Can mandatory helmet laws save motorcyclists lives? That’s the question that inspired this article, but, looking at the available data, no correlation appears to exist. Crazy, right? Let’s look deeper at the data and see what fatality rates can tell us about motorcycle safety.
This map compares fatalities per riding population, by state. In the red states, motorcyclists run a .00075 percent chance of being killed in an on-road crash or higher. Yellow states are .0005 percent and above. Green states are .00025 percent and up. The three blue states are .00021 or below.
The most dangerous state for motorcyclists is Hawaii that saw 37 deaths during the first nine months of 2012 (the latest date range for which we have data) and has 30,000 road-legal motorcycles registered. The safest state, New Jersey, reported only 65 motorcyclist fatalities on its roads during the first nine months of 2012, despite having over 330,000 registered motorcycles.
This map shows the 20 states with mandatory helmet laws for all riders. Most other states require helmets only for teenage motorcyclists, while three states have no helmet requirement of any kind — Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire. This map does not distinguish between those states and the 27 remaining, simply because the number of under-18-year old motorcyclists is statistically irrelevant.
While the most dangerous state does not require helmets for adult riders and the safest state does, very little statistical correlation between helmet laws and fatality rates can otherwise be determined.
Now this map shows the percentage of motorcyclist fatalities where the rider was not wearing a helmet. Red states report that helmets were not worn in 75 percent of fatal crashes. Yellow states are 50 percent and up. Green states are 11 percent and up. In blue states, that number is less than 10 percent.
Perhaps most interesting is that this map doesn’t strongly correlate either with helmet laws or overall motorcyclist fatality rates. The state in which an unhelmeted motorcyclist fatality is most likely to occur is New Mexico, which has no helmet law. In Vermont, where all motorcycle fatalities did involve a helmet, there is a helmet law. Most helmet law states fall into the lower third of states where fatal crashes were likely to involve helmet use.
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?