8 Ball In The Wind

Monday, November 24, 2014

Discussing The Reasons For Universal Mandatory Helmet Requirements

I'd really like to talk to you for a few minutes, if you don't mind, about why you think I need to wear a motorcycle helmet when I think there are times I would rather not.  The last thing I want to do is to get into an emotional or passionate argument with you.  That doesn't get either of us anywhere, and the "We'll have to just agree to disagree" is fine when it doesn't involve peoples lives.  So please, hear me out.  After I'm through, let me know what you think about the subject.  Let's get a real conversation going.  A civil, courteous, and honest discussion about our Right to choose for ourselves, what we as individuals feel is the proper level of protection for ourselves.

You have told me it is for my own safety, and that helmets save lives.  While that tends to be the foundation for much of the discussion for motorcycle helmets, do they really?  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the division within the US Department of Transportation that is responsible for administering the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) that a mind numbing amount of motor vehicle equipment must meet, "estimates" (their word, not mine) that motorcycle helmets are "37% effective" in saving lives.1 That is a pretty poor effectiveness rating.

There is also the misconception that many people, including the Washington State Patrol seem to be under, that the US Dept. of Transportation (DOT) "approves" motorcycle helmets.  The DOT will be the first to tell you that they do not approve, or disapprove motorcycle helmets.  They set the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS-218 in the case of motorcycle helmets) that gives the minimum testing standards that helmets must meet to be certified as being "DOT compliant".  Here is what most people either don't know, or don't realize; a motorcycle helmet doesn't need to be tested by its manufacturer before the manufacturer certifies it to be "DOT compliant".  They just have to make a good faith judgement that it would meet the tests.  That good faith judgement is good enough to be legal.  That is, until one of the independent laboratories contracted by NHTSA to test helmets randomly purchases a couple helmets of a particular make and model for testing.  If the helmet passes the tests, great.  If not, the manufacturer is notified their helmet didn't pass, and why it didn't.  But there is no public recall announcement made, and even law enforcement aren't notified of the helmets which are no longer compliant with FMVSS-218.  

According to NHTSA documents, between 1980 (when President Reagan was inaugurated) and 2008 (when President Obama was inaugurated) the independent labs tested a total of 1,540 previously certified DOT compliant helmets.  Of those helmets tested, 945 of them FAILED.  That is a 61.4% failure rate.  Over 61% of the certified DOT compliant helmets tested over that 28 year period failed.  Or put in other words, only 38.6% of the helmets tested met the minimum requirements the government set.2  These are not cheap helmets either.  Major brand names like Nolan, Pro Police, and other well known and respected helmet manufacturers.

There is no way to determine visually if a motorcycle helmet is DOT compliant or not.  That requires strict laboratory testing, which results in the destruction of the helmet.  Don't take my word for it, that comes from NHTSA, and they are the ones who wrote the standard.  

To prove my point, take a look at the two helmets above.  Both were manufactured by same company, both were until recently for sale by the same company.  One is still currently sold as a DOT compliant helmet, and the other was sold until recently as a "novelty" helmet.  Can you tell which one is DOT compliant?

OK, now that we've covered at least a large portion of the DOT related points about whether helmets need to be mandated or not, let's get down to more serious points.

The highest speed impact required for a helmet to withstand within required specifications is 13.4 mph.  That is the speed a helmet reaches falling from 72 inches (6 feet).  At speeds greater than 13.4 mph it has been statistically shown that there is an ever more significant trade-off between risk of head injury and neck injury to the motorcyclist.  Above the speed that DOT mandates testing done, the risk of severe neck injuries grows significantly.3  

Another point to be made against the mandating of motorcycle helmets was stated quite simply by Professor Harry Hurt (author of the Hurt Report on traffic safety) during a 1992 interview with KABC-TV in Los Angeles.  He stated during that interview; "Once impact speeds get up around 25-30 mph, no helmet in the world is going to save you."  That comes from the author of what is broadly considered the most authoritative study on the subject of traffic safety of the 20th Century.  A report that is still quite influential to this day.

That comment comes quite plainly into perspective in a couple of ways.  One is the Goldstein Study states that the risk of fatality increases from 7.1% at 40 mph vehicle speed to 36.3% at 60 mph.  So, at highway speeds, you have a 36.3% chance being killed just because of the speed of the crash.  The other point comes from a compilation of data from FARS (Fatal Accident Reporting System) and the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission.  Those figures showed that over 53% of fatalities between 2006 and 2010 in Washington State speed was a contributing factor.  So the helmets in those crashes, that were certified to withstand a 13.4 mph impact, were irrelevant.

Another government study from NHTSA showed that between 2000 & 2002, 81% of fatal motorcycle accident victims died from injuries other than head injuries.  Only 19% of motorcycle fatalities had fatal head injuries.  So in 80% of those crashes, helmets were irrelevant.

So let me try to wind this up, and I am still not covering many of the reasons people are demanding the right to choose whether we want to wear a helmet or not. 
1. NHTSAs own statistics show that helmets are only 37% effective (assuming all helmets are DOT compliant).  
2. Over a 28 year span, 61.4% of the certified DOT compliant helmets tested failed.  
3. At speeds over 13.4 mph being involved in a crash while wearing a helmet your risk of serious neck injury increases significantly.  
4. By a huge margin, the vast majority of motorcycle fatalities nationwide died from non-head related injuries.  
5. To paraphrase Professor Hurt, motorcycle helmets become ineffective by the time impact speeds reach 25-30 mph.

One last thing, in 2012, Michigan repealed their helmet law.  By 2014, the number of motorcycle accidents had dropped by approximately 20%.  The number of motorcycle fatalities also dropped by about the same rate.  As did the number of incapacitating injuries.  All of these statistics dropped by 20% or more AFTER Michigan repealed their helmet law.  Ironically, the number of motorcycles registered in the state, and the number of motorcycle endorsements rose by nearly the same percentage.  So let me make that clear; more riders, on more motorcycles. yet the accident rate, the fatality rate, and the incapacitating injury rate ALL dropped AFTER Michigan repealed their helmet law.  Now tell me, why are we here in Washington still mandated to wear them, and not given the CHOICE whether or not to do so as best fits our own experience and judgement?

Catch ya on the road sometime...

1  NHTSA 2012 Traffic Safety Facts 2012 Data

2 a compilation of NHTSA documents from 1980-2008

3The Goldstein Study  "The Effect of Motorcycle Helmet Use on the Probability of Fatality and the Severity of Head and Neck Injuries"


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