Highway Safety:

Interim Report on Safety Belt and Motorcycle Helmet Effectiveness

RCED-91-158: Published: May 10, 1991. Publicly Released: May 10, 1991.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO evaluated studies on motorcycle helmet laws and automobile safety belts, focusing on: (1) their effectiveness in preventing fatalities and serious injuries; (2) the impact of mandatory-use laws on fatality rates; and (3) the societal costs of nonuse of helmets or safety belts.

GAO found that the helmet-use studies reported that: (1) helmeted motorcycle riders had lower fatality rates than nonhelmeted riders; (2) helmet use reduced the incidence of critical and serious injuries among riders; (3) some studies contended that helmet use interfered with riders' hearing and field of vision and encouraged risk-taking behavior, but other studies found that helmeted riders had fewer accidents; (4) helmet use under universal laws ranged from 92 to 100 percent, while states with limited or no laws had helmet-use rates between 42 and 59 percent; (5) lower fatality rates occurred where universal laws were in effect; (6) nonhelmeted riders were more likely than helmeted riders to require ambulance service, hospital admission, neurosurgery, intensive care services, long-term care, and rehabilitation; and (7) nonhelmeted riders were more likely to be permanently impaired and lose earning capacity through disability or death. GAO noted that, although it had not completed its analysis of safety-belt effectiveness studies, there was some evidence that: (1) safety belts were very effective in reducing fatalities and injury severity; and (2) hospital admission rates for belted riders were lower than for nonbelted riders.