against predicting a steady decline based on only one year of data. “We will need to see three to five years of decline before we are ready to say that a positive trend has developed,” said GHSA Chairman Vernon Betkey.

A GHSA report released in early 2010 points out that motorcycle fatalities have significantly decreased in the past but then rose again. And, historically the numbers are still at a peak: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 2,294 motorcyclists were killed in 1998, compared to 5,290 in 2008.

The NTSB believes that now is a critical time to strike in order to reduce fatalities even further. “Too many lives are lost in motorcycle accidents,” said Christopher A. Hart, NTSB vice chairman. “It’s a public health issue.”

Indeed, the most recent data (from 2008) show that 65 percent of riders killed in motorcycle accidents were not wearing helmets. Helmets hold a prominent place on the NTSB’s “most-wanted list” of safety improvements that they believe can reduce preventable deaths on the highways.

Although the NTSB’s “most-wanted list” gives it a powerful pulpit, the organization does not have the power to actually regulate helmet requirements. This responsibility falls on Congress, federal agencies and state legislatures.

Some jurisdictions are already ahead of the curve: 20 states (including Missouri) and the District of Columbia require all motorcycle riders and passengers to wear a helmet. In 27 states, certain riders are required to wear a helmet (usually those under a certain age, passengers, or those who are not covered by a health insurance policy, depending upon the state).

Kansas, for example, only prohibits motorcyclists 17 years old and younger from riding without a helmet. Just 3 states (Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire) have no motorcycle helmet laws. Since 1976, many states have actually scaled back on their helmet requirements.

When it comes to helmet laws, federal action seems unlikely. In 1967, Congress threatened to withhold federal highway funding from states that failed to enact universal motorcycle helmet requirements. But, motorcyclists have long been a free-spirited breed. After 9 years of intense lobbying by motorcycle groups, Congress gave up on the requirement. Anti-helmet law advocates still appear to have a good deal of influence in Washington: in 2005, Congress prohibited states from using federal money to promote helmet use.

The Future of Helmet Laws

Will the NTSB get its wish for more sweeping motorcycle helmet requirements? For the time being, a broad initiative seems unlikely. Motorcycling groups touting freedom of choice when it comes to helmets hold a great deal of political sway.

At the same time, many states have already taken steps to ensure certain at-risk riders are protected by helmets, particularly those who are inexperienced or who cannot show proof of completing a motorcycle training and safety course.

Others, like Florida and Kentucky, ensure that cyclists’ free-choice does not equal taxpayers dollars spent on preventable medical treatment by requiring riders who cannot prove they are covered by a medical insurance policy to wear helmets.

Small steps toward more restrictive motorcycle safety laws seem to be the trend, rather than the broad helmet requirements promoted by the NTSB. Although the future of helmet laws is uncertain, hopefully 2009’s decline in motorcycle fatalities will nonetheless grow into a long-term trend.