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Free to Be...Roadkill?

US motorcycle deaths have more than doubled since 1997. Bikers' response: Leave us alone.

| Thu Jun. 7, 2012 5:10 AM EDT

In recent years, even as deaths on the nation's roads and highways have fallen to their lowest levels in more than a half-century, motorcyclists are dropping like flies. Fatal crashes involving motorcycles have more than doubled since 1997—they now account for 1 in 7 traffic deaths, killing some 4,500 bikers (PDF) a year.

So how are riders' groups responding to the carnage? In short, by lobbying Congress to make regulators leave them alone.

If the bikers have it their way, the nation's chief traffic cop, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), will no longer be able to fund state police checkpoints to ensure that motorcyclists are wearing helmets that actually work—as opposed to the stylish-but-useless novelty numbers many bikers wear to get around state helmet laws.

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Last year, meanwhile, lobbyists for motorcycle groups derailed a proposal that would have reinstated financial penalties for states that lack helmet laws—similar to the federal pressure that pushed states to adopt compulsory seat belt laws. And bikers' allies in Congress are working to reaffirm a gag rule that since 1998 has barred NHTSA from encouraging state and local leaders to enact motorcycle safety measures.

This is "an interesting and dangerous road they are going down," says Jackie Gillan, president of the Washington-based nonprofit Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "They are so emboldened now, not only do they try to repeal laws and stop them from being enacted, they try to stop the hands of law enforcement, saying you cannot use grant money to have motorcycle checkpoints. Can you imagine if they said the same thing about sobriety checkpoints?"

The motorcycle groups—notably the American Motorcyclist Association and the Motorcycle Riders Foundation—have been remarkably successful at paring back state helmet laws over the past few decades. In the late-1970s, 47 states required helmets for all motorcyclists. This past April, with the repeal of Michigan's nearly 50-year-old helmet law, only 19 states now require all riders to wear one, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. (See below.)

by Emily Chow for FairWarning, source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safetyby Emily Chow for FairWarning, source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

The Michigan repeal was opposed by more than two dozen medical and public health groups, led by the Brain Injury Association of Michigan. A poll (PDF) conducted around that time indicated that 80 percent of likely Michigan voters wanted to keep the helmet law intact. And while the repeal legislation requires bikers to carry at least $20,000 in medical coverage, critics say that sum won't come close to covering the costs of a catastrophic injury.

Not to mention the death toll: With more bikes on the road and fewer states requiring helmets, motorcycle fatalities have ballooned from 2,116 in 1997 to 4,502 in 2010 (see chart). The 2011 stats aren't out yet, but among the thousands dead were 55-year-old Philip Contos, killed during a rally to protest New York's helmet law—police say he would have survived had he worn one—and 17-year-old Caroline Found of Iowa City, who died after her moped struck a tree.

After her death, four of Found's friends launched a campaign to persuade the Iowa Legislature to enact a helmet law. (Iowa, along with Illinois and New Hampshire, allows even teenage riders to go without helmets.) But their bid went nowhere. "It is getting to the point where we're going to have to bubble wrap everyone just to protect them from everything," a state legislator told the young activists. "I think there's got to be some common sense here."

In fact, helmet requirements are widely considered the most effective tool at the regulators' disposal. According to NHTSA chief David Strickland, "No other single countermeasure offers a comparable body of supporting scientific evidence confirming its potential for saving lives of motorcyclists." The agency estimates that motorcycle helmets saved 1,483 lives in 2009 (PDF), and that another 732 American bikers would be alive today had they been wearing one that year.

"If you sustain a moderate to severe injury that doesn't kill you," notes one trauma surgeon, "you are going to be a drain on society for the rest of your life."

NHTSA has also estimated that helmetless riders cost society some $1.3 billion a year in medical expenses and lost productivity. "If you don't wear a helmet, and you sustain a moderate to severe injury that doesn't kill you, you are going to be a drain on society for the rest of your life," explains Thomas J. Esposito, chief of the Division of Trauma, Surgical Critical Care and Burns at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago.

Motorcyclists, of course, have long groused that helmet laws are a drag on their personal freedom. Instead, they argue that the government should emphasize rider training to prevent crashes. But it's not clear that training works—on the contrary, a 2007 Indiana study found that riders who had completed a basic training course were 44 percent more likely to be involved in an accident than untrained riders. (The researchers speculated that the trained riders were perhaps overly confident, and thus ended up taking more risks.)

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