What Can Fatality Rates Tell Us About Motorcycle Safety?

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What Can Fatality Rates Tell Us About Motorcycle Safety?

 

What Can Fatality Rates Tell Us About Motorcycle Safety?
Percentage of Fatalities with 0.08% or Higher BAC

This map shows what, according to the 1981 Hurt Report, is the single most common cause of motorcycle crashes — riding one while under the influence of alcohol. In this case, .08 percent BAC or greater.  In red states, 34 percent or more of fatal crashes were reported to involve intoxication. In yellow states that percentage is 20 percent or greater. Green states are between 13 and 17 percent and the one blue state, ever-safe Vermont, reports only 1 percent of fatal crashes involved intoxication.

Again, there’s little correlation between intoxicated fatalities and overall fatality rates. If anything, there’s a small correlation between states where fatal crashes are more likely to occur without a helmet and states where fatal crashes are more likely to involve alcohol, but it’s hardly one-to-one.

So what does this teach us about motorcycle safety?

Well, the lack of correlation between fatality rates and either helmet laws or even the percentage of fatal crashes involving helmets is often used by anti-helmet law advocates, seemingly to prove their point.

Mandatory helmet laws do nothing to prevent crashes,” states the American Motorcyclist Association. “Regardless of the protective equipment worn, any motorcyclist involved in a crash is at considerable risk. Mandatory helmet laws do nothing to prevent crashes that injure or kill motorcyclists.

The Alliance Of Bikers Aimed Toward Education (ABATE) states it, “believes that accident prevention and avoidance are more important to significantly reducing injuries and fatalities than any mandatory equipment laws. Mandatory helmet laws do nothing to prevent accidents.”

The trouble appears to be that we’re all operating on incomplete data. “They only tell you the percentage of riders killed without a helmet on,” explains RideApart COO and resident statistics nerd Nolan Zandi. “They do not tell you the percentage of riders in general who don’t wear a helmet. For example, In Alabama, 15 percent of motorcycle deaths involve no helmet. However, how many riders in general don’t wear helmets? If only, one percent of riders don’t wear helmets and 15 percent of deaths are from that one percent who don’t wear helmets, then we can say that unhelmeted riders have a disproportionately high share of motorcycle deaths. Alternatively, if 15 percent of riders in general don’t wear helmets, than we can say that in Alabama, wearing a helmet doesn’t seem to affect the odds of dying in a wreck. Unless, of course, there is another factor, like helmeted riders ride more dangerously and aggressively because they feel protected by their helmet, these kinds of things are what make statistics so hard. Unfortunately, this dataset doesn’t include that information, making it difficult to get insight onto the effects of wearing a helmet.”

What data we do have is changes in fatality rates immediately following the repeal of mandatory helmet laws. Assuming other variables in a given state with a recently repealed helmet law remain relatively unchanged, this is the best possible indication as to the effectiveness of helmets in preventing death. For example, Michigan reported an 18 percent increase in annual motorcyclist fatalities last year, when it repealed its mandatory helmet law. The Southern Medical Journal reported that motorcycle fatality rates in Texas increased by 25 percent, per miles-travelled in the seven years following the 1997 repeal of its helmet law. In Florida, the motorcycle fatality rate increased by 21 percent following its repeal of the helmet law in 2000. All three examples include increases in fatalities large enough to rule out statistical anomaly and occur immediately following a helmet law repeal, raising the chances that other variables played little or no role.

Of course, we’re missing other, major pieces of the motorcycle safety puzzle. “What are the fatality rates controlled by different helmet types?” Asks Nolan. “How do fatalities compare among people wearing sweet, $500 full-faces compared to Harley skid lids? What about other motorcycle gear? How do fatalities for ATGATT riders compare to the “Sun’s out, guns out” crowd?

And then there’s motorcyclist behavior and attitudes. No study has ever been attempted to compare the accident rates of riders who pursue advanced training and practice safe riding compared to those who buy Hayabusas for first bikes. If you separate the skilled from the unskilled, what do fatality rates look like then?

Don’t underestimate the importance of answering these questions. One last statistic underlines the importance of gaining a greater understanding of motorcycle safety and using that knowledge to effect change. “One trend is clear from this data,” says Nolan. “And, it’s the most disturbing. Over the last 10 years, motorcyclist injuries and fatalities, controlled for number of vehicles and miles ridden, have significantly increased while the same numbers for car drivers has decreased.” Riding a motorcycle is getting more dangerous, and we need to do something about it.

