Magazine article Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal

Fatal Freedom

Magazine article Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal

Fatal Freedom

Article excerpt

Data shows rollback of motorcycle helmet laws increases fatalities

Sometimes a little good can come from very unfortunate events.

Veteran newspaper editor John Staed, an old friend, had to move his family to Anderson, S.C., last year to take a city editor job at the Independent-Mail after the Birmingham Post-Herald shut down in Alabama. Staed quickly noticed that many motorists in his new home were shunning safety equipment he thought was mandatory.

"People on motorcycles here don't wear helmets," he told me a few months later. "They were required in Alabama. Is that dangerous?"

Although it garnered little attention in the national news media, fierce political fights have been waged in many state legislatures in recent years as well-financed, extremely well-organized groups of motorcycling enthusiasts sought to rollback state laws that made safety helmets mandatory for motorcyclists. They say helmets ruin the otherwise joyous physical experience of riding a motorcycle.

"It's a freedom issue, man!" exclaimed Tennes see state Rep. Tim Burchett, a motorcyclist himself, who wants helmets made optional for adults in the Volunteer State. "If we really wanted to stop highway deaths, why not make the speed limit 20 mph and force everyone to drive Volvos?"

But the facts in our investigation were so compelling - showing states without helmet laws see a significant rise in motorcycle deaths - that they convinced a governor to veto a bill that would have rolled back helmet laws in her state.

Dead motorcyclists

To answer my friend's question on whether the trend is dangerous, I contacted the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and asked for the latest data on motorcycle deaths in each state over the last decade. The agency's Fatal Accident Reporting System, or PARS, frequently updates accident reports over several years, so it's best to get an update when using these figures. Highway safety statisticians were very cooperative to this request. (PARS is also is available from the IRE and NICAR Database Library.)

Using Microsoft Excel, it took just half an hour to compare the rate of motorcycle deaths in the 20 states that still have mandatory helmet laws against the 30 states that have rolled back their laws to make helmets optional for adults. The number of deaths per one million population is 11.9 in states with mandatory helmet laws and 16.7 in states that no longer require them, a 41 percent increase in the rate of death.

During the 1980s and most of the 1990s, motorcycle deaths had been declining. They reached their lowest level in 1997 when only 2,116 people died. But, that trend dramatically reversed as motorcycle deaths doubled in eight years, reaching 4,553 fatalities in 2005.

There has been a 40 percent increase in the number of registered motorcycles during this period, although the total number of miles driven on motorcycles has declined slightly.

Six states, including Florida and Texas, have relaxed their laws since 1997. If rollbacks of helmet laws were contributing to this rising death rate, it seemed logical that states that recently eliminated the helmet law would experience a higher-than-average increase in mortality rates. That is exactly what happened. The numbers were particularly stark in states like Texas (115 deaths before the law change and 285 afterwards) and Florida (where fatalities rose from 160 to 432).

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has argued for years that declining helmet use is costing an estimated 700 needless deaths each year. …

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