Awareness: The U.S. helmet law controversy



It seems there has always been controversy over motorcyclists wearing helmets. There are two main factors in the controversy. The first is that some people believe that helmets actually lead to injury more often than they prevent injury. The second is that many people believe that motorcyclists should decide whether or not they will wear a helmet; mandatory helmet laws prevent motorcyclists from making such a decision.

Helmets and injuries

In 1986, Jonathan P. Goldstein released The Effect of Motorcycle Helmet Use On the Probability of Fatality and the Severity of Head Neck Injuries: A Latent Variable Framework, a report of his research on how effective helmets are in motorcycle crashes. The study was an “on-scene in-depth…[investigation]… of 900 motorcycle crashes, in the Los Angeles area, supervised by Hurt et al. (1981)” (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA). According to the report, “Helmets were not found to have a statistically significant effect on the probability of fatality given that a motorcycle crash had occurred” (NHTSA). According to the NHTSA, Goldstein’s methods for reaching that conclusion had major flaws:

  • He got his physics wrong and drew conclusions contrary to evidence.
  • His statistical model was inaccurate.
  • He disregarded, threw out, and did not include evidence; whether intentional or not, these missing pieces would have changed the outcome of his conclusions.
  • He made false assumptions upon which his conclusions rest.

The full NHTSA analysis of Goldstein’s research can be seen here: Costs of Injuries Resulting from Motorcycle Crashes: A Literature Review.
According to the NHTSA, helmets are actually very effective at reducing injury and death. Especially considering that head injuries are the leading cause of motorcycle accident deaths (NHTSA). The NHTSA makes the following estimates in regard to helmet use:

  • Between 1984 and 2003, helmets saved 14,922 motorcyclists’ lives.
  • “Motorcycle helmets reduce the likelihood of a crash fatality by 37 percent.”

Helmets and choice

Those against mandatory helmet laws argue that motorcyclists should have the choice of whether or not they wear helmets; motorcyclists on this side of the controversy believe that mandatory helmet laws infringe on their Constitutional rights.

Proponents, on the other hand, argue that the past is proof enough that mandatory helmet laws are effective at saving lives. The NHTSA found that, “Helmet use laws governing all motorcycle riders (universal helmet laws) significantly increase helmet use….” Here is a chart that examines the relationship between helmet laws and motorcycle fatalities:


As the controversy rages on, the question remains: Should motorcycle helmet usage be mandated by law?

Gina Williams is a guest post and article writer bringing to us information on the mandatory helmet controversy.Gina also writes about motorcycle accident statistics