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Motorcycle Helmet Laws and Gaps that Must be Filled

posted on Mon, Jan 30 2012 11:17 am by Jennifer Ruiz

I was in my second year of college the first time someone I knew died in a motorcycle accident.

That day, the world had lost not only a fun and endearing guy, but also a child prodigy and medical pioneer. Derek Jacobs, at age 12, had been certified by Microsoft as a systems engineer, qualified to run corporate computer networks. In 2002, he and his family made history by being implanted with identity chips on live television. He was in the process of applying to medical school. He died at 18.

This past summer, despite my vow to never get on a motorcycle, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to take my first motorcycle ride. As much as I was determined to hate the experience, I couldn't deny the appeal of the ride. I knew it wouldn’t be my last time, and I started to wonder about the safety precautions available to riders.

 The best way to ensure safety on a motorcycle is to wear a good helmet. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) endorses helmets as the principal countermeasure for reducing crash-related head injuries, a leading cause of death among riders. The federal government mandates that any helmet intended for use by motorcyclists and manufactured for interstate commerce meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard ("FMVSS") 218, which sets minimum performance levels and tasks the Department of Transportation (DOT) with ensuring that those standards are met.

While federal law certainly sets the right stage for motorcyclist safety, the rubber truly hits the road at the state level.  Unfortunately, most states do not have comprehensive motorcycle helmet laws despite evidence of the health benefits of wearing an approved helmet.  While 48 states have some type of helmet law in place—typically requiring helmet use for a subset of riders, such as minors— only 20 states and D.C. require all motorcyclists to wear helmets. Of those 48 states, only half set a minimum standard that helmets must meet.  Enforcement of these provisions does not appear to be a priority for many states.

There’s no point in requiring someone to wear a helmet that doesn’t protect them in the event of a crash and there’s no point in imposing a standard that can be easily avoided.  So while states ought, at minimum, to require all riders and passengers to wear helmets, those laws should specify a safety standard that helmets must meet.  

This is basic evidence-based public health policy.

Moreover, states should also target noncompliance with helmet standards by all relevant parties. Instead of only ticketing riders who fail to wear an approved helmet, states should consider laws that regulate helmet manufacturers, distributors and retailers to assure that non-conforming helmets are not sold for use by riders. 

Perhaps state laws should require that all novelty helmets bear some obvious indication—like the red tip on the barrel of toy guns—that they are not effective for use by riders.  States should consider using consumer protection laws against those who sell novelty helmets without obvious external indicia that the helmet is just a toy.  Federal and state officials should also consider similar action against those who sell fake DOT approval stickers. 

Given the strong evidence base in favor of comprehensive mandatory helmet laws setting minimum helmet standards, public health advocates should make sure that as state helmet laws are reconsidered, it is for the purpose of enhancing, not diminishing, their positive impact on rider safety.               

Jennifer Ruiz

This blog was prepared by Jennifer Ruiz, student attorney in the Public Health Law Clinic at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, supervised by Kathleen Hoke Dachille, director of the Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

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