By Rick Schmitt
WASHINGTON — In a highly touted safety achievement, deaths on the nation’s roads and highways have fallen sharply in recent years, to the lowest total in more than a half-century. But motorcyclists have missed out on that dramatic improvement, and the news for them has been increasingly grim.
So it might be no surprise that biker groups are upset with Washington. The twist is what they are asking lawmakers and regulators to do: Back away from promoting or enforcing requirements for safe helmets, the most effective way known to save bikers’ lives.
Fatalities from motorcycle crashes have more than doubled since the mid-1990s. The latest figures show these accidents taking about 4,500 lives a year, or one in seven U.S. traffic deaths.
Yet if the biker groups’ lobbyists and congressional allies have their way, the nation’s chief traffic cop — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA — will be thwarted in its efforts to reduce the body count. The agency would be blocked from providing any more grants to states to conduct highway stops of motorcyclists to check for safety violations such as wearing helmets that don’t meet federal standards.
Beyond that, the rider groups are seeking to preserve what essentially is a gag rule that since 1998 has prevented NHTSA from advocating safety measures at the state and local levels, including promoting life-saving helmet laws. And the bikers’ lobbyists, backed by grassroots activists and an organization whose members include a “Who’s Who” of motorcycle manufacturers, already have derailed a measure lawmakers envisioned to reinstate financial penalties for states lacking helmet laws.
Those moves partly are intended to maintain the bikers’ clout in state legislatures, which have kept rolling back motorcycle helmet regulations for three decades. With Michigan’s repeal in April of its nearly 50-year-old helmet requirement covering all riders, only 19 states have such helmet laws, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In the late 1970s, by contrast, 47 states had requirements covering all riders.
“This is … an interesting and dangerous road they are going down,” said Jackie Gillan, president of the Washington-based nonprofit Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “They are so emboldened now, not only do they try to repeal laws and stop them from being enacted, they try to stop the hands of law enforcement, saying you cannot use grant money to have motorcycle checkpoints. Can you imagine if they said the same thing about sobriety checkpoints?”
Biker groups, contending that helmet laws curtail personal freedom, say the federal government instead should emphasize rider training to prevent crashes from happening in the first place. They urge NHTSA, which has spent upwards of $30 million on training through an industry-endorsed grant program that Congress established in 2005, to step up that effort.
But it is far from clear that training does anything to reduce crashes or deaths. A 2007 Indiana study, for instance, found that riders who completed a basic training course were 44 percent more likely to be involved in an accident than untrained riders. Researchers speculated that the courses gave riders unwarranted confidence, and that they ended up taking more risks.
Mandatory helmet laws are widely considered the closest thing to a silver bullet that regulators have to thwart deadly accidents. NHTSA estimates that helmets saved 1,483 lives in 2009, and that another 732 deaths could have been avoided if all riders had worn them. The social costs of the carnage are also huge: a 2008 agency estimate concluded that $1.3 billion in medical bills and lost productivity would have been saved if all bikers had worn helmets.
The paradox between what biker groups are lobbying for versus what most safety experts say really works riles regulators and other public health advocates.
“You cannot be in this battle and not be frustrated by this senselessness,” said Michael Dabbs, president of the Brain Injury Association of Michigan.
He added that the personal freedom that riders seek would have socially unacceptable consequences if carried to its logical extreme. “Maybe we ought to save some of the costs when police or emergency responders go to the scene of a crash and the person is not wearing a helmet,” Dabbs said. “Perhaps they ought to be left there like roadkill.”
The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent investigative and advisory agency, includes motorcycle helmets among its “most wanted” transportation safety improvements and has urged states to make them mandatory. Likewise, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland has said of helmets: “No other single countermeasure offers a comparable body of supporting scientific evidence confirming its potential for saving lives of motorcyclists.”
That motorcyclists have evaded the kind of regulation that has made seat belts and car seats standard equipment in other motor vehicles shows the influence of a vocal minority of riders whose libertarian message seems to resonate more than ever with lawmakers inside and outside the Beltway. And their efforts receive support from the leading motorcycle manufacturers. Manufacturers generally endorse the use of helmets but, loath to offend their customers, they also are an important dues-paying membership bloc in the American Motorcyclist Association, an ardent opponent of helmet laws.
For example, Harley-Davidson Inc. said through a spokeswoman that it “supports and encourages safety for all motorcycle riders, but believes in the personal freedom of people making the choices that are right for them regarding helmet use.”
The rider lobby’s powerful friends include U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., whose state is home to Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson. He has led efforts in the House to block NHTSA from promoting state and local safety measures and using federal funds for motorcycle checkpoints.
