Feds put unhelmeted heads on most wanted list

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The National Transportation Safety Board has added universal helmet laws to its most wanted list of national safety improvements, right alongside texting while driving. Right now, only 20 states have universal helmet laws and three states — Iowa, Illinois and New Hampshire — have no helmet law whatsoever. “According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, head injury is the leading cause of death in motorcycle crashes. The NTSB therefore recommends that everyone aboard a motorcycle be required to wear a helmet.” We interviewed the NTSB’s vice chairman to find out more.

The NTSB is an independent investigative agency that tracks down the root causes of transportation-related accidents and provides advice and scientific data to legislators seeking to prevent future mishaps. It has no formal legislative power, but it can influence state and federal governments through its findings and recommendations.

“Although the number of motorcycle fatalities fell in 2009, the 4,400 deaths still outnumber those in aviation, rail, marine and pipeline combined,” says the NTSB.

Best known for investigating aviation accidents, the effect the NTSB could have on motorcycle helmet laws is perhaps best summed up by what they did with recreational boating, which has been replaced on the Most Wanted list by motorcycle safety. “In 1994, the NTSB added [recreational boating] to the Most Wanted List, asking the states to require personal flotation devices for children and implement training and licensing requirements for their recreational boaters,” the agency stated in a report. “Since that time, 70 percent of the states have responded favorably to those recommendations.”

We asked NTSB Vice Chairman Christopher Hart what inclusion on the list means for motorcycle safety. “What it means is we’ll be giving it more attention,” Hart told us. “We’ll be prioritizing it as an issue of importance that we see as one of the most important ways we can continue to improve transportation safety.”

According to Hart, the move comes in response to a motorcycle fatality rates that have been continuously on the rise since the mid 1990s while overall highway deaths have fallen. Motorcycle fatalities actually decreased 16 percent last year, but all this was put in motion during 2006.

“Four years ago, as a result of the continual increase in fatalities, we convened a forum on the topic and brought people together from all facets of motorcycling to find out what the problem was,” said Hart. “From that, we targeted an increase in the use of helmets as the number one way in which we could try and reduce fatalities.”

“As a result of that conference, we issued some recommendations in 2007 mostly addressing motorcycle helmets, targeting states that have no laws or didn’t apply their laws to all motorcycle riders or didn’t require helmets that were compliant with the federal motor vehicle standard,” continues Hart. “We know that the legislative process takes time — and that’s what we’re talking about, states that need to re-legislate — so we gave them a little time. Now, we feel it’s time to act.”

“We’ll do everything we can from the bully pulpit to help that happen,” said Hart. “We’ll provide our expertise to the states that need it. We’ll increase awareness of the legislators and the public on the importance of this issue. If we see the need for a public forum, then we can do that too. There are lots of steps we can try to take this to the next level.”

We asked Hart if there were any plans to pressure states to enact mandatory helmet laws using federal highway money or similar tactics. “We look at the states as the primary place to be the target as they’re the ones that have the ultimate ability to enforce it,” he responded. “We’re going to pursue them first, then, if that’s not successful, we’ll have to see what other measures we may want to pursue.”

Hart understand that helmet use isn’t a do-it-all solution to motorcycle safety, it’s just something that can easily be legislated. “The most important step is to try and prevent the accident from happening in the first place. The purpose of the helmet is to try and prevent injury if accident prevention doesn’t work. That’s why, in terms of overall highway safety, two of the other issues we emphasize on the most wanted list are reducing driving by hardcore drinkers and also reducing distracted driving.”

As for tiered licensing and mandated training? “We’re paying attention to them, but we haven’t made any recomendations with respect to either of those. We’re certainly aware that we’re behind the Europeans on some of these measures. The Transportation Research Board recently published a report that showed how highway safety in general is lagging behind the Europeans and our general program is three-pronged: education, enforcement and engineering. We’re going to pursue all of those.”

Hart says that the NTSB hasn’t yet been contacted by or worked with the Motorcycle Industry Council, Motorcycle Safety Foundation or the American Motorcyclist’s Association, but that, “we would work with anyone who would like to take advantage of our expertise.”

“We haven’t specifically plotted the next step,” Hart explains. “But we will do whatever we feel is necessary to move this issue off the dime. It hasn’t moved for too long and that’s the reason we’ve decided to pursue it now.”

“Back, many years ago, being drunk [and driving] was socially acceptable. A large part of changing that was social awareness.” Could motorcycle helmet laws become the next transportation safety issue to permeate the national conversation?

NTSB

  • http://www.brammofan.com Brammofan

    Cue the “It’s my right to not wear a helmet, and the government shouldn’t tell me what do” guys in three, two, one…

  • http://www.thisblueheaven.com Mark D

    I don’t want my tax dollars used to scrub brain off asphalt. You have to wear a helmet.

