Feds put unhelmeted heads on most wanted list

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

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