The repeal of Michigan’s long-standing helmet law had been opposed by a coalition of more than two dozen medical and public health groups led by the Brain Injury Association of Michigan. Public opinion, too, weighed against the move — a poll indicated that 80 percent wanted to keep the helmet law. State safety officials predicted the repeal would lead to at least 30 more deaths a year.
Motorcycle activists, led by the local chapter of a group calling itself American Bikers Aiming Toward Education, or ABATE, framed the issue as a matter of personal liberty. They also argued that the repeal would draw more riders to the state and increase tourism.
In Michigan, riders 20 and younger still must wear helmets, and the new law requires motorcyclists to have at least $20,000 in medical insurance. But those who advocated keeping the helmet requirement for all riders said the $20,000 in insurance would not come close to covering the cost of a catastrophic injury.
Nationally, the evidence that helmets prevent head injuries and deaths has long been compelling. Two decades ago, a Government Accountability Office analysis identified 46 academic studies that showed helmets saving lives and reducing the social burden of caring for injured riders.
Even the American Motorcyclist Association readily acknowledges that helmets that meet Transportation Department standards can prevent serious injury or even death in the event of a crash, and encourages their use, although the group still says riders should have the option of not wearing one.
Recent studies also have rebutted a long-standing assertion by rider groups that helmets can increase the chances of cervical spine injuries because of the greater torque they place on the neck. Johns Hopkins University researchers, in a study published last year that reviewed 40,000 motorcycle collisions, found the opposite to be true: the helmeted riders were 22 percent less likely to suffer cervical spine injury than those without helmets.
“We are debunking a popular myth,” said Adil H. Haider, the leader of the study and an assistant professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins.
Motorcycle groups have also become better organized and funded, roaring to life with Washington lobbyists and thousands of grassroots volunteers to fight helmet requirements on the federal and state levels.
The American Motorcyclist Association – whose corporate members include Harley-Davidson and North American divisions of Yamaha, Kawasaki, Honda and Suzuki – has spent $3.8 million lobbying Congress on helmet laws and other issues over the last decade, while doling out more than $200,000 in campaign contributions to members, according to OpenSecrets.org, a database run by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. The Motorcycle Riders Foundation spent $2.1 million in lobbying during the same period.
That is the force that Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., a long-time supporter of mandatory helmet laws, ran into last December. He was poised to introduce a proposal to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that would have forced states to pass helmet laws or else lose millions in federal highway funds. It would have reinstated a similar requirement that, after a lobbying campaign by motorcyclist groups, was repealed in 1995.
In a preemptive strike, the rider groups alerted their members and encouraged them to connect with their lawmakers on the issue. They had defeated a similar helmet proposal two-to-one in 2005. Lautenberg ditched his pro-helmet idea without even offering it up for formal consideration. A Lautenberg spokesman said that the senator “remains committed to strengthening helmet laws and is pursuing several strategies to increase helmet use across the country.”
Death Toll Climbing
As more riders have gotten on the road and the number of states with mandatory helmet laws has declined, biker deaths have soared.
The death toll climbed from 2,116 in 1997 to 4,502 in 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available. Motorcycle-related fatalities accounted for 14 percent of the 32,885 deaths overall from motor vehicle crashes in 2010, which officially is the lowest total since 1949.
The victims last year included 17- year-old Caroline Found of Iowa City, Iowa, who died after she lost control of her moped and struck a tree. They also included Philip Contos, 55, who was killed while participating in a rally to protest New York’s mandatory helmet law. Police say Contos, who resided near Syracuse, N.Y., would have survived had he been obeying the law.
The irony of Contos’s death attracted widespread media attention, although friends say he would have been repulsed by the idea that he had become a poster boy for helmet laws.
Four teenage friends of Found, motivated by her death, launched a campaign to persuade the Iowa legislature to enact a helmet law. (Along with Illinois and New Hampshire, Iowa allows riders of all ages to go helmet-less.) Their bid fell short. “It is getting to the point where we’re going to have to bubble wrap everyone just to protect them from everything,” a state legislator told the young activists, explaining his opposition to a ban. “I think there’s got to be some common sense here.”
Helmet advocates say it is the public that ends up getting ripped off when it has to pick up the tab for health costs associated with catastrophic accidents.
“If you don’t wear a helmet, and you sustain a moderate to severe injury that doesn’t kill you, you are going to be a drain on society for the rest of your life,” said Thomas J. Esposito, chief of the Division of Trauma, Surgical Critical Care and Burns at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago.
