The US Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued an interesting report regarding the economic impact of motorcycle helmet laws, based on data from 2008-2010. While the takeaway shouldn’t surprise anyone, as it doesn’t take a genius to understand that more riders helmeted means fewer fatal crashes from motorcycles, the figures coming from the CDC with that observation are a bit shocking.
According to the statistical analysis done by the CDC, riders wearing helmets during a motorcycle crash were 37% less likely to receive fatal injuries than riders that were not wearing a helmet. Additionally, states with universal helmet usage laws are estimated to have save 4x as much in economic costs associated with medical, productivity, insurance, legal, and other expenses. For 2010, the total economic impact of having helmeted riders topped $3 billion in savings. Chewy.
Another interesting finding to come out of the CDC’s research is the sweeping variation in the percentage of riders who choose to wear a helmet, in relation to the status of the helmet law in that rider’s jurisdiction. For instance, on average 12% of fatally injured motorcyclists were not wearing helmets in states with universal helmet laws (laws that require all riders to wear a helmet). Compare that figure to the 64% found in states with a partial helmet law (only requires specific groups of riders to wear helmets), and the 79% of riders in states without any sort of helmet mandate.
The CDC says that if there was a country-wide adoption of universal helmet laws, the United States could save an additional $1.4 billion to the $3 billion already being saved. To give an example regarding the disparity between helmet law states and non-helmet law states, the CDC says that the State of California (a mandatory helmet law state) saved $394 million, while the State of New Mexico saved only $2.6 million through helmet usage. However, the CDC fails to disclose that the general and motorcycle populations of these two states are widely dissimilar, and fails to normalize the dataset by comparing the figures with the average miles ridden.
To its defense though, the CDC’s editorial note brings up an interesting example with the State of Florida:
“In 2000, for example, Florida changed its universal helmet law to a partial helmet law that covered only riders aged <21 years and those with <$10,000 in medical insurance coverage. During the 2 years after the law was changed, the motorcyclist death rate per 10,000 registered motorcycles in Florida increased by 21%, deaths among motorcycle riders aged <21 years nearly tripled, and hospital admissions of motorcyclists with injuries to the head, brain, and skull increased by 82%. In addition, gross costs charged to hospital-admitted motorcyclists with head, brain, or skull injuries in Florida more than doubled, from $21 million to $50 million.”
In its conclusion, the CDC reports that helmets prevent 37% of fatalities amongst motorcyclists, and 41% amongst motorcycle passengers, CDC reported, and prevent 13 percent of serious injuries and 8 percent of minor injuries to riders and passengers. While more libertarian-oriented individuals might tout the personal freedoms argument that general is used in repealing motorcycle helmet laws, the CDC’s data shows an interesting shift in the economic burden that comes with that decision. The only thing left to debate is which is the greater personal freedom: riding without a helmet, or paying the cost for those who make that choice.