The average medical claim from a motorcycle crash rose by more than one-fifth last year in Michigan after the state stopped requiring all riders to wear helmets, according to an insurance industry study. Across the nation, motorcyclists opposed to mandatory helmet use have been chipping away at state helmet laws for years while crash deaths have been on the rise.
State legislators changed the law last year so that only riders younger than 21 were required to wear helmets. The average insurance payment on a motorcycle injury claim was $5,410 in the two years before the law was changed, and $7,257 after it was changed. This resulted in an increase of 34 percent, the study by the Highway Loss Data Institute found.
Other studies have shown an increase in motorcycle deaths after states eliminate or weaken mandatory helmet requirements. But this industry study is the first to look specifically at the effect of repealing helmet requirements on the severity of injuries as measured by medical insurance claims, Zuby said.
Some states have sought to mitigate the repeal or loosening of mandatory helmet laws by setting minimum medical insurance requirements. That, however, "doesn't even come close to covering the lifelong care of somebody who is severely brain-injured and who cannot work and who is going to be on Medicaid and a ward of the state," said Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which backs mandatory helmet requirements for all riders.
Jeff Hennie, vice president of the Motorcycle Riders Foundation, dismissed the study, saying insurers view helmets as "the silver bullet that's going to change the landscape of motorcycle safety." He said insurers are upset because "life has gotten more expensive for them and they have to pay out more."
"The fact is our highways are bloody," Hennie said. The Michigan helmet law change "doesn't make helmets illegal. No one is forcing anyone to ride without a helmet."
Gillan said the study "clearly shows there is no such thing as a free ride, and the public is paying the cost for this."
Nationally, motorcycle deaths have risen in 14 of the past 15 years, according to an analysis by the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia require all motorcyclists to wear a helmet; 28 states require only some motorcyclists, usually young or novice riders, to wear a helmet; and three states have no helmet use law. States have been gradually repealing or weakening mandatory helmet laws.
In 1967, to increase helmet use, the U.S. government required that states enact helmet laws to qualify for certain federal safety programs and highway construction aid. The incentive worked. By the early 1970's, almost all states had motorcycle helmet laws.
In 1976, Congress stopped the Transportation Department from assessing financial penalties on states without helmet laws, and states began repealing laws.
In 1991, Congress created incentives for states to enact helmet and seat belt laws, but reversed itself four years later.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sent observes to states last year to count how many motorcyclist wore helmets, found 97 percent of motorcyclist in states with universal helmet laws were wearing helmets, compared with 58 percent of motorcyclists in states without laws.