Deaths, injuries, costs climb since Pa. helmet law repeal

June 13, 2008 3:53:31 PM PDT
Lawmaker says taxpayer costs enough reason for new helmet law

The number of Pennsylvania motorcyclists suffering fatal head injuries jumped in the two years after the state made helmet use optional for many riders, a study has found.

University of Pittsburgh researchers reported Thursday that 131 motorcyclists died of head injuries in 2004-2005, up from 79 in 2001-2002, a 66 percent increase.

Motorcycle registrations also rose during the period, the researchers noted. But even when figures are adjusted to take that increase into account, fatal head injuries were up by 32 percent.

Motorcycle deaths from all causes increased by 40 percent to 310 in the latest period studied, compared with 222 in the two years before the law was changed.

The study was released Thursday, the two-year anniversary of the motorcycle accident that severely injured helmetless Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and renewed debate over the state's helmet law.

Researchers said the findings mirror studies in other states that show riders are safer when they wear helmets.

"Helmets cannot prevent all deaths. Obviously, there are other things we have to do to protect motorcyclists, but that's something that we know will work," said Dr. Kristen Mertz, the study's lead author and assistant professor of the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. "I think the data are pretty clear that the laws work and that helmets work."

But advocates who support motorcyclists' right to choose whether to wear helmets said the study doesn't take into account the causes of accidents, and that it says nothing new.

"The helmet is no silver bullet. Obviously, the safest way to ride is to not have to deal with the collision altogether," said Steve Zurl, a spokesman for the Alliance of Bikers Aimed Toward Education of Pennsylvania, which supported changes to the state's helmet law.

Jonathan Goldstein, an economist at Maine's Bowdoin College who has reviewed other studies of motorcycle helmet use, said the study neglects to account for things such as speed and whether alcohol was a factor, resulting in conclusions that he said could be misleading.

Pennsylvania law makes helmet use optional for those who are at least 21 and have been licensed to ride for two years or have finished a state-approved safety course. Prior to the change in 2003, state law mandated helmets for all motorcyclists.

According to the study, 58 percent of motorcyclists involved in crashes in 2004-2005 were wearing helmets, down from 82 percent in the two-year period before the law changed.

Two years ago, Roethlisberger crashed his motorcycle into the side of a car that failed to yield the right of way at a busy Pittsburgh intersection. He suffered a concussion, facial injuries and some internal injuries. He could not work out in the weeks before training camp but didn't miss any camp due to the crash.

The study also found that:

-When adjusted to account for a sizable increase in motorcycle registrations, the head injury death rate increased by 32 percent, while the non-head injury death rate did not change.

-The head injury hospitalization rate increased 42 percent, with 1,332 motorcyclists hospitalized with head injuries in 2004-2005, up from 747 in the earlier two-year period.

-Hospitalization charges for motorcycle-related head injuries rose 132 percent, with $124.2 million recorded in 2004-2005, up from $53.5 million in 2001-2002. Charges for treatment of other motorcycle-related injuries increased 69 percent during that same time period.

State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, has introduced legislation that would reinstate a mandatory helmet law for all Pennsylvania motorcyclists. He called the study's findings "stunningly dramatic" and said the cost to taxpayers alone is reason to make a change.

"Here you have a low-tech answer to saving money in the health care system and all we have to do is vote to reinstate the helmet law for Pennsylvania," Frankel said.

The study's findings were based on data provided by several state departments, including the departments of Transportation and Health, and also data from all of Pennsylvania's acute care hospitals. It was supported in part by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, and was to be published in the August issue of the American Journal of Public Health. The study was available online Thursday.

Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that states require all motorcyclists and their passengers to wear helmets.

Twenty states have laws requiring all motorcycle riders to wear helmets, while 27 states have laws that require minors or passengers to wear head protection. Iowa, Illinois and New Hampshire have no helmet laws.


Load Comments