    How is it that getting a driver’s licence take’s classroom training, time, and observed real-world driving (plus restrictions, such as not having non-family passengers for several months, like in MA), yet there is no such requirement for riding a motorcycle, which has almost zero commonality with driving? I would definitely support tiered licensing and power restrictions from those under 21 (over-ridable by a valid AMA racing endorsement).

    • Grive

      You don’t get equal requirements for bike licences?

      Interesting. Around here (Mexico) motorcycle and automotive licences are different and both have the same requirements (Written test plus practical driving/riding test). The motorcycle ride test involves having a motorcycle cop riding alongside you and watching you handle both a closed course (well, the parking lot) and street riding in moderate traffic.

      Of course the tests are a joke, but that’s another matter.

      Which is odd, seeing someone dock points because your gloves have a rip and you don’t have motorcylce pants, while he’s wearing kakhis, a short-sleeved shirt and an open helmet.

      • http://www.thisblueheaven.com Mark D

        It varies state-to-state, but up here is Massachusetts, I had to take a written test to get a permit (which was nearly identical to the exam for a driver’s license, i.e. “what color is a stop sign?”), and take the MSF course. The final test is in a parking lot, consisting of two curves, a tight-radius turn at walking speeds, a panic stop, and a quick avoidance maneuver. The first time I ever rode on the street was when I rode my bike home after buying it! Which, I don’t have to tell you, is a bit insane.

        • Grive

          Well, the take the MSF course certainly sounds like quite a good part of the program. Even if everything else is a joke (and from your description it looks like it is), at least the MSF sounds like a good starting point of any motorcyclist.

          I mean, I’ve only heard good things about it (we don’t have an equivalent around here that I know of, so no direct experience).

          • seanslides

            In my opinion, the MSF course is basically a joke. I took one because they are mandatory for anyone under 21 in california, but I’d already been riding long enough to know the difference in feel between knee puck brands. Anyway, at the end our class the instructors gave a little speech. It ended with “remember, you’re getting a certificate for riding around a parking lot at 12mph.”

            These guys are trying, but there’s only so much you can teach when you’re limited by the curriculum.

        • Mr.Paynter

          This sounds an awful lot like South Africa’s final licence testing system, although here we can ride with a permit/learner’s licence. So you can literally sit a written learner’s test, having learnt controls etc out of a book, and then if you’re over 18 and pass walk outside, get on say a Hayabusa having never ridden and legally ride off…

          We do however have helmets for anything on two wheels laws.

  • Devin

    If they are going to open up this can of worms, they should at least aim high – full face helmets required.

  • T Diver

    Mark D is dead on. We all pay when someone is hurt or killed on a motorcycle. (Both emotionally and financially). Put on your helmet. If you are concerned that you look “funny” with a helmet, you will look like tool without one. Besides, your family probably wants an open casket.

  • markbvt

    I’ve always believed that the government shouldn’t tell people how to live their lives, but I also believe that people who ride without helmets are idiots. Furthermore, I don’t think the rest of us should have to pay inflated insurance premiums to cover these folks.

    Maybe the solution should come from the insurance industry — high rates for motorcycle insurance with a deep discount for people who wear helmets. Maybe the financial hit would convince the no-helmet crowd to change their stance.

    • slowtire

      Can we stop using the lame excuse about your tax dollars and insurance premiums paying for a motorcycle accident clean-up? You’re paying for it whether the rider was wearing a helmet or not. The rest of us pay for everything anyway. Uninsured cage drivers, education and hospitalization for illegal aliens, people who can’t afford cell phones and on and on and on.

    • slowtire

      However, I think you’re on to something with the insurance industry discount. Not quite sure how it would be implemented. Maybe if you crashed without a helmet and lived, you lose your license for 5 years.

  • ike6116

    KEEP BIG GUVMINT AWAY FRUM MY HOG!

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

      They took our jobs!

      • http://www.tripleclamp.net Sasha Pave

        Dey Tuk R Jarbs!

  • Ducky

    In a place like Canada, helmet use is required. And for obvious reasons- if you hurt yourself, my tax dollars will have to pay for your stupidity due to universal health care, particularly if you somehow manage to survive and enter a vegetative state for the rest of your life.

    In a couple of provinces, we also have graduated motorcycle licensing. However, I find it kind of a joke, as the safety course takes place in a parking lot and the first time I actually rode my bike on the street was after I bought it! I do feel that the safety courses should be mandatory though…

    • Devin

      I got my license in Ontario, and the test regime was fairly rigid.

      First you have to take your learners car based test again (even if you have your full car license), then take the written moto test (taken in the same sitting).

      Second, you can either take a Moto Safety Course or do a parking lot test.
      (Everyone takes the safety course, you get an insurance discount equal to the course value plus a free stage two test.)

