Motorcycle Helmets, How to Prevent Medical Emergencies

Emergency physicians often see the tragic consequences of motorcyclists who do not wear helmets. Head injury is the leading cause of death in motorcycle crashes, and helmet use is the single most important factor when it comes to surviving a motorcycle crash.

The NHTSA estimates that motorcycle helmets reduce the likelihood of a fatal crash by 37 percent. Helmets are highly effective in preventing brain injuries and resulting disabilities. Unhelmeted motorcyclists are three times more likely than helmeted riders to suffer traumatic brain injuries following a motorcycle crash.

As of June 2007, 20 states and the District of Columbia had laws requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets, and 27 states had laws covering some riders, usually people younger than 18. Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire do not have helmet laws at all.

Why is wearing a helmet important for motorcycle riders?

  • Head injury is the leading cause of death in motorcycle crashes.
  • Helmets provide the best protection from head injuries for motorcyclists involved in traffic crashes by reducing the risk of fatalities and head, brain and facial injuries among motorcyclists of all ages and crash severities.
  • Wearing a motorcycle helmet does not restrict a rider’s ability to hear traffic signals or visual acuity needed to safely change lanes (NHTSA 1997).

When states repeal motorcycle helmet laws, the number of deaths and injuries from motorcycle crashes goes up. For example, following the 2003 repeal of the Pennsylvania helmet law, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation reported increased motorcyclist fatalities — from 158 in 2004 to 205 in 2005. This report, and injuries sustained by Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in a motorcycle crash in 2006, resurrected discussions among state policymakers that the helmet law should be reinstated.

In addition to encouraging states to enact legislation to require all motorcycle riders to wear helmets, other positive measures to impact motorcycle safety are the establishment of effective comprehensive programs including rider education, motorcycle operator licensing, and responsible use of alcohol.

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