Motorcycle deaths spike since helmets became optional for Michigan adults
- Motorcycle fatalities have been on an upward trend since 2012
- Motorcyclists without helmets are much more likely to be severely injured during crashes
- Advocates say motorcyclists should have the freedom to ride as they choose
Fatal motorcycle crashes have jumped 34 percent in the decade since the Legislature allowed those over 21 to ride without helmets, even as crashes have decreased.
According to data from the Michigan State Police, the number of crashes involving a motorcycle decreased from 3,600 in 2012 to 3,158 in 2022. At the same time, the number of motorcyclist fatalities increased from 129 to 173.
“Naturally, the more safety equipment you could wear, the better off you are,” said Lt. Mike Shaw, a spokesperson for the Michigan State Police.
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“If you're involved in a motorcycle crash, and you're not wearing a helmet, you're more likely to get hurt in a fatal crash because you're getting hit by a larger object.”
More than half of those killed in motorcycle fatalities, 91 of 173, were not wearing a helmet last year, according to state police statistics.
The increase comes as deaths from car crashes are also rising, albeit at a far slower rate: They have climbed 19 percent to 1,123 in 2022 from 936 in 2012.
The uptick in fatalities after the law was repealed isn’t a surprise. Studies conducted before the law changed in 2012 found that states that didn’t require the use of helmets like Texas and Arkansas had more motorcycle deaths, while research in the years after the law change in Michigan showed an increase in deaths.
In Michigan, motorcyclists who choose not to wear a helmet are required to have at least $20,000 in medical benefits coverage for themselves and for the passenger.
Since the Michigan State Police can no longer ticket cyclists for riding without a helmet, they still encourage them to wear protective clothing and gear to prevent them from sustaining serious injuries if they do fall off of their bike.
“Cars don't pay attention often, especially when they're making left turns,” he said. “Some of it is because motorcyclists may not be wearing reflective clothing making it harder for them to see,” Shaw said.
Nationwide, about two-thirds of motorcyclists wear helmets, according to a survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevents estimates that wearing a helmet reduces the risk of head injury by 69 percent.
Democrats who control the Michigan Legislature after decades of Republican control have not indicated they intend to try to change the law.
“The mandatory motorcycle helmet law was repealed for people over 21 years or older in 2012 under very different leadership,” said Rep. Nate Shannon, D-Sterling Heights, in a written statement.
“It is important that Michiganders are continually reminded and informed of the serious risks of riding without a helmet,” Shannon said. “As chair of the Transportation, Mobility, and Infrastructure Committee, I urge all riders to wear their helmets to decrease their risk of severe injury or even death.”
Vince Consiglio, president of American Bikers Aiming Toward Education (ABATE), said Michigan’s law gives riders the freedom to choose how they want to ride.
“Those who ride should decide,” Consiglio said. “If a rider feels he should wear a helmet, then he should wear a helmet. If he wants to wear an armored suit, get an armored suit.”
Motorcyclists are required to go to the Secretary of State to take a safety class and pass a test to become endorsed, an additional permit added to their licenses which allows them to ride.
Shaw pointed out that not being endorsed is a frequent issue that comes up in crashes, but Consiglio encourages all riders to get the proper training.
“What makes a difference is the rider skill and the riders' training and that's what we support,” Consiglio said.
“If they take a motorcycle safety class, all riders whether or not they believe in freedom of choice, have to wear a helmet, boots, gloves, long sleeve protection and long pants. So, for a safety training class, we support that, but as far as on the street, that's up to the rider once they have a proper license.”
Consiglio pointed out that partially repealing the helmet law in 2012 brought Michigan in line with neighboring states.
Riders under the age of 17 are required to wear a helmet in Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio, while Illinois has no helmet law. In all, only 18 states have laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear helmets.
Dr. Jim Getzinger, an emergency center physician at Corewell Health's Beaumont Hospital, said he’s noticed an increase in patients with head injuries from not wearing a helmet on a motorcycle, ranging from mild concussions to skull fractures.
“Traumatic brain injuries have wide variants of what can happen because of the severity of it,” Getzinger said.
“I know it's frustrating in some ways, but the risk of what I've seen over my career far outweighs the inconvenience,” he added.
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