      Third, you get a Secret Service ear piece put in your ear, and the tester and a helper follow you in a car and give you instructions through your ear piece on a 45 minute drive around town.

      Easy to get your learner’s permit, but semi-difficult to get your full M.

      • Ducky

        You missed the part where you’re eligible to be on the road as soon as you get your M1. Even if you took the M1 exit course and get your M2 license, your entire riding career up to that point will have been in a parking lot riding around cones. So if you bought your bike when you have your M2, which is what most people will do, a lot of the time your first ride on a public road will be by yourself, with your brand new bike, off the dealership lot. Getting the full M license is something else entirely.

        • Devin

          Point taken. Althought I don’t see how a person who never rode dirt before would get experience any other way. Learning starts somewhere.

  • Kevin

    Repeal all helmet laws and deny health insurance coverage claims for (helmetless) injured riders. Sort of a risk/reward model to engineering social behavior.

    • FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

      kinda like a suicide clause on a life insurance policy

  • Terry

    I wear a helmet all the time when riding my bike. I think everyone should wear a helmet while riding their bike. A few people I know should probably put on a helmet when they wake up in the morning and wear it all day. I absolutely hate the government telling me I have to wear a helmet. Go figure…

  • william

    Hair by: helmet!

  • http://www.smartcycleshopper.com/author/doug-dalsing/ DougD

    I just love laughing at people who actually go out of their way to ride through Illinois and Iowa due to their lack of helmet laws.

  • mcfaite

    But government forcing you to wear a helmet is just one step down a slippery slope!! Motorcycling is inherently dangerous. First they take away your right to ride lid-less, and then they’ll take your bike, and your gun, and your soft drinks and salty snacks.

    Oh, who am I kidding… I fully support mandatory helmet laws (to MarkD and TDiver’s original points.)

    • zato1414

      That slippery slope is now a single step off a tall clff:
      Gun bans, now a 27/7 assault on me.
      Sweet drink taxes to pay for health care… on the way.
      Salt, transfats, twinkies in NYC… say goodbye.
      ABS, limited HP, mufflers, catylatic converters, electric    motors, air bags… motorcycles built by the Govt?
      Motorcycle helmet, wear one, it’s a good idea, but I want
      that choice to be mine.
      Every day, we lose the freedom of choice.

      • mcfaite

        I understand your argument, and it has merits, and I think for both of us it is a question of degree. As a member of this group we call society, I’m happy to have some of my taxes and insurance payments subsidize your recovery from your next accident (if unfortunately you should have one – I hope not). But only if you have taken some reasonable steps to protect yourself, which for me include wearing a helmet. I understand that for others, that includes not riding a motorcycle at all.

        The other option I would accept would be to be able to opt out of having to subsidize helmetless accident recovery. Currently I don’t have that option.

        One person’s cliff is another person’s slope – I totally get what you’re saying. I personally don’t see how we get to make individual, unilateral, choices about the things that ultimately we share — like our country, or general health, or safety — with out taking into account other people’s choices as well.

  • Charles

    I’m a new motorcyclist, so forgive my ignorance, but why would somebody go out on a motorcycle without wearing a helmet? Even ignoring the chance of a wreck, isn’t it more comfortable to not get pelted with insects, rocks, and rain?

    • Ducky

      The problem is, this makes too much sense.

      Then again, looking at those stupid beanie “helmets” that cruiser riders wear, sometimes I wonder if it’s any better than just wearing a doo-rag.

      • slowtire

        It’s not.

      • slowtire

        Those small beanie helmets are regarded as “novelty helmets” and are illegal, even with the fake DOT sticker attached. The only “novelty” about them is wrecking while wearing one and somehow surviving. Not many do.

  • Mason

    As a resident of Pennsylvania, I like choosing to wear my helmet. I wouldn’t be opposed to connecting helmet-less riding with a special license plate for those people who do not want to wear a helmet. There are understandable scenarios for not wanting a helmet for some people.

    What if I want to wear An ECE-approved helmet, but not one that is DOT-certified? What if weather conditions are such that my visor keeps fogging up? What if it’s 115 degrees outside and I have sweat dripping into my eyes when my helmet is on, but not when I take it off? What if I want to take my 1929 vintage cycle for a sunday morning spin in period dress?

    I think that there are better uses of my tax dollars than to “increase awareness of…the public on the importance of this issue.” Perhaps fund that safety study that is supposed to follow up the Hurt Report. Especially because Pennsylvania already had a mandatory helmet law, but decided to relax it.

    • mcfaite

      Hey, you’re in PA – do you know if there is additional insurance required to ride helmetless, or if it is a question that is asked on insurance applications? Just wondering.

      Also, do you know if PA is one of those states where they don’t require the rider to wear a helmet, but they do require the passenger to wear one?

