You probably know that motorcyclists are at greater risk than occupants of vehicles like cars, light trucks, and SUVs. The Institute for Insurance Information (III) found that on a per-mile-traveled basis, motorcyclists were 28 times as likely to die on the road as those traveling in passenger vehicles.
One obvious reason for the greater risk of serious injury and death is that motorcyclists are exposed. While the occupant of a car or truck is sheltered by the outer structure of the vehicle, a motorcyclist hit by another vehicle may be struck directly. Similarly, a motorcyclist may easily be thrown from the bike and hit the road, another vehicle, or a stationary object like a concrete barrier.
Many states have implemented motorcycle helmet laws to help mitigate this risk, but motorcycle helmet laws are controversial among motorcyclists. Just how much good do motorcycle helmet mandates do in reducing serious injury and death?
Compliance with Motorcycle Helmet Laws
Fewer than half of U.S. states require helmets for all motorcyclists. (Massachusetts does require all motorcyclists to wear helmets, but New Hampshire does not.) Many additional states have laws that require some motorcyclists, such as those under a certain age or who are newly licensed to wear helmets. Of course, not every motorcyclist obeys the law. However, data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that motorcycle helmet usage is much more common in states with motorcycle helmet laws.
In 2020, helmet use across the nation stood at about 69%. But, the distribution was not equal. In states with helmet mandates, 84% of motorcyclists were reported to wear a DOT-compliant helmet. Another 10.3% were reported to wear helmets, though they did not meet DOT standards. That’s a total of 94.3% of riders wearing helmets. In states that did not require all motorcyclists to wear helmets, usage of DOT-compliant helmets stood at 54.4%. Another 5.4% we reported to use helmets that did not meet the DOT standards, for a total of 59.8%.
This data strongly suggests that motorcycle helmet laws are effective in one way: they encourage more widespread helmet use. But, how do these laws and the resulting wider adoption of motorcycle helmets impact the safety of riders?
How Effective are Motorcycle Helmets?
Of course, wearing a helmet is no guarantee that a motorcyclist will escape head injury, or even a fatal injury. According to the NHTSA, motorcycle helmets are 37% effective in preventing fatalities among motorcyclists, and 41% effective in preventing fatalities for passengers on motorcycles. They also reduce the risk of both minor and serious injuries, but by a smaller percentage.
Some bikers who object to motorcycle helmet laws cite these relatively low percentages as a reason helmets should not be required. While it is true that many motorcyclists who are wearing helmets do sustain serious or fatal injuries, the rates are lower. In one recent year, the NHTSA estimated that 740 of the 1,938 unhelmeted motorcyclist and passenger deaths could have been avoided with universal helmet usage.
Motorcycle Helmet Use and Liability
In a comparative fault state, failure to use a motorcycle helmet, or use of a non-compliant helmet, may reduce the amount of compensation available to the injured rider. For example, under Massachusetts law, liability for damages is apportioned based on the degree of fault of each person. If the injured party is more than 50% liable, no compensation is available from the other party. However, if the injured person contributed to his or her own injuries, but was less than 50% responsible, partial compensation is available.
Imagine, for instance, that a motorcyclist not wearing a helmet is rear-ended by a car and thrown from the bike. The motorcyclist sustains a serious head injury. As in any other motor vehicle accident case, the driver of the car may argue that the motorcyclist was wholly or partly responsible for the accident itself. For instance, the driver may say that the motorcyclist stopped abruptly and unexpectedly, or swerved in front of the car.
But, where the motorcyclist wasn’t wearing a helmet, that’s just the beginning. The driver of the car will almost certainly also argue that he or she is not wholly responsible for the motorcyclist’s injuries, since the biker’s own negligence in failing to wear a compliant helmet worsened the damage. If the jury finds that the motorcyclist was more seriously injured because of his or her own negligence in not wearing a helmet, the amount of compensation available will be reduced.
In other words, wearing a motorcycle helmet reduces the likelihood of serious injury or death. And, in the event that a motorcyclist is injured or killed, wearing a motorcycle helmet helps protect the right to recover damages from the responsible party. If you or a loved one has been injured in a motorcycle accident, it is in your best interest to speak with an experienced motorcycle accident lawyer as soon as possible. Attorney Kevin P. Broderick helps injury victims in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. You can schedule a free consultation right now by calling 978-459-3085 or filling out the contact form on this website.
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