Want to check out our data and see what conclusions you can draw? Here’s a spreadsheet detailing fatalities, registrations, rates, helmet use (in fatal accidents) and intoxication (in fatal accidents). I used this free map generator to make the maps. And below are our sources for this material. Help us get to the bottom of this.

Sources:
GHSA.org
Statista.com

CDC.gov
NHTSA.gov
WikiMedia.org

  • Justin McClintock

    Nice maps. And I really like the point you brought up about not really knowing the % of people who ride without a helmet in no-helmet-law states. It highlights a glaring hole in the available data. The other part that’s missing is WHY the people died. I mean, I could die, while riding with a helmet, by impaling myself with a stop sign. Wouldn’t really matter if I had a helmet on at that point or not, but it would show up in the statistics as a death while wearing a helmet. It’d be nice to see a breakdown of head-injury deaths vs. non-head-injury deaths. I know you guys don’t have that data, but it would be nice of the NHTSA or NTSB or even IIHS or somebody could provide it.

    • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

      Yeah, the available data is so limited as to be fairly worthless at informing meaningful policy changes that could improve safety. More needs to be gathered in a much more in depth way, which is one of the things I hope this article highlights.

  • J. Brandon

    Nice work, RideApart. Great to see an objective look at real data. Do you know what numbers are available on non-fatal motorcycle injuries? I’ll guess there are even bigger holes in that information. But for me, it’s much more interesting. I don’t spend a lot of time nor energy thinking about the chances of getting killed on a bike. But I do think a lot about getting hurt and missing out on weeks, months, or years of future riding.

    • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

      It’s only collected in a standardized format nationwide for fatalities I’m afraid.

  • el_jefe

    It isn’t noted so I have to ask: Was this data corrected for seasonal differences between states? Otherwise, it shows what I would expect: more deaths where there is more good weather for riding. Notable exceptions exist like IN, WV and MT. WV is perhaps explained by the abundance of hilly, twisty roads with variable surface quality, thought that’s just a guess based on anecdotal evidence. A large proportion of IN riders no doubt died of boredom.

    • markbvt

      The last sentence made me LOL.

    • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

      No. Sadly the data is very limited. There’s some anecdotal reports where states have seen spikes up or down — bad weather, expensive gas — but nothing in the hard data.

      • jgroszko

        I’m not very well versed in the history of motorcycle statistics/politics, but I do keep seeing things from this Hurt Report. I guess the reason a 30 year old report keeps getting cited is that there hasn’t been anything like it since? Why is that?

  • markbvt

    Good article. Just going by the numbers is a pretty useless way to look at safety, as the Vermont example points out. Yes, 100% of fatalities were people wearing a helmet… but there were only 11 of them. Furthermore, nearly all of Vermont’s roads are minor ones, many of them twisty, many of them poorly maintained at this point. And there’s a large critter population. Most of the fatal accidents I remember hearing about involved a deer strike, losing control of the bike due to road conditions/twistiness, or a car/truck taking out the motorcyclist. It would be interesting if someone did a more detailed study examining accident causes as well as factors such as helmet use, alcohol use, etc.

  • http://www.themotorcycleobsession.com/ Chris Cope

    In fairness to AMA and ABATE, what they’re saying is totally true: helmets do not prevent accidents or crashes. In the same way checking the forecast does not prevent it from raining.

    What they’re cleverly leaving out is that helmets prevent injury/death in accidents or crashes. Different things. I get really frustrated with these so-called riders’ interest groups who don’t pay much attention to things that are of interest to riders, like: filtering, motorcycle parking, reduced tolls on roadways, etc.

    • wbizzle

      While I possess limited historical knowledge of the groups, the AMA and ABATE do not appear to be interested in the things you mentioned. However, the AMA recently endorsed lane splitting or filtering. It remains to be seen how much energy and focus they have concerning the topic, but it seems a positive step.

      http://americanmotorcyclist.com/Rights/PositionStatements/LaneSplitting.aspx

      • el_jefe

        Good point. The AMA also has an active campaign to slow the mandatory introduction of E15, arguing, as many motorcyclists do, that is is harmful to our fuel systems. They actually rarely actively engage in the helmet debate, though their official position is for rider choice.