      – J.

  • dux

    Ugh. I hate social engineering.

  • seanslides

    I got smacked by a minivan yesterday on the 405. Luckily I have a dinged helmet, rather than losing half my chin. Thanks to frame sliders and proper riding gear, my bike and I came away in pretty good shape, considering. The technology is there for a reason. Folks should use it. Mandatory helmets are just one small step toward safe and economical motorcycling.

  • Mr.Paynter

    Although if we wanted to be that safe, we wouldn’t ride motorcycles?

    I wear a helmet down to laws in place,always have and expensive helmets to the point of being a joke to friends and other riders, $500 helmets on $7-800 ratty 250…

    BUT we don’t have government healthcare really so any crash etc would be my own issue to deal with financially plus I like my face.

    I’ve often wondered what’d be like to go for a ride bare-skulled though! Freedom and adventure and all that.

    • FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

      Paying to fix your broken face is your issue to deal with, unless you’re an indigent. They’re going to spend money saving your life and then bill you. We effectively do have socialized medicine- people declare bankruptcy due to medical expenses all the time!

      When I say “you” I don’t mean “YOU”, by the way.

    • http://www.brammofan.com Brammofan

      Actually, paying for Mr.Paynter’s broken face is not solely his issue to deal with. If he has private health insurance that fully covers it, the actuaries for the insurance company will eventually say “we need to raise health insurance rates on all motorcyclists or on all policy holders” in order to continue to bring in profits. If he has “government” health insurance such as Medicare, enough people fixing their broken faces due to the failure to wear a helmet will lead to an increase in taxes or Medicare premiums or co-pays. If he has no insurance, well, you covered that, FFFFetc.

      The point is, we all actually have a stake in everyone wearing helmets.

      No man is an island, in this century, at least.

      • FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

        If everybody is insured, insurance costs less! Yeah! They should try to pass a law like that!

        There’s a UCB sketch where the master dialectician asks a genius pupil if he can imitate a gay actuary.

      • Terry

        Sorry. I don’t buy the “social cost” issue and where do you draw the line? Every activity has a risk and a social cost. If you get HIV from unprotected sex how much does that cost and should we just let you die? If you fly an airplane and crash? Maybe you like to scuba dive or rock climb? Maybe we should all just wrap ourselves up in bubble wrap and stay home to keep insurance rates low? Helmets are just an easy target and I’m willing to bet MC crashes w/o a helmet are not that a significant chunk of the rising cost of medicine. There are bigger fish to fry. AMA (ours, not the docs) said something recently about legislation with language that may allow insurance carriers to refuse to cover accidents caused in ANY activity they consider high risk, including riding a MC. Think about that.

        • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Wes Siler

          Here’s our response to the AMA’s moronic claim that anyone would ever be denied healthcare based on what kind of vehicle they were driving:

          http://hellforleathermagazine.com/2009/09/ama-opposition-to-healthcare-reform-could-jeopardize-future-of-american-motorcycling/

          The future of the motorcycle lies in finding ways to make it relevant to the outside world, not pretending the outside world doesn’t exist.

          • Terry

            It’s moronic to believe that heath insurance companies wouldn’t deny you or anyone else for whatever they could. I’ve been a healthcare worker for 15 years and I see it every day. Its a slippery slope folks. If someone wants to platter themselves they have a right to do so. Helmet laws interfere with natural selection and lead to more restrictions as far as I’m concerned.

        • FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF

          Not every snowball snowballs.

          I can’t quite define it, but I know on some level that the line you spoke of isn’t an arbitrary one. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure nobody in New York is feeling nostalgic about trans fats.

          Let’s take it back the other way- should we repeal safety belt laws because we’re afraid that we’re acting too afraid? O Lord, the freedom of my chest is at stake!

          Moto isn’t the only activity with safety related controversy, to be sure. What I don’t understand is… what’s the big deal? You put on a helmet. It’s easy. You vaccinate your kids. It’s easy. Benefit > Cost by a mile.

          IRT needing more training: Yes, but training doesn’t stop the other guy from creaming you when he’s not paying attention. I want something on my head for when that happens.

          • Terry

            Yep it doesn’t quite add up does it? Like I said, I wear one all the time. In fact I’m an ATTGATT kind of guy. But I don’t want anyone telling me I have to do it. All these little things add up over time and one day you wake up and realize you don’t have a right to do anything. Everyone thinks it can’t/won’t happen but it happens every time you give up one more little thing that’s “in your best interest.”

  • Penguin

    There is a mantra around the lab at work that goes ‘Give people a choice and they will always make the wrong one.’

    Wearing a lid is a no brainier – It is something you just do. I respect that your government let people choose but the time comes when common sense has to take over and if people can’t make the smart choice then they need to have it made for them. All it needs now is proper mandated licensing and training.