The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a study which found that, in general, motorcycle helmets are improving and saving more lives, however, their effectiveness is hampered by the failure of some states to enact rigorous motorcycle helmet laws. NHTSA reviews the effectiveness of motorcycle helmets every few years to examine the impact of new designs and technology on motorcycle fatalities and to identify areas in which regulators and manufacturers could improve safety.

The Study

NHTSA utilized data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). FARS is a nationwide annual survey that collects data on all American motor vehicle crashes. It is one of the most comprehensive surveys on accidents in the United States. NHTSA studied data from 1993 to 2002. The data reviewed the effectiveness of helmet designs and technology during the 1990’s era (a new one is due soon, these studies are conducted every 10 to 15 years).

NHTSA found that 1990s era helmets were 37 percent more effective than their 1980 counterparts in preventing fatalities in motorcycle accidents. These findings surpassed the 1980 estimate of 29 percent effectiveness which utilized data from 1982 to 1987.

That 37 percent figure represents an additional 7,808 additional lives saved. However, NHTSA noted that the full potential of helmets is not fully utilized. NHTSA found that fatality rates continued to rise throughout the 1990s as riders declined to use helmets. If helmets were fully used, NHTSA estimates that 11,915 lives would have been saved.

Unaddressed Issues

Motorcycles comprise about three percent of registered vehicles but motorcycle accounts for nine percent of traffic fatalities. NHTSA determined that the weakening or repeal of mandatory helmet laws for motorcycle riders was responsible for the increased fatalities. NHTSA continued to advocate for mandatory helmet laws in all 50 states.

NHTSA assertions are supported by several studies which universally found that increased helmet use reduces fatalities. A study by Braddock and Schwartz found that un-helmeted motorcyclists were 3.4 times more likely to die. A three study conducted in Colorado found that, when the state repealed mandatory its mandatory helmet law in 1977, helmet use declined from 99 percent to 49 percent. Colorado also saw a 100 percent increase in motorcycle fatalities and a 13 percent increase in injuries. Another study in Kentucky and Louisiana noted that, as mandatory helmet laws were repealed, helmet declined substantially and the rate of fatalities correspondingly rose.