Study: Rise in fatalities follows repeal of helmet law
By TODD ACKERMAN
Jan. 15, 2010, 10:03AM
Texas bikers' freedom to ride the open road without a helmet has resulted in a sharp increase in deadly crashes, according to a new study.
The study, published in the January edition of Southern Medical Journal, found that in the seven years after Texas repealed its mandatory motorcycle helmet law in 1997, fatality rates per vehicle miles traveled increased by roughly 25 percent.
“This study show that it's bad public policy to repeal mandatory motorcycle helmet laws,” said Al Bavon, a professor in the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and co-author of the study. “Motorcyclists not wearing helmets are having an adverse effect on highway safety in Texas.”
The trend has continued in recent years not covered by the study, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.
Texas was one of the first states to change its mandatory helmet law, after the federal government ended a long-standing policy of reducing transportation funding for states without such a law. In 1997, Texas began requiring only motorcyclists under 21 to use a helmet.
Only 20 states and the District of Columbia currently require all motorcyclists to wear a helmet.
The chairman of the Texas Motorcycle Rights Association dismissed the study, pointing to TxDOT preliminary 2009 numbers that show a decrease in fatalities. He predicted a new law requiring new riders to take a motorcycle safety course will further reduce deadly crashes.
“Helmets don't save lives if there's an accident,” said the chairman, who goes by the name of Sputnik. “The key is to prevent accidents, which is achieved through better training of riders and drivers.”
Gonzalo Ponce, program manager of TxDOT's traffic safety section, attributed the apparent modest decline in 2009 to a drop in ridership as a result of the economic downturn. From 2004 to 2008, motorcycle fatalities rose about 32 percent, to 529, according to TxDOT.
Change called unlikely
The Southern Medical Journal study looked at Texas data on motorcycle fatalities from 1994 to 2004 to analyze trends before and after the change in helmet laws. A month-by-month breakdown showed a “sudden upward trend” in deadly motorcycle accidents in September 1997, the same month the helmet laws changed.
That study found that, following the law's implementation, overall motorcycle deaths increased by 30 percent, although that number partly reflects an increase in ridership. It found deaths per registered motorcycles increased by 15.2 percent.
Helmet use decreased from 77 percent in 1996 to 63 percent in 1997, then to 36 percent in 1998 and thereafter.
A TxDOT official said the study provides ample evidence that Texas should change its law but wasn't optimistic it will have that effect.
“Every session there are stirrings about reinstating the mandatory helmet law but they never go anywhere,” said Carol Rawson, interim director of TxDOT's traffic operations division. “The anti-helmet folks are just a strong lobby.”