    • Piglet2010

      I have been hit in the head by gravel, debris, June bugs, and what not that could well have caused me to crash if I was not wearing a full-face lid.

      Here in Iowa I see people riding without even eye protection – which is legal.

      • Davidabl2

        Riding w/o eye protection is not legal at least in Ca.

        • Piglet2010

          While I have not done an exhaustive search, Iowa seems to have the least restrictive laws regarding motorcycles (other than not allowing filtering).

    • Riedl

      I agree with what you are saying but I disagree with their statement if you consider high visability helmets, it may not help much but it can’t hurt.

  • Adam

    I’m no Nate Silver, but there has to be a more elegant, multivariate way to analyze this data. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the time spent on the analysis in this article. I think the bit on the rates going up after helmet law repeal is especially compelling. I downloaded the data and ran a quick ANOVA, PCA, and DFA along with a few other quick tests and couldn’t find any significant correlation between Death Rate and either Helmet Law or BAC 0.8+. But I’m not a stats guy. Anyone else out there want to take on the challenge? It makes sense to me that wearing a helmet and not drinking and riding is going to reduce your chances of dying on a bike, but it’d be fun to see it play out in the numbers.

  • Generic42

    For Michigan and the other states that had an increase in after the repeal of the law I’m curious if that’s a % increase in total number year over year or a an increase in the percentage of fatalities for total riders. Assuming that the lack of helmet lack increased riders on the road, then I one would expect to see the first while if the lack of helmet was an issue an increase in the latter.

    • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

      Increase in overall fatality rate per rider capita. So it is the helmets.

      • Generic42

        That is what I figured, but wanted to get clarification. Thank you.

  • Mykola

    I’m not at all surprised that Hawaii takes top (dis)honors in fatalities. The motorcycle *and* scooter culture is terrible where safety, skill, and prudence is concerned.

  • FiveG

    Isn’t the more relevant analysis a comparison of fatality vs. survival, cross-referenced to helmet use? I’m interested in knowing, where you have equivalent crashes, what the comparative survival rate is. How many riders have died, as compared to helmet laws, really doesn’t answer the question of helmet utility. (Of course, given that there’s lots of ways to die, the really relevant comarison would involve crashes where there is at least some contact by the head with a hard surface.)

    • http://www.rideapart.com/ Nolan Zandi

      We want that data too and plan on continually improving our analysis of these trends as we work with additional data providers. Not a lot of this data is currently collected and we hope to be able to facilitate better collection in the industry. Stay tuned!

  • Blake Bryce

    Didn’t realize I was in such a dangerous state for motorcycles.

  • Tiberiuswise

    I think we’re all trying to put too fine a point on it. Facts are irrelevant. The only fact that matters is that although it may be a little more fun to go lidless, I consider the risks and choose to wear a helmet.

    Therefore, everyone should have to.

  • HammSammich

    The Vermont numbers remind me of an example of a statistical oddity relayed to me by one of my military history professors in college. Following the deployment of the US “Brodie” helmet in WWI, it initially seemed that the helmets were actually causing an uptick in the number of head injuries and some considered taking them back out of service, but upon further review it was confirmed that more soldiers were surviving head injuries that would have previously proven to be fatal…

  • Stuki

    Now, if I lived in Hawaii and had a registered bike, would I be more or less likely to ride around in January than if I lived in Minnesota (Duluth excepted)?

    When some Muslim historian at some future point chronicles the fall of the West, the day statistics went from being a discipline of math, practiced by competent mathematicians in a detached and disinterested fashion only; and became instead a tool/crutch for every halflitterate busybdy with some childish agenda of getting the gommiment to harass someone else on their behalf, will certainly be mentioned as a major milestone. What a bunch of utter and abject crock.

    If you are a rider trying to decide whether to wear a helmet or not, try finding some material comparing relevant facts, such as “out of 1000 riders who crashed at freeway speeds with a helmet vs without, how did their outcomes differ.” Of course, chances are there are few such studies, since the only reasons pseudo statistical junk science studies get funded these days, is to influence our self proclaimed benevolent oppressors to harass someone. So in that case, just fall of your bike onto your head with and without a helmet, and try making an informed decision based on the result of that comparison.

