Motorcycle fatalities have risen sharply in Florida since the state repealed its mandatory helmet law, according to two studies, one by the government and the other by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The studies indicate states that repeal such laws run the risk of increased deaths and mounting health care costs for injured bikers.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study found that in the three years following Florida’s repeal of its mandatory helmet law in 2000, 933 motorcyclists were killed, an 81 percent increase from the 515 bikers killed from 1997 to 1999.
Even though the state requires helmet use by riders under age 21, fatalities among that group nearly tripled in the three years after the repeal; 45 percent of those killed were not wearing helmets. The cost of hospital care for motorcycle injuries grew from $21 million to $44 million in the 30 months after the law changed; the figures were adjusted for inflation.
The study, conducted by the Connecticut-based Preusser Research Group, mirrored the findings of a 2003 federal review that found that fatalities grew by more than 50 percent in Kentucky and 100 percent in Louisiana after those states struck down their mandatory helmet laws.
“The results are remarkably similar that when you repeal a helmet law, you can expect an increase in fatalities and you can expect an increase in medical costs,” Rae Tyson, NHTSA spokesman said.
The second NIHS study found that the death rate of motorcyclists from 2001-02 increased 25 percent compared with the two years before the repeal of helmet laws.
The debate has generated legislative struggles during the past decade, with motorcyclists rumbling through state capitals and unleashing torrents of phone calls and e-mails to lobby for repeals. Some motorcyclists complain that they should have the choice of wearing a helmet and urge states to focus more on rider education.
But safety groups contend that less restrictive laws lead to more fatalities and burden society through higher medical costs. They mostly have waged a losing battle since the mid-1990s, when Congress removed federal sanctions against states without helmet laws and a handful of states weakened their statutes.
Twenty states and the District of Columbia require all motorcycle riders to wear protective helmets, a decline from 47 states in 1975, according to the institute, which is funded by the insurance industry.
Nationally, fatalities increased nearly 8 percent to 4,008 in 2004, the first time they have surpassed 4,000 deaths since 1987. Motorcycle deaths have increased seven years in a row.
Florida requires helmet use by riders under the age of 21 or by older riders who do not carry a minimum of $10,000 medical insurance coverage. The state’s climate allows for year-round riding, and Daytona Beach’s Bike Week attracts hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists every March.
In the institute’s report, the motorcycle-crash death rate increased 25 percent in the two years after Florida’s law changed, growing from 30.8 deaths to 38.8 deaths per 1,000 crashes.
Tom Lindsay, a spokesman for the American Motorcyclist Association, noted that both studies failed to show the causes of crashes, such as the rider’s behavior, road and weather conditions or the motorcycle itself.
The federal highway bill approved by Congress in late July included funding for the first major study of motorcycle crash data since the late 1970s.
“We’re looking forward to real research that surveys many factors of motorcycling crashes and comes up with ways that we can reduce this number,” Lindsay said.
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