Motorcycle Helmets for All Riders
The value of motorcycle helmets in reducing deaths and serious injuries has been documented for more than 40 years. Motorcycle helmets are the best-evaluated way to reduce motorcycle-related deaths and injuries. In 2006, 4,810 motorcyclists died in crashes and 88,000 were injured in the United States. Approximately 41 percent (1,957) of those killed were not wearing a helmet. Only 58 percent of all riders wear helmets today, which is down 13 percent from just four years ago.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that helmets saved the lives of 1,658 motorcyclists in 2006. If all motorcyclists had worn helmets, an additional 752 lives could have been saved. Helmets are estimated to be 37 percent effective in preventing fatal injuries to motorcyclists. This means for every 100 motorcyclists killed in crashes while not wearing a helmet, 37 of them could have been saved had all 100 worn helmets.
Reported helmet use rates for fatally injured motorcyclists in 2006 were 59 percent for operators and 45 percent for passengers, compared with 58 percent and 50 percent, respectively, in 2005.
A Crash Outcome Data Evaluation System study found that motorcycle helmets are 67 percent effective in preventing brain injuries and that unhelmeted motorcyclists involved in crashes were three times more likely to suffer brain injuries than those wearing helmets.
The facts are very clear, head injuries are a leading cause of deaths in motorcycle crashes. The most important step riders and passengers can take in terms of protecting themselves and staying alive is to wear a DOT- compliant helmet every time they ride.
Motorcycle Helmets Save Lives
The first motorcycle helmet use law in the world took effect on January 1, 1961, in Victoria, Australia. Numerous studies conducted in the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Japan, Australia and other countries have found that helmets are effective in preventing or reducing the severity of motorcycle head injuries. For this reason, laws requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets are in effect in most countries outside the United States. Among them are Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, United Kingdom, Venezuela, and Yugoslavia.
Tragically, some crashes are so severe that they are fatal even if a helmet is worn. But no other piece of safety equipment can make as big a difference as the motorcycle helmet.
Return on Investment for Motorcycle Helmet Use
Despite the overwhelming evidence, some motorcyclists refuse to wear helmets and oppose helmet use laws. Their argument is that helmet laws represent government interference and these laws thwart an individual’s freedom to take risks and to gamble against death and permanent injury. Unfortunately, the families of the injured, as well as society as a whole must bear the tremendous economic, psychological, and social costs involved in deaths and injuries to unhelmeted cyclists.
In November 2002, NHTSA reported that 25 studies of the costs of injuries from motorcycle crashes “consistently found that helmet use reduced the fatality rate, probability and severity of head injuries, cost of medical treatment, length of hospital stay, necessity for special medical treatments, and probability of long-term disability.
Hospitalization costs are higher for motorcycle crash victims who don’t wear helmets, compared to those who do. Numerous studies have compared hospital costs for helmeted and unhelmeted motorcyclists involved in traffic crashes. These studies revealed that unhelmeted riders involved in crashes are more likely to have higher hospital costs than helmeted riders involved in similar crashes and less likely to have health insurance. Only slightly more than half of motorcycle crash victims have private health insurance coverage. For patients without private insurance, a majority of medical costs are paid by the government.
NHTSA estimates that more than $7.5 billion was saved from 1984 through 1995 because of the use of helmets. An additional $6.8 billion would have been saved if all motorcyclists had worn helmets. Helmet use laws, like safety belt use and many other traffic safety laws, make good sense for motorcyclists.
Motorcycle Helmet Safety Standard
There are two well known types of standards in the U.S. that are relevant for motorcycle helmets.
- The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) standard, designated Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard no. 218 (FMVSS 218) is the mandatory standard for all motorcycle helmets sold in the United States. The federal standard defines minimum levels of performance that helmets must meet to protect the head and brain in the event of a crash.
- The second type of standard is issued by private, non-profit organizations such as the Snell Memorial Foundation or the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). These are good indicators that the helmet also meets the Federal safety standard.
A third helmet standard is from the Economic Community of Europe (ECE), and is the most commonly used internationally. The ECE is required by over 50 countries worldwide. ECE qualified helmets meet the demands of the USDOT standard. However, not all USDOT compliant motorcycle helmets will pass the ECE standards.
