Since Michigan repealed its motorcycle helmet law in 2012, roughly one in four riders now choose to let their hair blow free.
The annual cost of that freedom: roughly two dozen more deaths, scores of additional serious injuries and a huge spike in average medical expenses, according to studies of motorcycle crashes in Michigan.
The numbers underscore what law-enforcement and medical data have shown for years ‒ that riders without helmets are more likely to die or suffer serious injuries in a crash than riders who wear helmets.
According to updated Michigan State Police data, roughly one-fourth of motorcyclists in Michigan now ride without a helmet. But helmetless riders accounted for nearly one-half of motorcycle fatalities in 2013, 59 of 128 deaths.
A longer-term study of crash and injury data by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that reduced helmet use accounts for approximately 24 more deaths and 71 more serious injuries a year in Michigan. The study looked at 15,000 crashes from 2009 through 2013, and calculated that the risk of fatality is 2.8 times higher for riders not wearing a helmet, while the risk of serious injury is 1.4 times higher, largely echoing studies in other states.
“Non-helmeted motorcyclists more frequently died on the scene, spent more time in the intensive care unit, required longer ventilator support, and had higher medical costs,” concluded a third study, by Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids.
The hospital study, of 192 injured motorcyclists, noted that medical expenses for injured helmetless riders averaged $32,700, compared with $21,300 for those wearing helmets.
But Michigan lawmakers have thus far resisted calls to reconsider the helmet law, while one group supporting the right to ride without helmets scoffed at the crash data.
In October, state Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, introduced a bill to require helmets. She concedes it is going nowhere. “I think it's an important first step,” Warren said. “It's important to have legislation out there so people can talk about it.”
The bill landed in the Transportation Committee ‒ where five of seven members were among those who voted to repeal the helmet law.
“It's not coming out of committee,” said chairman Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba. “I don't see any support for it. My colleagues voted overwhelmingly (to repeal mandatory helmet use) so why should we vote on it again?”
Casperson said he is unaware of any definitive studies that show a link between helmet use and safety. “I would be open to look at it, but I haven't seen anything like that.”
A prolonged fight
Under the 2012 law, riders 21 and older may ride without a helmet if they have passed a safety course or ridden at least two years. They are required to carry $20,000 in medical insurance. The law before repeal – in place since 1969 – required all riders to wear a helmet.
Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm twice vetoed repeal of that law before GOP Gov. Rick Snyder signed it into law on April 12, 2012, making Michigan the 31st state to let motorcyclists ride without helmets.
Snyder stated at the time: “While many motorcyclists will continue to wear helmets, those who choose not to deserve the latitude to make their own informed judgments as long as they meet the requirements of this new law.”
Asked about revisiting the issue, Snyder spokesman Dave Murray told Bridge: “Gov. Snyder is always open to discussions with our partners in the Legislature about important issues.”
Last year, on the one-year anniversary of repeal of the helmet law, 25 organizations including the Michigan Health & Hospital Association, the Michigan State Medical Society, the Michigan Sheriffs' Association and several insurance companies urged lawmakers to restore the law. Nothing happened.
A spokesman for the motorcycle advocacy group that lobbied for repeal of the helmet law said his organization doesn't buy any of the studies that show increased cost, injury or fatalities for those who ride without a helmet.
“These people just make things up,” said Jim Rhoades, legislative director for American Bikers Aiming Toward Education (ABATE) of Michigan.
Rhoades contends there is no conclusive evidence motorcycling fatalities are up as a result of the change in the law. He noted, accurately, that overall motorcycling fatalities in 2010 – when the mandatory helmet was still in place – were 125, similar to 128 in 2013.
“Show me where the fatalities are up,” he said. “Promoting a mandatory helmet law does nothing to make for a safer motorcycle rider.”
Experts say that annual deaths by motorcyclists fluctuate more than automobile fatalities because weather has a greater effect on how much cyclists ride. A year with a prolonged winter or numerous rainy days can reduce riding, while one with long warm and dry periods can increase it. Still, motorcycle fatalities did rise following repeal of the helmet law, from 103 in 2009, 125 in 2010, 109 in 2011 to 129 in 2012 and 128 in 2013.
