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Motorcycle Helmets; Are They Really Safe?

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By Larry Gerow, December 1998

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Although motorcycle helmets can save lives, they can also end them. However, people are under the impression that motorcycle helmets are safer than they really are. If a motorcyclist is to make an intelligent decision about the use of a safety helmet, the negative information must be considered.

An abundance of information exists to illustrate the benefits of motorcycle helmet use; however, it is much more difficult to find information about the negative aspects of motorcycle helmet use. The research on the negative aspects of helmet use is in fair abundance and presents an impressive argument.

Several existing studies are either inaccurate or only publish the positive side of helmet use. In a studies review done by Jonathan Goldstein, in 1986 he states that "studies suffer from serious misspecification (sic) problems that lead to estimates of motorcycle helmet law effectiveness that are systematically overstated (Biased upward)(sic). Authors of helmet studies should be praised for collection techniques/innovations, but criticized for their inappropriate statistical methods and thus invalid conclusions" (1986). In other words, the information is there; it is just manipulated to give the results the authors want to give.

In an article written by Jonathan Goldstein in 1996, he evaluates the effectiveness of motorcycle helmets in accident situations. The data analyzed in this study were provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). This study does more than just divide accident victims into a helmeted group and a non-helmeted group. Goldstein’s most plausible hypothesis is that helmeted riders are more risk-averse and thus: (1) have lower pre-crash and thus crash speeds; and (2) are less likely to combine alcohol consumption and driving. Such behavior, rather than helmet use per se, may dramatically reduce the probability of fatality or the severity of an injury. The results are as follows:

  • Helmets are shown to have no statistically significant effect on the probability of a fatality given that a motorcycle accident has occurred. This means that based on standard statistical tests we cannot reject the claim that helmets do not affect the probability that a rider will survive a motorcycle accident.

  • The major determinants of fatality are the rider’s crash speed (kinetic energy) and blood alcohol level.

  • For the average rider involved in the average accident, it is found that the probability of death increases from 2.1% to 11.3% when the rider’s blood alcohol level increases from 0.0 to 0.1 (from sober to legally intoxicated in most states).

  • In the same vein, an increase in the crash speed from 40-60 mph increases the probability of death from 7.1% to 36.3%

  • It is shown that past a critical impact velocity to the helmet (approximately 13-mph), helmet use has a statistically significant effect, which increases the severity of neck injuries. Thus we reject the claim that helmets have no effect on neck injuries in favor of the claim that past a critical impact speed, they exacerbate neck injuries.

  • As a result, we establish that a trade off between head and neck injuries confronts a potential helmet user. Past a critical impact speed to the helmet (13 mph), which is likely to occur in real life accident situations, helmet use reduces the severity of head injuries at the expense of increasing the severity of neck injuries.


One problem in this question is that studies examining motorcycle helmet effectiveness in preventing head injury have most often relied on hospital-based data, since police crash reports do not typically contain detailed information on the nature and location of injury. A concern with hospital-based data, and particularly trauma registry data, is the biased nature of the sample of cases provided. In particular, the sample of patients admitted to trauma centers includes an overrepresentation of patients suffering from more severe injuries and excludes those who are involved in crashes but not injured, whether a helmet was used or not. In addition, trauma registries exclude those who die at the scene of a crash and are never transported to a hospital, including those motorcyclists who die of head or neck injuries that might have been prevented or caused by helmet use (Rutledge and Stutts 93).

In another study over the last fifteen years the NHTSA has done a number of tests to determine if motorcycle helmets met the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 218 (FMVSS). This is the standard developed by the federal government to regulate road safety in the United States. It may be worthwhile to eliminate low-quality helmets before beginning a campaign concerning the wearing of helmets or passing a helmet-use law (Tsai, Wang, Huang 1995). There have been only two years that more helmets have passed than failed. In 1994 (the last year in which this data was available), of 167 helmets tested; only 34 passed. 128 helmets did not pass safety standards (McCallister 1995). Some of this may be due to the fact that neither the NHSTA nor the Department of Transportation (DOT) safety certify motorcycle helmets. Helmet manufacturers safety certify the helmets themselves. (2)

Of course, the interest of manufacturers would appear to be in the marketing of the helmets more than the safety of the helmets. NHSTA does some random testing, but from 1982 to 1993, the most helmets tested in one year were forty-seven. More than forty-seven different kinds of helmets were available in those years, so many helmets were not tested by the government. So how can a consumer know if a helmet is safe when the studies do not cover all helmets available for purchase? Or if a helmet has failed the tests, how does one know it failed? Are these helmets still marketed? These questions have been left unanswered. In addition, the NHTSA in their own publication advocate the use of full-coverage helmets, which are clearly a danger. (This will be addressed later.)

