In November 1988, actor Gary Busey, an outspoken opponent of mandatory motorcycle helmet laws, attended a North Hollywood, California fund-raiser for the anti-helmet cause. Two weeks later, Busey lay on an operating table, undergoing delicate microsurgery to remove two blood clots from his brain - the result of being thrown headfirst from his motorcycle.
In 1989, 3,100 motorcyclists died, and there were about 340,000 disabling injuries in motorcycle accidents.When a motorcycle is involved in an accident, the rider's chances of being injured or killed are greater than if the operator were riding in a vehicle that afforded more protection. The 1989 mileage death rate for motorcycle riders is estimated to be about 29 deaths per 100,000,000 miles of motorcycle travel, about 17 times the mileage death rate for occupants of other types of vehicles (such as passenger autos, trucks, buses, etc.). The rate for other vehicles is about 1.7 deaths per 100,000,000 vehicle miles of travel. We could say that a motorcycle carries a death rate that is 16 times greater than that of an automobile.
Twenty-five percent of motorcycle incidents are single-vehicle accidents, such as a motorcycle striking a tree or sign. The remaining 75 percent involve multiple vehicles (e.g., motorcycle vs. car).
Most motorcycle accidents occur directly in front of the cyclist, within his vision. Nearly 70 percent of multiple-vehicle accidents are head-on.
Seventy-five percent of accidents occur during daylight hours. Ninety-four percent occur on clear roads that are free of oil slicks, ice and gravel.
One of the most controversial elements of motorcycling has been helmet laws. There are two types of laws: mandatory and modified. Mandatory helmet laws require helmets, regardless of rider age or position on bike. Modified laws depend on the rider's age, position and existence of license or learner's permit.
Helmet requirements vary from state to state. Currently only three states, Colorado, Illinois and Iowa, have no requirements for safety helmet usage. Twenty-five other states require helmet usage only for those under a specific age, typically 18, only for passengers or require possession but not usage. Twenty-two states require usage by all riders.
The helmet law question has been debated since its inception. Some people believe that helmet legislation should be avoided and, instead, rider education programs initiated; others assert that stiffer helmet laws will lower the risk of injury and death.
Studies from various states have shown that helmets reduce the chance of death in a given accident and clearly and overwhelmingly reduce the incidence of serious head injury. When 48 states passed a mandatory helmet law in the 1950s, there was a dramatic reduction in deaths per number of motorcycles registered. The decline persisted until the mid-1970s, when the laws were repealed. Twenty-eight states that repealed their laws experienced an increase in the number of motorcycle deaths. Four of those states examined their data and found that the increase in deaths was directly related to non-helmet laws.
Helmets make sense. The cyclist can obtain high speeds with no barrier between him and the pavement. Helmets provide the rigid outer shell and inner cushioning to absorb the trauma that occurs when someone hits his head against the asphalt at 20 miles per hour.
Since states have been given a choice about mandatory helmet laws, a 10-33 percent increase in the death rates in states repealing or weakening their helmet laws has resulted.
The public should be concerned about what others do. They pay for motorcycle injuries through tax dollars for the increased load on the emergency medical services system, through increased insurance premiums and numerous other ways.
- Alton Thygerson is a professor of health sciences at Brigham Young University.