The Highway Loss Data Institute, an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, found that Michigan's helmet law repeal led to a 36 percent increase in the severity of injury claims and that overall medical payments were 50 percent higher than would have been expected under the mandatory helmet law. Higher medical costs are passed along through higher insurance premiums or hospital charges, which are paid by consumers or absorbed by federal programs like Medicaid.
A father’s loss
Livingston County resident Karl Pohl said he needs no crash statistics or hospital studies to convince him on the wisdom of requiring helmets.
On a warm night in June 2012, two months after the helmet law was repealed, his son, Scott, 25, motorcycled down a rural road in Washtenaw County toward a welding job 45 minutes away. His helmet was stowed in his right saddlebag.
At about 6:30 p.m., according to news accounts, he collided with an SUV that unexpectedly pulled into his path. He died some 10 hours later at University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor.
According to the Ann Arbor News, an autopsy found that Scott Pohl died from “traumatic head injuries...”
The news account said a state police trooper reported that “a few feet from the motorcycle (lay) a young man bleeding from the head and left hand. His right cheek was in contact with the road. (He was) breathing poorly in a puddle of blood.”
Karl Pohl told the News he believed his son might have lived had he worn his helmet.
“When they changed that law, I thought it was stupid,” he said.
“I didn’t know it would affect me like it has. He very well may have survived that crash.”
Pohl told Bridge he has since been advised by his attorney not to discuss the case because of pending criminal and civil litigation.
Mounting data nationally
National research generally aligns with the Michigan studies on the impact of helmet use on safety and cost:
A study of the impact of repeal of Florida's helmet law in 2000 concluded it resulted in 46 to 82 additional deaths in the following year. It noted that other research found a 21 percent increase in motorcycle deaths in Arkansas and a 30 percent increase in Texas following repeal of their helmet laws.
A 2006 West Virginia University study that compared states with mandatory laws to those with little or no helmet regulation found notable differences in fatality and serious brain injury rates. According to the study, 16.5 percent of motorcycle crash victims in states without a universal helmet law had a primary diagnosis of brain injury compared with 11.5 percent in states with mandatory helmet laws. The in-hospital death rate in states with no mandatory helmet law was also higher – 11.3 percent versus 8.8 percent.
The federal Centers for Disease Control estimated that in 2010 $3 billion in costs were saved as a result of U.S. motorcyclists wearing helmets. It estimated that another $1.4 billion could have been saved if all motorcyclists wore helmets.
But with Republicans even more firmly in control of the state Legislature following the Nov. 4 election, groups that favor restoration of the mandatory helmet law foresee a long, uphill fight to get that done.
One advocate for mandatory helmet use sees a debate driven more often by emotion than reason.
“It's the whole, 'This is me. This is who I am. Don't take away from my freedom,'” said Tom Constand of the Brain Injury Association of Michigan. “Well, that freedom ends at my wallet.”
That was precisely the sentiment of one motorcyclist who commented on the Facebook page of Warren, the Democrat who introduced the new helmet bill. “I think it's a shame that politicians, people who are supposed to act on the public's behalf must think that taking away personal liberties makes us safer,” the rider wrote. “I don't want you to meddle in my life and take away from me the thing that I enjoy the most. Who do I hurt riding without a helmet?” he wrote.
To which Constand responds that severe brain injuries – in addition to their devastating impact on individuals and their families – are very costly.
“You are talking about millions and millions of dollars,” he said, adding that the expense of lifelong medical care is picked up in the form of higher insurance premiums or paid by taxpayers.
Constand said the $20,000 in medical insurance that riders are required to carry would last “maybe a week” for someone with a severe brain injury.
Heather Drake, vice president of government relations for AAA of Michigan, said it may simply take more grim crash statistics to convince lawmakers to reconsider.
“It will be a tough battle. But if the (fatality and injury) numbers keep trending the way they are, a future Legislature may revisit this issue.”
Don’t count on it, said Rhoades, of ABATE. He said his group is ready to push back on any legislative initiative – whether this year or next – to restore mandatory helmet use.
“It isn't going to happen,” Rhoades said. “That issue is dead.”