Motorcycle fatalities up sharply...
Crash deaths nearly double after states ease helmet laws
By Thomas Hargrove
Scripps Howard News Service
May 29, 2006
Deaths in U.S. motorcycle crashes have nearly doubled in a decade, mounting to 4,000 a year, as more states have repealed mandatory helmet safety laws, according to a Scripps Howard News Service study.
One federal analysis concludes that nearly 700 lives could have been saved in one year alone if all motorcyclists had worn helmets.
Yet motorcyclists have become so passionately opposed to mandatory helmet laws that they've formed powerful state and national lobbies, persuaded Congress to muzzle federal highway safety experts and convinced lawmakers in 30 states to roll back their statutes.
Nine of the 10 states with the worst motorcycle death rates don't require adults to wear helmets, according to the Scripps Howard study of records provided by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
Six states, including Florida and Texas, have relaxed their laws since 1997. Motorcycle fatalities quickly went up in all of them. Lawmakers in eight other states are considering rolling back their laws this year.
Helmets spoil the ride for many motorcycle enthusiasts. They say they love the feeling of freedom as the wind whips in their hair. Those killed in wrecks are overwhelmingly white and disproportionately middle-aged and divorced men, according to federal death records.
People on both sides of the issue say men trying to recapture the joys of their youth are spurring the anti-helmet movement.
"I ride without a helmet every chance I get. It's hard to explain the feeling," said Noel LaPorte, a full-time lobbyist in Lansing, Mich., who is in final negotiations with Gov. Jennifer Granholm over a bill making helmets optional for adults. "The feeling is so much freer and more enjoyable."
Helmet use is at an all-time low. Last year, only 48 percent of the nation's riders wore headgear that met U.S. Department of Transportation standards.
"If we really wanted to stop highway deaths, why not make the speed limit 20 mph and force everyone to drive Volvos?" asked Tim Burchett, a Republican state senator from Knoxville who for years has sponsored a helmet-rollback bill.
"It's a freedom issue, man. This is still America!"
Nationwide, motorcycle deaths have risen from 2,116 in 1997 to 4,008 in 2004. That increase comes at a time when highway deaths generally are declining because of improved auto safety standards and wider use of seatbelts.
There has been a 40 percent increase in the number of registered motorcycles during this period, although the total number of miles driven on motorcycles has declined slightly.
When Texas relaxed its helmet law in 1997, motorcycle fatalities rose from 115 the year before the rollback to 285 in 2004. Deaths in Florida rose from 177 in 1999 (the year before state lawmakers rolled back the law) to 432 in 2004.
Motorcycle deaths increased by 145 percent in these two states, significantly above the national average.
The per capita rate of motorcycle fatalities in 2004 was 41 percent greater in states that do not require helmets for adult motorcyclists, according to the Scripps Howard study of 2004 federal accident data.
Seven of the 10 states with the lowest death rates have mandatory, universal helmet laws.
Motorcyclists scoff at such findings.
"Statistics don't lie, just statisticians," Burchett said. "You can make statistics say just about anything you want."
Bikers are especially dismissive of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which recently issued a study of 2004 motorcycle fatalities that concluded 670 deaths would have been avoided if all motorcyclists had worn helmets.
Many motorcyclists accuse the federal agency of conspiring against them, and biker organizations successfully lobbied Congress to stop federal safety officials from lobbying state legislatures to enact, or re-enact, mandatory helmet laws.
"They do nothing but infringe on the rights of motorcyclists. They twist their statistics to meet their needs," said James "Poet" Sisco, president of Louisiana's largest motorcyclist group called American Bikers Active Towards Education, or ABATE. "They're a federal organization and the federal government wants to take away the rights of motorcyclists."
Federal statisticians defend their findings that motorcycle accident deaths increase when states stop mandating helmet use.
"I do understand about the joys of riding. My first husband owned a motorcycle dealership, so I rode on the back of a motorcycle for years," said Linda Cosgrove, chief of behavioral technology research at the highway safety administration. "The wind is in your hair and it is a lot of fun."
But the statistics paint an accurate picture, she said.
"The states have been repealing the universal helmet laws. Whenever a state does that, the observed rate of helmet use drops in half almost immediately and motorcycle fatalities and injuries skyrocket," Cosgrove said.
Florida Rep. Irving Slosberg, a Democrat from Boca Raton, thinks one reason state legislators support repeal of helmet laws is that a lot of them ride motorcycles.
They just want to do what they want to do," he said. "I don't ride a motorcycle myself, so I just don't get it. What is the big attraction to riding a motorcycle without a helmet?"
Slosberg, who lost a daughter in a car crash, said he takes highway fatality statistics seriously and will try to reinstitute a mandatory helmet law in Florida. But he's not overly confident of success.
"People just don't care about safety. And these guys have a pretty good lobby," he said.
Scripps Howard News Service intern Alejandra Fernandez-Morera contributed to this report.
A little helmet history
1967 -- Federal government begins requiring states to enact mandatory helmet laws to qualify for highway construction funds; by 1975, 47 states and District of Columbia pass laws.
1976 -- Congress, responding to complaints when the Department of Transportation prepared to take action against non-complying states, revoked the authority to withhold federal funds.
Motorcycle enthusiasts then begin lobbying state legislatures to roll back helmet laws for adult riders; 26 states have done that. Four other states don't require adults or children to wear helmets.
Helmet laws in the Mid-South, with number of deaths in 2004:
Alabama: Helmets mandatory, 74 deaths
Arkansas: Children only, 57
Mississippi: Mandatory, 40
Missouri: Mandatory, 56
Tennessee: Mandatory, 93
Source: Scripps Howard News Service analysis of National Highway Transportation Safety Administration data.