Highway Safety:

NHTSA's Motorcycle Helmet Activities

RCED-98-44R: Published: Dec 19, 1997. Publicly Released: Dec 19, 1997.

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John H. Anderson, Jr
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) funding of motorcycle helmet activities, focusing on: (1) how much NHTSA obligated and expended for motorcycle helmet activities annually during fiscal years 1994 through 1997; (2) whether the funds are having their desired effect by reducing the number of fatal head injuries; and (3) whether these expenditures are having their desired effect by influencing the number of states that have helmet laws.

GAO noted that: (1) information provided by NHTSA shows that it obligated an average of $123,104 annually to activities pertaining to motorcycle helmet safety during fiscal years 1994 through 1997; (2) the funds obligated for these activities were not spread uniformly over this period; (3) according to NHTSA, a helmet is by far the motorcycle rider's most important safety equipment; (4) NHTSA points to the fact that head injury is a leading cause of death in motorcycle crashes; (5) since 1989, the states that enacted universal helmet laws have experienced reductions in fatalities ranging from 15 percent to 37 percent in the first year; (6) in two 1991 GAO reports, 46 studies of motorcycle helmet laws were evaluated; (7) eleven of these studies compared fatality rates between helmeted and nonhelmeted motorcycle accident victims; (8) all of these studies indicated a lower incidence of deaths among helmeted riders, ranging from 28 percent to 73 percent lower, depending on the rider population studied; (9) NHTSA's congressionally mandated 1996 report on crash outcomes found that motorcycle helmets are 34 percent effective in preventing fatal injuries and 67 percent effective in preventing serious brain injuries; (10) as of 1975, 47 states had enacted laws requiring helmet use by all motorcycle riders; (11) the Department of Transportation (DOT) required state highway safety programs for universal helmet use, and a portion of federal-aid highway funds was withheld from states without approved safety programs; (12) legislation enacted in 1976 prohibited DOT from requiring universal helmet laws as part of state highway safety programs and from withholding federal funds from states without such laws; (13) in 1976 through 1980, 27 states repealed or weakened their laws requiring helmet use; (14) subsequently, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 required the transfer of up to 3 percent of highway construction funds to highway safety programs for states without universal helmet laws; (15) this provision was repealed by the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995; (16) during 1996 and 1997, legislation was introduced in 20 states to repeal or weaken motorcycle helmet laws; (17) as of early November 1997, repeal efforts had been defeated in 15 states but had succeeded in 2 states; (18) action is pending in the remaining 3 states; and (19) it is NHTSA's position that its role in the debate over helmet laws is to provide information that will be helpful in decisionmaking, but that the state legislature, the governor, and the citizens of a state are the ones responsible for making the final decision on whether helmet laws remain in effect.

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