ARTURO PINEDA Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
11:00 PM JUN 5, 2017
A few years ago, Allan Philip, the director of Allegheny General Hospital Trauma and Critical Care, was riding his motorcycle when a car suddenly pulled out in front of him.
He braked to avoid hitting the car, and flew over the handlebars. He broke his collarbone and suffered a concussion.
“I’m sure it would’ve been more severe if I hadn’t been wearing my helmet,” Dr. Philip said. “That’s the only way you can walk away from this.”
About one-third of the motorcycle riders nationwide don’t wear helmets, according to 2012 statistics from the National Occupant Protection Use Survey. Freedom from headgear has led to a rise in head and facial injuries for cyclists, according to highway safety advocates.
State highway associations and hospital trauma centers attribute the rise in injuries to the replacement of universal helmet laws with partial helmet laws that allow riders to choose not to wear a helmet if they have met that state’s criteria.
“Our total trauma has increased over the last decade. The places that have tried to do a partial law for motorcyclists — it doesn’t work,” Dr. Philip said.
Michigan in 2012 became the latest state to switch to a partial helmet law that allows motorcycle riders 21 years or older to drive without helmets if they have at least two years of riding experience with an endorsement from the state. In order to obtain an endorsement, riders must pass a vision, knowledge and skills test.
Riders can also pass an approved motorcycle safety course to obtain endorsement and ride without a helmet. Michigan’s partial helmet law is modeled after a similar one in Pennsylvania, which was enacted in 2003.
A Michigan State University study analyzed the relationship between the weaker Michigan helmet law and frequency of skull fractures and head and facial trauma injuries in motorcyclists.
The study, led by Nicholas S. Adams of Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine, found that head injuries from motorcycle accidents have doubled in Michigan since the law’s passage in 2012. The percent of motorcycle trauma patients who were riding without helmets increased from 20 to 44 percent.
The increase indicates that motorcyclists who do not wear helmets are more than twice as likely to suffer head and facial injuries when compared to those who do. The study also showed an increase in fractured cheekbones, facial lacerations, contusions and abrasions.
“Helmet use under partial helmet laws has been shown to decline over time,” Dr. Adams said. “We will see less and less people use their helmets, and as result we will see more injuries as time passes.”
Since Pennsylvania’s universal helmet law was repealed in 2003, the number of motorcycle-related deaths and injuries increased. A study by the University of Pittsburgh in 2008 found a 42 percent increase in head-injury-related hospitalizations for motorcyclists. Acute care for motorcycle-related injuries skyrocketed 132 percent after the repeal. The study also found that helmet use by motorcyclists involved in crashes had decreased from 82 percent to 58 percent in the two years after repeal.
“Our study showed that since the repeal of Pennsylvania’s motorcycle helmet law, helmet use has gone down, while head injuries from motorcycle crashes have gone up, even after increased motorcycle registration,” said Kristen Mertz, the lead author and a former assistant professor of epidemiology at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health.
Helmet-law studies, however, haven’t swayed motorcyclists to embrace mandatory helmet use. Charles Umbenhauer, a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania branch of Alliance of Bikers Towards Education, believes the studies’ authors are failing to consider other key factors in motorcycle accidents. Mr. Umbenhauer cites “unendorsed” motorcyclists as major players in such accidents. These riders are not qualified to ride without a helmet, but choose to do so anyway.
Mr. Umbenhauer said a Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning report in 2013 showed that more than half of motorcyclists involved in fatal crashes were unendorsed.
“Someone who is not properly certified taught them to ride,” he said. “Of course they’re going to get in an accident.”
In 2016, the Michigan state police reported that the number of unendorsed motorcyclists involved in fatal crashes had dropped to 25 percent after the Michigan safety planning office sent out postcards to unendorsed riders every year since 2013.
Michigan’s initiatives have shown that motorcycle injuries under a partial helmet law can be reduced. But if the goal is minimalizing injuries, the course is clear.
“I think we still have a chance,” Dr. Adams said. “There is data showing that when a universal helmet law is re-established, helmet use goes up, and injuries go down.”