Helmets save you money
Published June 21, 2003

Legislators in Harrisburg are gearing up to amend the stateís mandatory motorcycle helmet law, and Governer Rendell has said that he will sign any such change into law. Most likely, a new law would still require riders under 21 and those with fewer than a year or two of experience to wear helmets, but everyone else would be free to choose which they prefered. At first glance, this seems only fair; after all, if a mature adult chooses to risk his or her life, thatís their decision, so long as they do not negatively impact society as a whole. But the facts in this particular case say that they do. Helmet laws donít just save lives, they save money.

Thereís a lot of reading out there on various studies done to evaluate the effectiveness of helmets in reducing injuries and fatalities incurred in motorcycle accidents. I was able to find three that offered evidence that helmet use either was statistically irrelevant in regards to preventing injury and death or actually lead to a greater incidence of serious neck injury.

None was from a major scientific institution or public body--one was a "statistical analysis" of a previous study finding in favor of helmet use, the analysis being done by Dr. Jonathan Goldstein, PhD; another was an engineering study on helmets carried out by Michael E. Holt, of American Eagle Engineering, Ltd. Neither was very convincing. I also found a study done in the late 1960s in New York State that showed a negative result from increased helmet use, though only on neck injuries while head injuries were reduced.

On the other hand, the General Accounting Office, the audit, evaluation and investigative arm of Congress, reviewed 46 different studies of motorcycle helmet use. The GAO is generally considered a non-partisan fact-finding office, and the facts they found support the argument that helmets save lives.

The study revealed several salient points: "nonhelmeted riders were more likely to (1) need ambulance service, (2) be admitted to a hospital as an inpatient, (3) have higher hospital charges, (4) need neurosurgery and intensive care, (5) need rehabilitation, and (6) be permanently impaired and need long-term care" (GAO, 1991, p. 4). In studies conducted by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration comparing fatality rates in Arkansas and Texas in the late 1990s before and after the repeal in both those states of adult helmet requirements, fatalities increased by 21% in Arkansas and 31% in Texas.

So, it seems clear that the vast weight of the scientific evidence shows a strong correlation between helmet use and rider safety. Many anti-helmet groups argue for more education and driver training; this is certainly a good idea that should be vigorously pursued, but accidents will still occur, many not the fault of the cyclists but of car drivers. Another study conducted by the NHTSA showed the helmets also had little or no effect on vision or hearing as compared to riders not wearing helmets.

The cost analysis is similarly grim. As none of my friends and relatives rides motorcycles, Iím not directly affected by the many deaths that motorcycle accidents cause each year, or the lives that could be saved by the use of helmets, though I certainly find all of them horrible, especially if they could be avoided. I am, however, a taxpayer and I do pay insurance premiums, and in this way motorcycle accidents affect me directly.

NHTSA studies show that the cost of treating head injuries is twice that of other injuries--and helmets reduce incidents of head injury. The more money insurance companies pay out, the more money we all pay into the pool. Also, since a high proportion (46% of crash victims at one hospital) are uninsured, taxpayers support their care and rehabilitation. More money out of my pocket.

Of course, this kind of argument could be used in a lot of different situations, and I donít think we should get carried away. But I donít see the downside to helmet laws. The supreme court said it best: "From the moment of the injury, society picks the person up off the highway; delivers him to a municipal hospital and municipal doctors; provides him with unemployment compensation if, after recovery, he cannot replace his lost job, and, if the injury causes permanent disability, may assume the responsibility for his and his familyís continued subsistence. We do not understand a state of mind that permits plaintiff to think that only he himself is concerned." Neither do I.