The Twisting of Data in Helmet Safety Studies

Extensive research has been done on the safety of motorcycle helmets. The most famous study of all, the Hurt Study Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures, shows no question that a helmet protects the head, reducing injury severity. The main question that researchers want to answer is whether the likelihood of neck injury is more significant than the likelihood of a helmet saving the riders life.

Helmets Statistically Reduce Head Injuries, But they Don’t Save Lives

The same data that was used in the Hurt Report was also used in another paper by Dr. Jonathan P. Goldstein, Ph.D. His analysis showed some facts that the Hurt Report overlooked. Although the data showed that motorcycle riders wearing helmets suffer from fewer head injuries, it failed to elaborate on what that really means. Helmet use had little significance in saving lives given that an accident had occurred.

What does that mean? It means that those who do crash are rarely saved by their helmets. Their head injuries are less severe, but they die anyway. In accidents where the rider died, it made no difference if the rider wore a helmet or not. That’s not exactly a rock solid argument in favor of helmet wearing.

The truth is that speeding and alcohol use are the biggest cause of motorcycle crashes. Those taking part in these risky behaviors are less likely to wear helmets in the first place. Helmet wearers tend to have fewer crashes and less severe head injuries because they take fewer risks. This accounts for the reduced number of fatalities among helmet wearers.

Neck Injuries Probably More Likely

In light of the shaky evidence in favor of helmets, we must look at the evidence against them. Although motorcycle helmets protect the head, they tend to do so at the expense of the neck. The Hurt Report concluded that neck injuries were lessened by helmet use. How is it that Dr. Goldstein came to the opposite conclusion? Why does he say that helmets can lead to moderate or even severe neck injuries for the rider wearing the helmet? The reason for the discrepancy is not clear.

Riders report that the weight, shape and composition of the helmet all put undue force on the neck. The physics of the helmet itself can cause neck fractures during a crash. This makes Dr. Goldsteinís findings more in line with the real world experiences of many riders.

Accident Speed is Important

The speed of the helmet striking the ground makes a difference in the occurrence of neck injury. Statistics show that a helmet has to be moving at least 17 mph in order to cause a significant injury. Since most motorcycle accidents happen at just over 20 mph, there is a good chance that the helmet can cause neck damage in most accidents. Thicker helmets can cause more severe neck damage than thinner helmets because they are heavier and bounce back harder than the lighter helmets. Add to that the fact that even the best helmets are only rated up to 13 mph and a serious question becomes apparent. Is a helmet strong enough protection to make up for the increased risk of neck injury?

The Real Danger

Even the Hurt Report shows that aside from risky behaviors like speeding and alcohol use, rider inexperience causes most motorcycle accidents. Riding safety instructors drill it into riders’ heads: Motorcycle riding is dangerous. Not only could it kill you, it probably will. Only when riders understand the severity of the danger will they be as alert and defensive as they should in their riding practices.

Dr. John Adams at London University did a study that showed a strange increase of fatalities in states that enacted helmet laws. He theorizes that helmeted riders took bigger risks because the helmets made them feel safer. They believed they were protected by the helmet. Sadly, that would only true in low-speed collisions. Until rider education succeeds in making every motorcyclist terrified of dying on the road, motorcycle deaths will continue to be common.

Helmet Makers Worsen the Risk

In his paper, Public safety legislation and the risk compensation hypothesis: the example of motorcycle helmet legislation, Dr. Adams noted the extensive propaganda surrounding motorcycle helmet sales. Ads encourage riders to feel safer when wearing a helmet. The problem is that people tend to be less cautious when then feel safe, leaving them more vulnerable to danger. Motorcycle riders should never feel safe. Riding is a dangerous activity that requires a consistently high level of attention and apprehension.

Helmet Laws Don’t Work

Dr. Adams’ paper had some more interesting statistics to offer. The report revealed one anticipated outcome: when states repealed motorcycle helmet laws, fatalities rose. Unexpectedly, however, fatalities rose by an even greater degree in states where helmet laws remained intact. It’s not clear why those fatalities rose so much. However, it is clear that a lack of helmet legislation made riding a motorcycle less dangerous.

Motorcycle Insurers Encourage Helmet Use

Insurance companies tend to side with the helmet makers, because those who wear helmets tend to have fewer crashes. Insurance companies see that correlation as a factor in rating policies. Motorcycle insurance companies donít pay for rider injuries anyway, so they put the focus on where it belongs…preventing crashes in the first place.

It’s Up to You

Barring a helmet law, helmet use is a personal choice. Statistics show that if you are a responsible rider, you probably are wearing a helmet. Whether that helmet will save your life is anyone’s guess. Whether it will instead cause a debilitating neck injury cannot be known. Whether you choose to ride with a helmet or without, be sure to take a safety course first, don’t speed and don’t drink while riding. Those actions will clearly keep you safer…the helmet? Who knows?