Although the dangers of helmet use are seldom widely publicized, research results of actual field data representing 1,625 collisions show that nearly twelve percent of all motorcycle helmets are released from the head during collisions (Ryan 1991). If the helmet comes off during collision, it is of no use. Proper fit is an important consideration. Even with proper fit, a large number of helmets still release during collision.

If the helmet does stay on, only a small portion of the head is protected as required by current safety standards. Thus, the total head is not protected in a crash (Ryan 1991).

In any accident or in testing helmet safety speed is an important element. Impact test velocities of the helmet include a range of between 11.6 to 13.4 mph (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 18) and 15.0 to 16.9 mph (1991). Realistically, these are very low numbers. These impact speeds are lower than most speed limits; therefore, it still does not tell the consumer if a helmet is safe at normal traffic speeds.

Current helmet design does not necessarily provide head protection at speeds greater than 20 mph and energy levels more than 100-ft. lb. (Newman 1978). Again, 20 mph is not a realistic speed for testing a helmet.

Surprisingly, some helmets may actually be a danger. A study done in 1967 by Barry Negri, "The Effect of the New York State Motorcycle Helmet Law on Injuries Sustained by Motorcycle Occupants" compares fatalities from the year before the helmet law and the first year of the helmet law. Significantly, this information shows that while a large reduction in head injuries occurred, a corresponding increase in broken necks occurred (Negri 1967). In summarizing this study, the analysis of the data available for study does not find any support for the hypothesis that the safety helmet requirement has reduced fatal injuries.

Even the helmet manufacturers produce a product to protect the neck from injuries caused by the helmet. An advertisement appears on page five of the October 1996 issue of American Motorcyclist for a Neck-Pro-Tech. The Neck-Pro-Tech is a foam collar that goes around the neck, under the helmet. In the ad, it is stated that in a crash, a helmet without a Neck-Pro-Tech can create collarbone-breaking force. If helmets were safe, protection from the helmet should not be needed.

The helmet that is most popular, heavily marketed and touted by the NHTSA, is the full-faced helmet. Motorcyclists wearing open-faced helmets sustained facial fracturing but minimal brain injuries. However, motorcyclists who were killed while wearing full faced helmets sustained fatal skull based fractures indicating the helmet was detrimental (Cooter, David 1989). Motorcycle helmet manufacturers are determined to produce helmets that incorporate a face-bar, which is designed to prevent facial trauma, even while increasing fatalities (2). It again seems clear that real safety may not be the priority of the manufacturer, but rather higher sales.

Another obvious oversight with regard to motorcycle safety is the fact that children have been ignored, for the most part, by any commission regarding helmets. In a letter written to the NHTSA, the following question was asked: "At what age (or body weight) it is considered more safe than sorry (to the neck) for a child to wear a three pound motorcycle helmet?" (Quigley 1997) Three pounds was used because, three pounds is the average weight of a DOT certified motorcycle helmet. NHTSA responded with "The standard does not differentiate between the ages of helmet users. Consequently, the NHTSA has not studied the effects of the weight of the helmet on potential neck injury in the relation to the age of helmet users" (Mouchahior 1997). How are parents to know if it is safe to put a helmet on their child if studies have not included children? All a person has to do is look at the motorcycle traffic on the highway to see that children ride.

The children situation is just another instance where the federal government takes the side of safety when little is known about the safety involved. The federal government since 1966 has been involved in the helmet issue when it decided to withhold highway grants to the states that did not comply with the mandatory helmet laws. Because the federal government was getting involved in state matters, bikers organized a rights group in Washington D.C. called Motorcycle Riders Foundation (MRF). This group lobbied the federal politicians to make it unlawful to get involved in state safety issues. In 1995 the MRF succeeded. The federal government no longer has the right to lobby the state senate or house to enact highway safety laws. However, the NHTSA produced and published a video and information packet entitled "Without Motorcycle Helmets We All Pay the Price." With the information the NHTSA has available to them, this packet seems to be more propaganda than information. This video is distributed to NHTSA’s ten regional offices. The regional offices provide services to states for promoting legislation, among numerous other services. The video does not only promote helmet use, but it also emphasizes several times that riding a motorcycle to begin with is an extremely dangerous act (Bikers Rights Online 1998). This is an example the federal government trying to get the states to follow their suggestions. How much does this differ from lobbying?

