State-by-state, disappearing helmet laws leave safety standards as anyone’s guess (Part I of a series)

by Jeff on February 20, 2009

A Pennsylvania study five years after the state’s effective helmet law repeal, and accounts by industry insiders show that ambiguous safety standards are the result of mixed messages on what constitutes best safety practices

By: Jeff Cobb
Motorcycle Safety News

Are some motorcycle and scooter riders – traveling elbow-to-fender with cars, trucks and buses – taking too great of risks with their safety?
Since 1975, when the federal government stopped tying mandatory helmet laws to state funding, only about 20 states remain with universally require helmets laws, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
In the meantime, government and industry officials have said, a culture without clear standards on what safety gear should be worn has grown.
While many do wear helmets, if not also jackets, pants, gloves, boots, and more, others take their chances only in un-protective street clothes.
Here in Pennsylvania, helmet laws were all but wiped out in 2003 when Gov. Ed Rendell (D) took office. Now only riders with less than two years experience are required to wear helmets, and unless the police pull a rider over, experience cannot be verified. So essentially there is all but no helmet law in this state.
But Charles Umbenhauer, a Harrisburg-based lobbyist for the Alliance of Bikers Aimed Toward Education (ABATE), said Pennsylvanians – as residents of the state that was America’s birthplace – should especially understand.
The spokesman for the 7,000-member lobbying group that helped push the repeal past the state legislature said the United States was founded here to defend liberty. The freedom to be safe – or not – is every American’s right.
And Rendell stands by his decision, according to his spokesman, Chuck Ardo.
“The governor believes wearing a helmet is a matter of individual choice,” Ardo said, “He certainly believes that wearing a helmet is the better choice and encourages people to do that, but he does not feel that it ought to be mandatory by law.”
And while few disagree that that freedom is central to our society’s foundation, transportation safety and industry representatives say serious problems remain.
In an atmosphere of mixed messages on what constitutes acceptable safe practices, more people are getting hurt.
And more than ever, it is said, riders need to fully determine the risks, and take responsibility for their own safety.
Evidence for a decline in adequate preparedness for the worst came in June 2008 from a University of Pittsburgh study examining the two years following the helmet law’s repeal.
It found that head injuries – and often-untold financial and personal costs to individuals, their families, and friends – markedly increased.
While factoring for increased motorcycle registrations, a 32-percent increase statewide in head injury deaths was nevertheless documented, along with a 42-percent increase in head injury-related hospitalizations.
In Philadelphia and suburban counties, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, 27-percent more two-wheelers and an average 3-10 percent more cars were registered in 2007 than in 2003.
But while more vehicles share the roads, auto injuries and fatalities have been declining, while the same for motorcycle and scooters substantially increased.
It is believed another reason for America’s ambiguous safety standards is that motorcycles and scooters are often considered quasi-toys. This contrasts with a general understanding in many European countries, the U.K., and other places where they are mainstream transportation alternatives.
In those countries, more riders wear head-to-toe motorcycle-specific safety attire, and certainly helmets.
But this is the battle that motivates – and frustrates – many in the U.S. like Phil Davy, brand manager for Icon Motorsports (www.rideicon.com).
Here, he said, the safety message has “fallen on deaf ears for 100 years.”
When told Pennsylvania head injuries were up at least a third, he and all authorities interviewed expressed no surprise.
And the battle is far from over said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the NHTSA – himself a rider since the 1960s.
“Every time there’s been a repeal, in every state we’ve looked at,” Mr. Tyson said, “there has been an increase in fatalities, even when you add for an increase in rider registrations.”
But Professor Hugh H. “Harry” Hurt, founder and president of the Head Protection Research Laboratory (www.hprl.org), in Paramount, Calif., said many riders do value helmets, but he had strong words for those who don’t and especially those who teach against their use.
“Those people that are bad mouthing helmets really and truly very clearly are a minority,” he said.
But their influence has done nothing to positively influence peoples’ habits, he said.
He described a Harley Davidson dealer in his area that will sell an expensive leather suit to riders who buy it for fashion, but the consumers then fail to top it off with a helmet.
“But if you haven’t bought a helmet to go with it,” he said, “Goodbye. You’re not smart enough for the crowd.”
Mr. Hurt, an aeronautical and mechanical engineer may be someone to listen to.
He was inducted into the American Motorcyclist Association Hall of Fame in October 2007 for his safety research, and is considered one of the world’s leading authorities.
From 1976-81 he headed a study team for the University of Southern California, with support by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). The researchers went to the scene of motorcycle accidents throughout greater Los Angeles, and published their results in what became known as the “Hurt Report.”
Since then, continued research led Mr. Hurt to commission 304 special autopsy procedures on motorcycle fatalities, but he has not been deterred from motorcycles.
He owns several, and said riding can be a “wonderful” experience, but in the absence of clear safety standards, people need to think and be proactive.
“A human being is very easy to kill,” he said, “And one of the easiest ways to kill them is to hit them in the head.”
The DOT requires a helmet to adequately disperse an impact of 60 foot-pounds, he said. The DOT test drops a helmet six feet where it reaches about 13.5 mph before coming to a crashing stop.
Advocates against helmet laws also cite this test as proof that a helmet is of questionable value. They say crashes usually happen at higher speeds, so why bother?
But Hurt said this is a fallacy.
Statistically, 93 percent of falls involve impacts below the DOT standard, he said, because crashing riders usually strike on an angle, instead of head-on.
Wearing a certified, well-fitting – preferably full-face – helmet should be a no-brainer, he said.
In doing so, he said, “You’ve got a pass to get past the 90-plus percent.”
And according to Hong Zhang, director of education for the Snell Foundation in North Highlands, Calif. (www.smf.org), for even greater security, riders should consider a Snell-certified helmet.
The DOT standard allows impacts to the threshold of brain injury, she said, while Snell helmets pass the DOT test, and significantly higher impact absorbing tests.
But do these recommendations also apply to riders of smaller, economical motorbikes and scooters?
“A fall off a scooter is not very distinguishable from a motorcycle fall,” Hurt said, “Dead scooter riders look just like dead motorcycle riders.”

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