As most riders know, wearing a helmet is mandatory in New Jersey. Not so in Pennsylvania where anyone 21 years of age or older and has been licensed to operate a motorcycle for not less than two full calendar years OR has completed a motorcycle safety course approved by PennDOT or the Motorcycle Safety Foundation can ride without one. Beyond the arguments for or against mandatory helmet laws is the reality of the dangers associated with riding without one. A few years ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article on the Pennsylvania law that permits riders to forgo a helmet and State Representative Dan Frankel’s effort to reinstate a mandatory helmet law.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Institute, in New Jersey for the year 2007, there were 85 motorcycle related fatalities of which 82 % were wearing helmets. The National Highway Safety Institute estimated that 42 people’s lives were saved by wearing helmets and that 6 fatalities would have been prevented with 100% use of helmets. In 2008, 82 fatalities with 87% wearing helmets and NHTSA estimates another 42 lives saved because of helmets and 4 fatalities would have been prevented with 100% use of helmets. In Pennsylvania in 2007 there were 225 motorcycle related fatalities. 46 % were wearing helmets and another 61 people’s lives were saved by wearing helmets. In 2008, 239 fatalities with 49% wearing helmets and another 70 lives saved because of helmets. The NHTSA also estimated that in 2007 45 lives would have been saved and in 2008 45 lives would have been saved if they were wearing helmets.
Across the US there were over 5000 fatalities in both 2007 and 2008 from motorcycle accidents with only 58% wearing helmets. NHTSA estimated that in those two years there were 3615 lives saved by the use of a helmet and another 1627 lives would have been saved if they were wearing helmets. More recently, in 2012, NHTSA estimates helmets saved the lives of 1,699 motorcyclists and that an additional 781 lives could have been saved if all motorcyclists had worn helmets. In states without universal helmet laws, 62% of the motorcyclists killed in 2012 were not wearing helmets compared to 9% in the states with universal helmet laws. Think about that for a minute.
In addition, NHTSA sponsored a study in 1996 to assess the effect of wearing a helmet upon the ability of motorcycle riders to: (1) visually detect the presence of vehicles in adjacent lanes before changing lanes and (2) to detect traffic sounds when operating at normal speed. The results indicate that wearing helmets does not restrict the ability to hear auditory signals or the likelihood of seeing a vehicle in an adjacent lane prior to changing lanes.
I have no reason to doubt these figures. A few years ago while traveling to Court in rush hour traffic on I 95 towards Philadelphia I saw a rider go flying over his handle bars onto the roadway. It was shocking to say the least. I thought he was unconscious. I pulled over the side of the road and watched as he got up. Another motorist an I assisted the rider to the side of the road. He had a full face helmet and a motorcycle leather jacket and blue jeans. He was disoriented and almost lost consciousness a few times. His knees were scraped through his jeans and bleeding. His jacket showed the signs of a serious incident. His helmet showed damage that would have caused a serious injury to a rider without one. Despite his protective gear, I was sure that he had suffered serious injuries. I am happy to report that he called me the next day to tell me that but for his bruised/scraped knees, he was fine. It is clear to me that his helmet and jacket had adequately protected him from more serious harm. As a rider I routinely see other riders in Pennsylvania riding without helmets. In both states it is common to see riders in shorts, sneakers and T shirts. I rode for many years in jeans and a T shirt but always with a helmet. It is great to ride on a warm summer day without the bulk of protective clothing. It’s also dangerous. At many of the rally’s I attend I am often engaged by visitors about their right to ride without a helmet. It’s a debate worth having. What is often overlooked are the true consequences of that action. As indicated above, helmets save lives. That’s indisputable.
What is missing from those statistics are the consequences of sustaining an injury as a result of not wearing a helmet and surviving. NHTSA estimates on a national level we would have saved 2.7 billion dollars in 2007 and 2.9 billion dollars in 2008 if there was 100% helmet use. This of course fails to consider the impact to the rider and their families. Many head injuries are quite serious and have long term consequences, job loss, medical bills and other financial strains. Many of the more serious head injuries lead to long term disability and regular care. We see this regularly when representing injured riders. As many of us in the motorcycle community know, motorcycle insurance provides in most cases no medical benefit and in others, very little coverage. Riders without insurance who suffer serious head injuries become dependent on Federal programs such as SSI and Medicaid. Even people with insurance don’t have enough coverage for a lifetime of care.
I urge anyone reading this to reconsider riding without a helmet. I’m sure the families of those who lost loved ones or who are now watching someone suffer because they were not wearing a helmet would join in my request. Every motorcycle rider understands that there is some danger associate with riding but that doesn’t mean that you should not be prudent and take precautions to minimize your risk.