USDOT Compliant Helmets
USDOT standard is a manufacturer self-certification. Manufacturers conduct the required tests in their laboratories and if a manufacturer certifies that its helmet is compliant with the USDOT standard, then the company can make and sell that helmet with a DOT sticker. Each year, the USDOT conducts compliance testing of a variety of motorcycle helmets to determine whether helmets being sold in the United States meet the Federal safety standard. The USDOT posts these results on its website in a pass/fail form. The results may be found at: http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/testing/comply/fmvss218/.
FMVSS-compliant helmets are of a specific thickness and provide a certain amount of impact protection to riders. Helmets that meet or exceed the minimum requirements of FMVSS No. 218 have been shown to reduce deaths and injuries to motorcycle riders. The USDOT compliant helmets are designed to absorb a significant amount of impact energy, prevent most penetration, and have a fastening system that will withstand significant force.
To view the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 218 (Motorcycle Helmets), visit:
http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/portal/site/nhtsa/template.MAXIMIZE/ menuitem.d7975d55e8abbe089ca8e410dba046a0/?javax. portlet.tpst=4670b93a0b088a006bc1d6b760008a0c_ws_ MX&javax.portlet.prp_4670b93a0b088a006bc1d6b760008a0c_ viewID=detail_view&itemID=f1fd61db8a390010VgnVCM 1000002c567798RCRD&overrideViewName=Article
Identifying USDOT Compliant Helmets
Below are components of USDOT compliant motorcycle helmets:
- Thick Inner Liner: Helmets meeting the minimum Federal safety standard have an inner liner usually about one-inch thick of firm polystyrene foam. Sometimes the inner liner will not be visible, but you should still be able to feel its thickness. Unsafe helmets normally contain only soft foam padding or a bare plastic shell with no padding at all.
- Sturdy Chin Strap and Rivets: Helmets meeting the USDOT safety standard have sturdy chinstraps with solid rivets.
- Weight of Helmet: Depending on design, unsafe helmets weigh only one pound or less. Helmets meeting FMVSS 218 generally weigh about three pounds. These helmets provide a more substantial feel.
- Design/Style of Helmet: The USDOT safety standard does not allow anything to extend further than two-tenths of an inch from the surface of a helmet. For example, while visor fasteners are allowed, a spike or other protruding decorations indicate an unsafe helmet. Unsafe helmets are noticeably smaller in diameter and thinner than ones meeting the USDOT standard.
- DOT Sticker: Helmets that meet FMVSS 218 must have a sticker on the outside back of the helmet with the letters “DOT,” which certifies that the helmet meets or exceeds FMVSS 218. It is important to note that some novelty helmet sellers provide DOT stickers separately for motorcyclists to place on non-complying helmets. In this case, the DOT sticker is invalid and does not certify compliance.
- Snell or ANSI Label: In addition to the DOT sticker, labels located inside the helmet showing that a helmet meets the standards of private, non-profit organizations are good indicators that the helmet also meets the Federal safety standard.
- Manufacturer’s Labeling: Manufacturers are required under FMVSS 218 to place a label on or inside the helmet stating the manufacturer’s name, model, size, month and year of manufacture, construction materials, and owner’s information. A helmet that does not meet the Federal safety standard usually does not have such labeling. Remember that a DOT sticker on the back of the helmet and proper inside labeling do not necessarily indicate that a helmet meets all DOT requirements. Many helmets have counterfeit DOT stickers and a limited few also have manufacturer’s labeling. But the design and weight of a helmet, thickness of the inner liner, and the quality of the chin strap and rivets are extra clues to help distinguish safe helmets from non-complying ones.
Unsafe Motorcycle Helmets
Because helmets add such a critical margin of safety for motorcycle riders, many States have laws requiring use of helmets that meet FMVSS 218 requirements. Some motorcycle riders violate these State laws by wearing unsafe helmets that do not meet the federal standard. Most of these helmets are sold as novelty items and circumvent FMVSS 218’s requirements. In some cases, motorcyclists purchase these helmets in the mistaken belief that they offer protection. However, some riders who wear these novelty helmets know that they are unsafe – but wear them anyway.