    And, if you are instead a rider or not, whose only goal is to try to harass someone else into doing as you wish; you should just run your bike into a brick wall at 150mph; helmet optional. There are already too many of your ilk; and the best possible outcome for all, is to thin your ranks a bit.

  • Eric Shay

    The biggest problem to all motorcycle statistic reporting is the lack of a broad study that isn’t easily picked facts to fill out a data sheet. I recently did an essay to promote lane splitting, and the biggest draw back was the lack of a nation wide study on motorcycle accidents. I was left trying to pull information from state to state with the answer that not enough information for states to confirm that lane splitting is in fact safer, or would be worth the amount of funding to educate an entire state of a new traffic law. As most of us know, the Hurt report was the last national study on motorcycle accidents in the US, which was over 30 years ago.

  • ThruTheDunes

    My first impression was of Mark Twain’s three lies: there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. And then there is the book, How to Lie With Statistics.

    Humor aside, the glaring omission from the dataset (not RA’s fault) is how many fatalities were related to head trauma. If the fatality was caused by bleeding out from loss of long, blunt force trauma from sliding into a phone pole, or being squished by a semi rolling over, it seems irrelevant to a helmet discussion. If Vermont had way fewer head trauma fatalities, that would color our view of the statistic. Of course, what we also don’t know is, how many of Vermont fatalities were Vermonters, and how many were from out of state (if a lot were from out of state, it would suggest that lack of familiarity with local conditions plays a substantial role, or the locals know where to look for deer…)

    The other thing that struck me as curious is the AMA and ABATE statements that helmets/helmet laws don’t prevent accidents/ crashes. Duh! How to weasel-word! Of course they don’t prevent them. The point of helmets is to help survive them when they occur.

    Anyway, just my observations, from the child of a mathematician and an English teacher…

    • Twin Verb

      Yep. That’s the important figure that needs to be put up. We can die from lots of different types of crashes. Helmet or no. But capturing head trauma with helmets vs. no helmet in these stats will tell the story. A helmet is just one piece of gear to “help” protect against a certain injury.

    • h4rr4r

      Another thing that was missed is fatalities per accident vs helmets. If we have 50 accidents and in 10 of those someone dies and in 8 of those cases they were not wearing a helmet that says something.

  • Joshua Prince

    Every time I see motorcycle accident/death/helmet data like this, I scour it for some kind of edifying point, some affirmation that where or how or what I ride is somehow safer or smarter, and that I won’t wind up as one of the red figures on the heat-map.

    But while I believe in the power of data to unlock certain truths, it’s no match for common sense in the face of such an absurdly multivariate and inherently dangerous thing like motorcycling.

    When your gourd whacks the pavement at 45 miles an hour, will it be fare better if it’s a) encased in a full-face, polycarbonate-and-styrofoam shell? or b) if it bounces along, unencumbered and free to enjoy the sun, wind, breeze, and abrasive power of tarmac?

    And as your rag-doll body skitters across a gravel shoulder or ricochets off a concrete jersey barrier, what’s more self-preserving: a) an American Apparel t-shirt, jeans, and Converse? Or B) Fully-armored ATGATT? Hmmmm….

    You don’t need a regression analysis to figure either one out.

    But while I do wish there WAS data to show that more experienced riders (or riders who religiously wear ATGATT, or riders who only go out on Sunday mornings and only ride New England back roads, or riders who have kids they desperately want to see grow up, or riders who ride despite their wives’ visceral misgivings about their two-wheeled habit) are more likely to come home safely, there isn’t. And never will be.

    For better or worse, you ride two-up with your own mortality. And the best laid plans (and padding) can only insulate you so much. Make sure you’re well insured, and ride like you care about your life. That might be the best protection of all.

    • runnermatt

      Great post, a few sections were almost like motorcycle poetry, in a good way.

    • aquatone

      Totally agree. There are two questions with different answers here.

      1. Should I wear a helmet and gear? The answer to this is pretty obvious.

      2. Should the government enact helmet laws? The answer to this is somewhat less clear and has been debated to no end, even with bicycling helmet laws. Do riders ride differently with helmets? Do they buy non-helmet helmets? Do they wear them incorrectly? Do different types of riders wear different helmets? Do cars treat helmeted riders differently?

