The National Transportation Safety Board said it will push states to adopt or toughen laws requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets. The move is likely to reignite a debate between safety advocates and motorcycle riders who say they should be allowed to decide whether to wear protective headgear.
Deaths from motorcycle crashes more than doubled from 1998 to 2008, rising to nearly 5,300. The number dipped last year to below 4,500 as overall highway traffic dropped, but still averaged 12 deaths a day in part because of spotty state helmet laws, the NTSB said.
"People have to get outraged about this," Christopher Hart, the agency's vice chairman, said Tuesday at a meeting to announce the effort.
The agency said it would add motorcycle safety to its "Most Wanted" list of transportation-safety improvements. NTSB officials said they will step up pressure on states by testifying about the need for legislation and pushing for public-service announcements about the dangers.
The Motorcycle Riders Foundation, a cyclists' rights group, called the NTSB's plans "disturbing." It said the NTSB "has no regulatory ability and no law-making ability."
Another group, Abate of Illinois, short for American Bikers Aimed Toward Education, says mandatory helmet laws violate cyclists' personal freedoms.
"We're not anti-helmet by any means, we are pro-choice," said Carleen Grant, a spokeswoman for the group.
Currently, 20 states and the District of Columbia have laws that require all operators and passengers to wear helmets. Twenty-seven states have partial laws that, depending on the state, may require only certain people to wear helmets, such as minors or operators with minimum insurance.
Three states have no requirements for helmet use: Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire.
The monetary cost to society is another problem safety advocates cite. According to 2005 data, medical and other costs for unhelmeted riders involved in crashes averaged $310,000 per cyclist compared with $71,000 for cyclists wearing helmets, federal regulators say.
"It's about time somebody in the federal government stood up and talked about this issue. Advocates have been trying to get laws passed" for years in states that don't have them or that have only partial requirements, said Jackie Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a consumer group in Washington, D.C.