Proving Motorcycle Helmets Save Lives - the Hard Way

This archived article is from April 2002. Although every effort has been made to make sure the information presented is accurate, please note that it may contain information that is out-of-date.

All Canadian provinces have universal motorcycle helmet laws, as do most other developed countries. However, this is not the case with our southern neighbors.

In 1967, the US government started requiring states to have universal helmet laws to qualify for federal highway funds. By 1975, all but three American states had helmet laws covering all motorcycle riders. Then, in 1976, Congress revoked the authority to impose the sanctions. Many states repealed or weakened their helmet laws.

In the early 1990s, federal incentives were introduced for states with helmet laws, but these were dropped in 1995. Now, only 20 states and the District of Columbia have mandatory use laws covering all riders; most of the rest have laws covering drivers under a certain age, normally 21, 19 or 18.

The limited laws assume that older riders don't need as much protection as younger, less experienced riders. However, over the past three years motorcycle deaths have gone up 68 per cent among riders 40 and older, but only 20 per cent in those younger than 40. Today, 40 per cent of all fatally injured riders are 40 and older, up from 14 per cent in 1990. This increase is due in part to the fact that more and more older, affluent professionals own motorcycles. In most states, these older riders are not required to wear a helmet.

In 1997, Texas dropped its helmet requirement for riders 21 and older who are insured or have training. Helmet use dropped from 97 per cent to 66 per cent in the next year, and deaths went up by one-third. Between 1996 and 2000, that state saw its motorcycle fatality rate rise from 74 to 120 per 100,000 vehicle registrations. (In states with helmet laws the rate increased from 46 to 56 per 100,000 in the same period.)

Canada is a world leader in motorcycle safety, thanks in part to its longstanding helmet laws and its strong national training program. In 2003 alone over 23,000 riders across Canada completed the Canada Safety Council's Motorcycle Training Program.

Status Report, Vol. 37, No. 1, January 12, 2002, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

2004 Update

In the late 1990s, Kentucky and Louisiana repealed their universal motorcycle helmet laws. Statewide observational surveys showed that helmet use decreased from nearly full compliance to the 50 per cent range without the laws. The rate of motorcyclist fatalities per 10,000 registered motorcycles increased by 37 per cent in Kentucky and 75 per cent in Louisiana. Injuries also increased. The experience in Kentucky and Louisiana reflects the experience in Arkansas, Florida and Texas, the other states that have repealed universal laws in recent years, leaving little doubt that such repeals result in more deaths.