      The opening question: “Can mandatory helmet laws save motorcyclists lives?” is question Number 2 and the answer to 2 has little bearing on the answer to 1.

    • Erik Gloor

      Well put.

  • appliance5000

    “Take Vermont for instance, which has both a helmet law and reports 100 percent of fatal motorcycle crashes involved the use of one” still waiting for the punch line.

    I’d say this – as long as mandatory helmet laws aren’t passed – and motorcycle fatalities remain relatively high – fewer people will ride, fewer models will make it to the US and that sucks.
    On the upside – organ donor programs have a nice source of new stock as long as brain transplants remain a distant dream.

  • Luke

    I know data is limited, but it should be presented per mile ridden (or at least have that tab) instead of # of riders. That fixes weather and other regional issues. The best predictive data I’ve seen was how many years of riding the motorcyclist had when an accident happens. Oddly, it’s the SECOND year that gets the most wrecks. My guess is the first year, we are all appropriately paranoid, and the second year we think we should be draggin’ knees on the way to the grocery store (and we’ve upgraded our TU250X to a GSXr-1000)

  • Rikki

    If you want to know whether helmets save lives or not, just look to history of motorcycle racing. In the old days, manly men wore nothing or perhaps leather beanies, and many of them died in races. In modern times, racers go faster and crash harder but most get up and walk away. Do helmets prevent injury? Absolutely.

  • Dyler_Turden

    So, the blue states are the MOST dangerous, or did someone leave out a “0″ after the decimal???

  • h4rr4r

    Weather seems to be a big factor too.
    I would suspect deaths per mile ridden are the real deal here. In the south of course there are more motorcycle accidents. People can ride all year long. Thus more miles ridden and more accidents.

  • Scott Pargett

    My head comes with a helmet, it’s called my skull, the way god intended. I don’t need a politician that don’t ride, telling me how to live my life.

    Just kidding.

    • runnermatt

      Glad you wrote the just kidding part. It was like a good movie with a surprising twist at the end.

  • Davidabl2

    I wonder what’s up with Minnesota? In the lowest tier for fatalities though not a helmet-mandated state. Could it be that only very dedicated folks ride there?

    • http://krtong.com/ Kr Tong

      Seems like a question for Aerostitch. From what i’ve gathered they’ve got some of the strictest alcohol restrictions of any state.

      • Davidabl2

        Aha…maybe that’s it.

        • Rich

          Maybe too friggin’ cold to ride?

          • Davidabl2

            If it’s not too cold or it’s too wet or too hot = fewer weekend warriors on bikes?

  • joe handy

    “In fact, this data could be said to indicate that helmet use more
    strongly correlates with fatal crashes than not wearing a helmet does.
    Take Vermont for instance, which has both a helmet law and reports 100
    percent of fatal motorcycle crashes involved the use of one. Doesn’t
    make them sound terribly safe, does it?”

    This is a massive misinterpretation.

    This statistic just says that a vast majority of riders in Virginia actually follow the helmet laws. The states with helmet laws and less than 100% fatalities with a helmet either have less strict helmet laws or less strict enforcement. Nothing more.

  • Benjamin Kuo

    What the AMA/ABATE should do is to push for funding for a large-scale study, so we don’t have to rely on the 32-year old Hurt Report. In 1981 there was a lot less awareness for DUI and helmet safety. The speed limit was 55 and most cars were far less safe than they are today. It’s a completely different world out there now.

    • Slacker

      I keep hearing talk of a study coming out similar to the Hurt Report, but it’s always year in, year out, “It’ll be here soon”… I personally don’t approve of the ABATE or AMA method of handling things which is why I’m not a member of either organization… I do think that the best thing we can do to save motorcyclists lives is to increase education as a whole. Increase education on the part of ordinary motorists, and be sure to extend the MSF curricula to areas that are more relevant to today then when the MSF training programs were instituted.

  • http://krtong.com/ Kr Tong

    Yep. The conclusion is on point. How many fatalities are there with half helmets vs full face helmets? How many injuries were prevented with helmets? How many injuries could’ve been prevented by wearing one?

    Also:

    1. How many days a year do these motorcyclists ride, by region? How many hours on a bike are these motorcyclists clocking? Someone who rides four hours a day opens himself up to four times as many traffic incidents as someone who rides one hour a day in the same conditions.