NHTSA once tried to take a lead role in providing information to states considering helmet laws. It set aside $330,000 in 1995 and 1996 for the cause, including a $149,000 contract for a video and white paper for state legislators.
The video – titled “Without Motorcycle Helmets, We All Pay the Price” – featured testimonials from helmet-wearing crash survivors and a trauma-room physician who compared helmets to “a vaccine” because of the compelling evidence they reduced brain injuries.
Controversy revved up when the Motorcycle Riders Foundation obtained an early copy of the pro-helmet video and began distributing it to friends in Congress. Rider groups portrayed the situation as an example of NHTSA using federal tax money to lobby against the interests of taxpaying bikers.
They found a champion in Sensenbrenner, and in 1998 Congress enacted a sweeping measure that barred NHTSA from attempting to influence state and local legislators on any pending legislation. NHTSA representatives could appear as witnesses, but only in response to an official invitation.
With NHTSA more recently signaling stepped-up interest in promoting helmet use, Sensenbrenner has emerged as a lead opponent again, sponsoring a resolution, now in the hands of a House subcommittee, that would reaffirm the agency’s lobbying ban.
NHTSA is facing opposition to motorcycle checkpoints, too. The agency in 2010 earmarked $350,000 to help state police set up stops to check motorcyclists for safety violations. One intent is to crack down on so-called novelty helmets, which do not meet federal standards but account for an estimated one in five of the helmets riders wear. The helmets have become popular because they are lightweight and come in various styles — and because they can keep police away in states that mandate helmet use.
But they are also dangerous. “They are just plastic toys, essentially,” says Tim McMahon, a San Jose, Calif., personal-injury lawyer, who won a $1.7 million injury award for a Fresno man who suffered brain damage from a 2005 crash while wearing a novelty helmet that he thought was safe.
Despite the risks, motorcyclists have gone to court to block regulation. In a test case, four bikers who were ticketed in 2008 at a checkpoint in New York for lacking approved helmets filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming that inspections singling out motorcyclists were illegal discrimination. A judge dismissed the suit last year.
The American Motorcyclist Association, taking another tack, fired off a letter in late 2010 urging NHTSA administrator Strickland to suspend the federal checkpoint grant program, saying there were unanswered questions about the program’s implementation, legality and efficacy. Strickland declined.
Biker groups were further incensed when the agency subsequently made a grant to the state of Georgia, which used the money in March, 2011 to monitor bikers headed south to the legendary Daytona Beach Bike Week.
Motorcycle activists again found a sympathetic ear in Sensenbrenner, who introduced legislation to end federal funding of motorcycle-only roadside checkpoints. The anti-checkpoint measure may be considered by a House-Senate conference committee currently working on a long-term surface transportation bill.
“These checkpoints are not an effective use of taxpayer money,” Sensenbrenner said, in a prepared statement in response to questions. “Motorcycle-only checkpoints force law enforcement officials to play ‘nanny state’ to all riders rather than focusing on those who are endangering themselves and others on the road, and do not address the factors that contribute to motorcycle crashes.”
Biker groups raise similar points.
“The federal government says all day long: ‘You guys are a huge problem. You are killing yourselves out there. You need to start wearing helmets.’ But then they do not want to put resources” toward training and accident prevention, said Jeff Hennie, a Washington-based lobbyist for the Motorcycle Riders Foundation.
American Motorcyclist Association spokesman Pete terHorst added that helmet mandates create “unintended consequences,” drawing scarce resources away from alternatives like training.
But the advantages of training are questionable. A 2009 study for the federal Transportation Research Board found that the evidence was inconclusive about whether educating riders through formal programs made them any safer.
Other studies have shown that, while training helps riders pass basic skills tests, their chances of getting in a crash after six months of driving are about the same as untrained riders. That raised questions even for Tim Buche, president of the industry-sponsored Motorcycle Safety Foundation, which has developed the training materials most widely used in the U.S. “Maybe the training does not change someone’s true behavior for the long term,” he speculated.
Even if training pays off, public health advocates argue that relying on it exclusively would be equivalent to, in the automotive world, exempting people who take a driver’s education course from requirements to use seat belts or to put children in car seats.
Doctors such as Esposito who provide care for the people hurt in those crashes, though, sometimes are mystified about why riders don’t take it upon themselves to wear safe helmets for their own protection.
Asked whether he often thinks about how a patient with a head injury could have avoided his plight simply by wearing a helmet, Esposito replied: “All the time.”
FairWarning is a nonprofit, online investigative news organization focused on safety and health issues.