Novelty helmets performed significantly worse when tested than any helmet that complies with FMVSS No. 218. In general, noncompliant novelty helmets will not protect riders during motorcycle crashes from either impact or penetration threats, and will not remain on a riders’ head during a crash. Novelty helmets present motorcycle riders with a higher risk for skull fracture and brain injury when compared to certified helmets. Motorcycle riders who wear novelty helmets prefer them because they are less bulky and look more sporty. These riders believe that “something is better than nothing” and have a false sense of security regarding the protection afforded them by helmets not designed or manufactured to comply with FMVSS No. 218.
Motorcycle Helmet Sizing, Shapes and Comfort
When choosing a motorcycle helmet, it is critical that it is USDOT compliant, but there are other important considerations, too, regarding fit and comfort. Although safety is the primary reason for wearing a motorcycle helmet, an important factor to consider when purchasing a new helmet is comfort. The protection that a helmet provides is of no value if it is too uncomfortable to wear.
Various brands of helmets or even different models within the same brand can have a completely different fit and feel. Experienced riders advise those shopping for helmets that it’s almost impossible to find the “perfect” fit or even an acceptable fit without trying on at least several different helmets and wearing each one for an extended period of time. Even a helmet that feels fine in the store may not be comfortable after only a few minutes on a motorcycle.
Do Motorcycle Helmets Interfere With the Vision and Hearing of Riders?
Opponents of mandatory motorcycle helmet laws have suggested that although a helmet can be effective in reducing injuries when a crash occurs, wearing a helmet may increase a rider’s risk of crashing by interfering with the ability to see and hear surrounding traffic. Facts don’t support these claims.
A study to assess the impact of a motorcycle helmet on vision and hearing capabilities found that helmet use neither reduced the ability of riders to see traffic nor increased the time needed to visually check for nearby traffic. Helmet use also did not make a difference in a rider’s ability to hear surrounding traffic sounds.
Helmets Do Not Obscure Vision
In fact, less than three percent of peripheral vision is limited by a motorcycle helmet, according to a study conducted to investigate helmets and vision. All helmets provide a field of vision of more than 210 degrees-well above the 140 degree standard that state driver licensing agencies use to identify vision problems. Most helmeted motorcycle riders simply turn their heads a little more, if necessary, in order to check traffic.
Helmets Do Not Impair Hearing
A motorcyclist out on the road will hear just as well or even better with a helmet as without one, according to the USDOT. For someone without a helmet, the wind and sound of the engine are very loud, and any other important sounds must be even louder to be heard over all that noise. With a helmet on, surrounding sounds are quieter, but in equal proportions. This means that what can be heard over wind and engine noise without a helmet can also be heard in the same way with a helmet since wind and engine noise will also be reduced. The signal to noise ratio stays the same.
There is a critical need for the use of a protective helmet by every motorcycle rider. The helmet provides a significant reduction of head and neck injuries without any adverse effect on vision, hearing, or vulnerability for other injury. By cutting down on wind noise, helmets help riders hear other sounds better. By reducing fatigue from the wind, they keep riders more alert and by protecting a rider’s eyes from the wind, they allow better vision.
Finding Inexpensive Helmets
It is possible to buy a less expensive motorcycle helmet that will protect a rider as well as the most expensive styles currently available. Less expensive helmets that meet the USDOT standard can be found for about $100 going up to $800 for the top of the line models. The difference between the protection offered by a “novelty” helmet that does not meet any standards and a less expensive DOT motorcycle helmet is huge.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary E. Peters recently urged motorcycle manufacturers to provide free or discounted DOT compliant helmets or rider safety training with the purchase of every new motorcycle.
“Helmets and proper training are just as important as brakes or headlights when it comes to the well-being of motorcyclists,” Secretary Peters said. ”We shouldn’t be letting any customer take a bike out of the store without a helmet as part of the package. Safety shouldn’t have to be an option when purchasing a motorcycle.”
Resources for Employers:
Keep Your Employee-Motorcyclists Safe
Brochure to Download for Dissemination
- How to Identify Unsafe Motorcycle Helmets, NHTSA