Michigan motorcycle injury claims rise with helmet law repeal

Consumer Reports News: June 03, 2013 03:08 PM

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One year after relaxing its motorcycle helmet law, Michigan has seen a 22 percent rise in medical insurance claim costs associated with cycle crashes. The data is clear: When helmets are off, injuries and death increase.

The average medical claim rose to $7,257 in the wake of the change, according to a new study by the Highway Loss Data Institute, an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The revised rule eliminated the helmet requirement for riders over 21, as long as they had completed a rider safety course and carried sufficient insurance coverage ($20,000 in medical coverage). Helmet use immediately declined as a result.

Up until the law was changed, a University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study found that 98 percent of riders involved in crashes were wearing helmets. That number dropped to 74 percent after the law was changed.

Visit our motorcycle buying guide for advice on choosing the right bike and motorcycle safety.

While many states have relaxed helmet laws under pressure from motorcycle rider groups, this is the first study to make a direct connection between helmet use and medical costs.

"Weakening the helmet law seems to have made it somewhat more likely that riders will sustain injuries, but the big impact has been on the seriousness of the injuries," said David Zuby, chief research officer of HLDI and IIHS. "Helmets can't protect against all injuries, but they do help prevent debilitating and often fatal head trauma."

Motorcycle fatalities have been on the rise nationwide in recent years, partly due to increased numbers of riders, driver distraction, and other factors. Although debate continues about the effectiveness of helmets in motorcycle safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that helmet use can cut the risk of a motorcycle fatality by 37 percent. (Read: "CDC report puts scary-big numbers behind the reasons why motorcyclists should wear helmets.")

Orly Avitzur, M.D., a Consumer Reports medical adviser, has witnessed the results of not wearing a helmet in an emergency room setting. "As a neurologist, it is absolute insanity to repeal helmet laws, and to expose the skull and the brain to potential trauma that could otherwise be mitigated," says Avitzur. "I've seen helmets that have sustained accidents in the emergency room that are broken in half. You want something other than your skull to sustain the impact of the trauma."

The federal government first mandated helmet laws in 1968, as a requirement for states to receive highway funding. But steady pressure from motorcyclist rights groups has weakened or eliminated laws in many states, even as fatalities have been rising. (Guide to helmet laws by state.)

Michigan is one of 28 states that currently have helmet laws covering only some riders. Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire have no helmet requirements. Only 19 states and the District of Columbia require helmets for all motorcyclists.

When shopping for a helmet, look beyond the minimal legal requirement. So-called novelty helmets may look cool, but a serious rider should wear a DOT-approved, full-faced helmet.

Learn more about riding in our motorcycle hub, buying guide, and in our reliability and owner satisfaction report.

Jim Travers

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