The National Transportation Safety Board's latest round of most-wanted transportation safety improvements could have major implications for motorcycle riders and passengers.
In November 2010, the National Transportation Safety Board proposed a nationwide mandate that anyone riding a motorcycle wear a helmet. If the proposal sticks -- a notion despised by some and embraced by others -- riders potentially could (although indirectly) see lower motorcycle insurance rates.
As it stands, 20 states have universal helmet laws that apply to all riders. Twenty-seven states have partial laws that require minors, passengers or both to wear helmets. Three states -- Iowa, Illinois and New Hampshire -- don't have motorcycle helmet laws.
A timetable hasn't been set for acting on the safety board's recommendation, and no bills are pending in Congress that deal with a universal helmet law. If and when such a law is enacted, any change in motorcycle insurance rates would take time, according to Michael Barry, a vice president at the Insurance Information Institute. Motorcycle insurance rates vary from state to state and area based on the rider's driving record and the type of motorcycle being insured. Insurance can cost motorcycle riders $20 to $300 a month.
Barry says motorcycle insurers base their rates on claims history. While helmet laws factor into the safety equation, there may not be a cause-and-effect relationship between wearing motorcycle helmets and filing of motorcycle insurance claims.
"If, for instance, a state enacts a universal helmet law and then claims history indicates there are fewer claims and less severity of injuries, then that law, in hindsight, may be credited with driving down rates," Barry says. "But until these laws go on the books and until there are a couple of years of claims history, you can't really tell.
"A lot of what a motorcycle insurance claim involves is bodily injury. Yes, there's property damage, but oftentimes it's the injuries that a policyholder or their passengers incur that is usually the biggest cost driver."
Helmets and safety
Statistics show motorcycle riding is safer today than in recent years. The National Transportation Safety board reports that from 1997 through 2008, the number of motorcycle deaths more than doubled during a period when overall highway fatalities declined. Two of every three riders killed were not wearing helmets. But in 2009, motorcycle deaths fell 16 percent to 4,400, according to the safety board.
"Still, you've got a greater level of exposure to physical injury (on a motorcycle) than you do in an automobile," Barry says.
Russ Rader, a vice president at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says his organization agrees with the safety board's recommendation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates helmets saved the lives of more than 1,800 motorcyclists in 2008.
"Helmets decrease the severity of head injuries, the likelihood of death and the overall cost of medical care," Rader says. "The fact that we have so many states without universal helmet laws is a good example of the perverse way highway safety policy is sometimes handled in this country."
Helmet use not only reduces the risk of death and the probability of head injuries, Rader says, it also reduces the cost of medical treatment, length of hospital stay, necessity for special medical treatments and probability of long-term disability.
Studies published in the early 1990s indicate that the risk of brain injury for hospitalized motorcyclists was nearly twice that for un-helmeted motorcyclists, and that un-helmeted motorcyclists racked up health care costs three times that of helmeted drivers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates $13.2 billion was saved from 1984 through 1999 because of motorcycle helmet use; an additional $11.1 billion could have been saved if all motorcyclists had worn helmets.
An 'individual choice'?
Not everyone is convinced that helmet laws are the answer to improving safety, though. Several rider-focused organizations have spoken out against the safety board's helmet proposal.
A news release from the Motorcycle Riders Foundation called the board's announcement a "disturbing, but not surprising, recommendation."
"We at the MRF are troubled by the NTSB issuing recommendations about anything motorcycle, with such a lack of expertise in the arena of motorcycling and a seemingly nonchalant attitude towards the motorcyclists of this country," the motorcycle group said.
George Tinkham, a former staff attorney for the Illinois Department of Transportation, is Illinois legislative coordinator for a motorcycle activist group called A Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education (ABATE). Tinkham's organization believes education should be viewed as the primary driver of motorcycle safety, not helmet laws. The federal government should be spending its time and energy on promoting crash avoidance rather than crash survival, Tinkham says.
Tinkham, an avid motorcycle rider, says the safety board has taken a couple of "leaps of logic" in its recommendation by assuming that helmet laws automatically will prompt fewer deaths.
"What (the safety board) looks at is extending the quantity of life," Tinkham says, "without looking at quality of life. I think that's something that is so important to the individual that it should be left up to the individual's choice. There's no rational reason why government should get involved in that choice-making."
Tinkham, who wears a helmet when he rides only some of the time -- when circumstance calls for it -- isn't sold on the idea that stricter helmet laws eventually could mean lower motorcycle insurance rates for riders.
The insurance companies aren't so concerned about motorcyclists going out there and hurting themselves," Tinkham says. "What they're concerned about is they're going to be insuring someone driving a person on four wheels and that person, in a moment of lapsed concentration, might turn in front of a motorcyclist, cause a severe injury and the insurance company would have to make a substantial payment."
Tinkham's and ABATE's viewpoints have some support at the state level. Despite what Rader calls a "mountain of evidence" on the safety benefits of helmet laws, legislators have repealed or weakened laws in each of the 47 states that have enacted such laws since 1975.
"At the same time," Rader says, "there is no evidence that bans on texting and driving are beneficial, yet states have been clamoring to pass those measures. Only 20 states now have universal helmet laws for all riders, while 30 states have texting bans."