    2. What is the traffic conditions of these more rural areas? What types of accidents incur head-on injuries? If they are related to other vehicles, a rural area may not be at risk of as many head-injury related deaths. However…

    3. What other armor do the majority of these riders wear? If you’re not wearing a helmet i can almost guarantee you that you’re not wearing any other armor as well.

  • Jeremy Alvarado

    “The safest state, New Jersey, reported only ” haha bullshit….

  • William Connor

    The biggest thing I have taken from all of the recent studies, reporting of accident statistics, and personal experience is that drinking is the number 1 reason for crashes. People need to stop drinking and riding and all of the fatalities drop.

    I wear a helmet, it’s comfortable. I feel less tired after riding and wearing one. I think the helmet laws are randomly enforced, not clear, and don’t even live up to the original intent. Adopt a universal minimum standard, ECE for example, then make helmets more comfortable and people will wear them more.

    • Piglet2010

      I drink then ride – dehydration is a bad thing.

  • runnermatt

    The data also doesn’t take into account all the accidents that go unreported. It is far easier to load a crashed motorcycle into a truck or trailer than a crashed car, which I would mean percentage wise car crashes are more likely to get reported. Also, I imagine the when a officer fills out the accident report I expect the sheet only gives check boxes for helmeted rider or un-helmeted rider. It should give a several check boxes for helmet type and protective gear worn by the rider. Of course then they would have to train the officer to identify the protective gear. As ride apart points out there is a big difference in protection between a designer leather jacket and an actual motorcycle jacket.

  • ThinkingInImages

    Excellent and intelligent article. One sentence stands out: “Riding a motorcycle is getting more dangerous”. That needs to be qualified and that can be near impossible. Is it the rider or the motorcycle, or both? I think the in-depth training courses are effective, but what is the ratio of rider fatalities that took the course to those that didn’t? While motorcycles have gotten more powerful, they have gotten more manageable. How does a motorcycle with basically no technology other than electronic ignition and lights compare to one with anti-lock brakes, traction control, fuel injection, and other “aides”?

    Let me add a little context: I feel my 2013 CBR250R with ABS is a much more stable, predictable, and (dare I use the word?) safer motorcycle than my 2010 Shadow RS. It’s not the power or top speed, ABS, or even that they two different types of motorcycles. It’s a perception. On the same roads, at the same speeds, the CBR is as I said: more stable and more predictable.

    There’s more to it. Since I wear a helmet (and gear) by choice and I think I’m a relatively serious, level headed, consistent rider, I wonder how much the type of motorcycle plays into the data.

  • Piglet2010

    “Riding a motorcycle is getting more dangerous, and we need to do something about it.”

    Make mobile device use while driving a felony with mandatory prison time.

    • Riedl

      Awesome. May I add if you cause an accident whilst using a mobile device that causes the injury of another person = death penalty

      • zedro

        So to save people we need to kill others? Would make for some interesting cross-statistics.

        • Davidabl2

          Beats killing them to re-elect “hard on crime” public officials :-)

  • Piglet2010

    Not if it is a “novelty helmet”.

  • Speedo007

    Stop wearing a helmet it will kill you, just like wearing the seat belt in your car will. OK seriously, stats should also include permanent brain damage…not wearing a helmet can lead to great head injuries and life changing injuries, yet you wont show up in the stats. Helmets save lives for bicyclists, so you’d think it improves a bit your chances of surviving an impact on a motorcycle too…

    • Piglet2010

      85% of bicycle helmet effectiveness is fictional. ;)

      (Thompson, Rivara, Thompson reference.)

