Highway Safety:

Motorcycle Helmet Laws Save Lives and Reduce Costs to Society

RCED-91-170: Published: Jul 29, 1991. Publicly Released: Jul 29, 1991.

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Kenneth M. Mead
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO evaluated studies on the motorcycle helmet laws, focusing on the: (1) effectiveness of helmets in preventing fatalities and serious injuries; (2) impact of helmet laws on helmet usage and fatality rates; and (3) societal costs of helmet nonuse.

GAO found that: (1) 11 of 46 studies comparing helmeted with nonhelmeted accident victims found that helmeted riders had lower fatality rates; (2) surviving helmeted riders suffered 46 to 85 percent fewer incidences of severe, serious, and critical head injuries than nonhelmeted riders; (3) 9 studies indicated that helmet use under universal laws ranged from 92 to 100 percent, while unlegislated helmet use generally ranged from 42 to 59 percent; (4) 20 studies comparing motorcycle fatality rates under universal helmet laws found that fatality rates were 20 to 40 percent lower when universal helmet laws were in effect; (5) the decreases in fatality rates when laws were enacted were matched by comparable increases when the laws were repealed; (6) studies indicated that nonhelmeted riders were more extensive users of medical services and long-term care, and were more likely to die or lose earning capacity through disability; (7) data on the cost of medical services rendered to motorcycle accident victims were unclear, but studies showed that society pays for much of the care for accident victims through tax-supported programs or insurance premiums; and (8) studies on long-term accident costs indicated that costs could approach $100,000 for persons with serious head injuries and $300,000 for critical head injuries.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, enacted on December 18, 1991, included federal highway funding incentives and penalties to encourage states to adopt, or retain, motorcycle helmet laws.

    Matter: Because there is convincing evidence that helmets save lives and reduce society's burden of caring for injured riders, Congress may wish to consider encouraging states to enact and retain universal helmet laws. Congress could return to the use of penalties, such as withholding of highway funds for noncompliance, the use of incentives, such as making additional funds available to states that have universal laws, or the use of a combination of penalties and incentives.


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