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Relaxed Motorcycle Helmet Laws Resulting in More Head Injuries: Study

New research highlights the serious dangers associated with relaxing motorcycle helmet laws, finding that after easing helmet requirements states may see a doubling in the number of motorcycle accidents resulting in cranial and facial fracture injuries, compared with states that maintain mandatory motorcycle helmet laws. 

The study was published in the Journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons this month, examining the rate of head and facial fractures in Michigan, which repealed its mandatory motorcycle helmet law in 2012, compared with states who require helmet use for all motorcycle riders.

Researchers chose Michigan due to its repeal of the universal helmet laws for motorcycle riders. Under the new laws in Michigan, riders who are over 21 years of age that have taken the necessary safety courses and carry the proper insurance may ride motorcycles without the use of a helmet.

Researchers from the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine and Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Michigan pulled motorcycle crash injury data from the three years prior to the helmet law repeal and the following three years after the repeal to see if there were significant spikes in head injuries recorded at emergency rooms to motorcycle riders.

The study looked at nearly 4,700 motorcycle accidents resulting in some degree of trauma to the riders at 29 different Michigan trauma centers.

The proportion of motorcycle trauma patients who were riding without helmets more than doubled, from 20 percent to 44 percent during the six-year period. Riders choosing not to wear helmets were twice as likely to suffer head and facial injuries, according to the data.

Within the first three years of the study, under the universal and mandatory helmet law, cranial and facial injuries were recorded in about 25.5 percent of trauma incidents. However, when compared to the second part of the study under the partial helmet law, the rate of injuries had risen to 37 percent. Researchers found there was a 28 percent increase in cranial and facial fractures and a 56 percent increase in soft tissue injuries to the head and facial region.

Specifically, researchers found fractures to the cheekbones, facial cuts, scrapes, and bruises to the head were recorded fin ar more accidents when compared to the first three years of the study.

The degree of injuries were found to be much more severe when comparing trauma incidents within the two different time frames. Patients who did not wear a helmet during a motorcycle accident were found to have higher Injury Severity Scores and lower Glasgow Coma Scale scores, which is a scoring system used to describe the level of consciousness following a traumatic brain injury.

“This study highlights the significant negative impact of relaxed motorcycle helmet laws leading to an increase in crainomaxillofacial injuries,” researchers concluded. “The authors urge state and national legislators to reestablish universal motorcycle helmet laws.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), motorcycle helmets saved 1,772 lives in 2015, and are estimated to be 37 percent effective in preventing fatal injuries to the driver, and 41 percent effective for motorcycle passengers.

Although those numbers may not seem high, motorcyclists are 27 times more likely to be killed during a crash than a standard vehicle occupant, and six time more likely to be seriously injured, based on NHTSA 2014 fatal crash data.

Recent research by the NHTSA has indicated that only about 64 percent of motorcycle operators wear Department of Transportation (DOT) compliant helmets during their travels. DOT compliant helmets are always marked with a permanent DOT label. The NHTSA recommends motorcycle occupants use DOT compliant helmets, which weigh about 3 pounds, have a thick polystyrene-foam lining, and reinforced chinstraps to add padding and secure the helmet in the event of a crash.

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