Since starting this research I have talked to numerous people about the helmet safety issue. Some of the people have been professionals who deal with the medical side of helmet use. When I talked to an emergency medical technician, he stated, "After going over forty miles an hour, it does not matter whether a helmet is worn or not. The outcome is much the same." As stated earlier, forty miles an hour is lower than most speed limits. I have also talked to a doctor who said he had taken enough helmets off people who died from head injuries to determine that helmets are not as safe as pro helmet advocates would try to make the general public believe. Basically the professional people I talked to dispute the reports of the biased studies.

To close the gap among the law, the manufacturers, biker’s knowledge, and the public information and perception, education may provide some answers. Specifically, I decided to do this study because of the lack of information available about the negative aspects of motorcycle helmet use. Since most studies only publish the positive side of helmet use, an unbiased study needed to be available to the public. The NHTSA has all the information available to them, but seem to only tell what they want the general public to know. I am not saying a motorcycle helmet should not be worn; but rather that before putting one on, a person should be educated about both the positive and the negative sides of helmet use. When the trade off between head and neck injuries are involved, a person should think about the consequences should an accident occur.

When reading studies about motorcycle fatalities, it may be wise to question the source. It is important find out if the facts were complete or if they came with only partial information available.

It is also wise that before buying a helmet, one should get some background on the helmet. Ask if the helmet passed a safety test, or if it has even been tested. Find out who tested the helmet. Was it the manufacturer, the government, or an independent test? Another thing to consider is proper fit. Make sure to buy a helmet sized to fit the person for whom it was purchased.

After purchasing the helmet, remember that speed is an extremely important factor in motorcycle safety. While safe speed in reference to motorcycle helmets may not be realistic, it is important information to know.

Also, be aware when riding with a helmet, that if helmet manufacturers make the Neck-Pro-Tech, there is probably a good reason for it.

In all the studies read, the full-faced helmet seems to be the one to most avoid. However, the question still remains: what helmet is suitable for children? Further research would be the likely approach to this problem.

More than anything, be aware that the information released by federal government agencies are biased on the positive side of helmet use. When medical professionals are saying they take helmets off dead people quite often, one must ask oneself; are motorcycle helmets really safe in all circumstances or are there multiple variables that effect a wise decision?

Work Cited

Bikers Rights Online. "NHTSA Distributes Helmet Info." November 1998


Cooter, Rodney D. and David J. David "Motorcyclist Craniofacial Injury Patterns"

1989. Online.


"EMT Perspective on Motorcycle Victims."

Interviewed. Nov. 26, 1998Goldstein, Jonathan P. Ph.D.

"Review of the 1990 CDC Study on Head Injury Deaths and Helmet Laws" 1986 Online.


"Helmet Effectiveness Studies Using Regression Analysis Introduction" 1986 Online.


"The Effect of Motorcycle Helmet Use on the Probability of Fatality and the Severity of Head and Neck Injuries: A Latent Variable Framework."

In Evaluation Review, vol. 10, no. 3 (June 1986), pp. 355-375.

Huang, Wen-Fen, and Yih-Jian Tsai and Jung-Der Wang. "Case-Control

Study of the Effectiveness of Different Types of Helmets for the

Prevention of Head Injuries among Motorcycle Riders in Taipei,

Taiwan" American Journal of Epidemiology. The Johns Hopkins

University School of Hygiene and Public Health. Vol. 142, No. 9, Jan. 1995 

McCallister, Kim. "The Truth About Motorcycle Helmets." Online


Quigley, Richard J. and George Mouchahior. Letter from George Mouchahior, NHTSA. March 1997 Online.


Rutledge, Robert and Jane Stutts. "The Association of Helmet Use With the Outcome of Motorcycle Crash Injury When Controlling For Crash/Injury Severity." Accident Analysis & Prevention. Vol. 25, No.3. pp. 347-353, 1993

Ryan, Joseph P. "Assessment of the Motorcycle Helmet Retention System"


Professional Safety; Park Ridge; Vol. 36, Issue 8. pp. 41-48, Aug. 1991

©Larry Gerow - RR#3 Box 40 - Wellsboro, Pa 16901 - 570-724-3884