  • Kevin Boggs

    I’ve been a biker for over 40 years if you count the hours and hours I spent on my CT70 Honda when I was a kid. I used to ride the back country roads of Indiana and even got pulled over by a sheriff once or twice, they let me go with a warning and a smile. Anyway for most of that time I’ve worn a helmet and I wear one today. There have been times when I rode without and I must admit that once you’ve gotten used to it, putting on a helmet seems restrictive and clumsy. In all my years of riding, and crashing, I’ve come to the conclusion that helmets are kind of a mixed bag. I have no doubts whatsoever that in the event of an accident where your head impacts the road or any other object that a helmet is your best chance of living through the experience. However, I’ve also witnessed accidents up close. I mean like within 20 feet and I remember that the accident victims’ bodies flailed about just like a rag doll before finally coming to rest. When you are in a violent accident the thought that you might have any control over your body or its extremities is ridiculous. You are simply at the mercy of physics. Seeing this made me realize that in some situations, a helmet may do more harm than good in that the extra weight of a helmet attached to your neck, which is being violently whipped around, could easily cause extensive damage to your neck and spine. I believe that I’ve read reports from the NTSB or NHTSA that refute this and that may very well hold water statistically. That being said, I have first hand experience with accidents, with and without a helmet, and I know what I felt and what I saw when I witnessed other accidents at close range. My over all point is that I believe that the use and outcome of using safety helmets, like many other things in this world, is much more complicated that most people think. In any violent accident there are numerous variables at play and Joe Average seems to think that so long as you are wearing a helmet then you should come out of it unscathed. Regardless of the specific conditions involved in the accident. It’s as if the helmet were some sort of magical full body protection device. With this knowledge in mind I find it very important that our governments, local, state and federal should leave the choice up to the rider.

  • Rich

    I wear a full-face helmet all the time. I don’t want my insurance jacked up by paraplegic assholes who thought it would be cool to look like Peter Fonda.
    Maybe helmet use is a Darwinian signifier. Just as women don’t wear a jock and cup, perhaps helmetless riders don’t have anything to protect.

  • A P

    Since my more involved comment seems to have gone astray in mod-land, the short answer to the headline is: NOTHING.

    The stats are largely cooked, I would recommend those interested in a realistic look at traffic statistics search for John Adams’ site (in the UK), and a concept called Risk Compensation.

  • Jonno

    The only truly telling measure in terms of whether helmets increase safety would be total number of crashes vs. total number of fatalities, for helmeted and un-helmeted riders. In other words, of COURSE all the fatalities in Vermont happened to riders wearing helmets, because in Vermont ALL RIDERS MUST WEAR HELMETS. So by definition, any motorcycle fatalities in that state occur to riders wearing helmets, This tells us nothing about helmet effectiveness. What WOULD tell us something is dividing those 11 fatalities by Vermont’s total number of crashes, compared to the same measure (from another state) for riders without helmets.
    Let’s suppose that 60 motorcycle crashes results in 11 deaths for helmet wearing Vermonters. Whereas 60 motorcycle crashes result in something like 25 deaths for helmet-less Arizonans. This is a strong indicator that helmets are effective. The possible flaw in this experiment would be the possibility that helmet use actually increases the total number of crashes (by interfering with vision, say). You could control for that by comparing rider miles vs. number of crashes, helmeted and un-helmeted, if that data was collected.

  • Smittyman

    I don’t think this is entirely related to wearing motorcycle helmets, but more so about frequency of motorcycle riding in these states. The more your on the road, more likely your to get in an accident. Of course this doesn’t keep me from riding as often as possible.

  • http://www.karinajean.com/ karinajean

    Feeling late to the party, but I did a quick scatter plot of the percent of all registered vehicles per state that are motorcycles (range from 0.4% to 9% [go Delaware!]) against motorcycle fatalities and it does appear that, as the number of registered motorcycles dips below 3% the fatality rates go up. I know we all like to be the coolest kid in the office parking lot, but as motorcyclists we should also start talking critical mass – although seriously let’s just totally SKIP critical mass in the form of sloppy group rides for charity events.

  • Erik Gloor

    Another factor not accounted for is the effective length of the riding season by state. Of course they’re going to be higher death rates in Florida and Texas. You can ride year round in those states. I’m in Illinois and my bike’s been in the garage since December. And likely won’t be coming out till April.

  • Degrees of Freedom

    Of course “Mandatory helmet laws do nothing to prevent crashes!” Neither do mandatory seatbelt laws. We’re really looking at *surviving* crashes as the benchmark for success. The Vermont example is laughable. If we assume for the sake of argument that everyone complies with mandatory helmet laws and there is just one fatality, then of course 100% of fatalities will involve a helmet wearer! C’mon, let’s use some scrutiny. To paraphrase Seinfeld’s skydiving joke, if the parachute fails, you’re not really wearing a helmet, the helmet’s wearing you. Same for motorcycles. If you’re plowed down by a vehicle with twice (or more) the wheels, and 10x (or more) weight, the helmet won’t be likely to save you.