On April 12, 2012, Michigan's longstanding helmet law went down in flames. Many motorcyclists were happy to see it go, but others might not be singing the same tune, since the move could cause an insurance rate hike.
According to the Highway Loss Data Institute, only 19 states require all riders to wear helmets. Another 28 require helmets for some motorcyclists, typically those under the age of 18. Three states -- Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire -- have no helmet laws at all. (FYI, New Hampshire doesn't require adults to wear seatbelts, either.)
Michigan now falls into the middle group: motorcyclists 20 and under must wear helmets at all times, but older riders can do as they please. However, those who prefer to go helmet-free must carry at least $20,000 in medical coverage.
Anti-helmet activists often claim that helmets not only reduce riders' hearing and field of vision, but also increase fatigue. That, in turn, makes helmet-wearers more likely to suffer accidents than those without helmets. By that logic, investigators in Michigan might've expected motorcycle accidents to decrease after the repeal of the helmet law.
But that's not what happened.
HLDI looked at insurance claims and payouts in 2011 and 2012 -- before and after the helmet law was repealed. They focused on what's commonly considered the riding season, which falls between May and September. After tracking the frequency of claims and the amounts paid on those claims, researchers learned that numbers across the board had gone up.
Comparing Michigan's stats with those of neighboring states, HDLI found that the number of motorcycle accident claims in Michigan during 2012 was about 10% above normal, and the average severity of those claims (which indicates the severity of accidents) was up a grisly 36%. Multiply those two figures, and you get the total amount paid out by Michigan's insurers for motorcycle collisions, which rose 51% after the helmet law's repeal.
What does that mean in human terms? According to Detroit News, motorcycle fatalities have been on the rise since at least 1997 -- even as automobile fatality rates have hit historic lows. But even that upward trend may not explain the recent figures in Michigan.
In 2011, 109 motorcyclists were killed in Michigan, and just five of those riders were unhelmeted. Another 24 without helmets were seriously injured
In 2012, the number of motorcyclists killed in Michigan jumped to 129. Of that total, 55 weren't wearing helmets. And a whopping 195 unhelmeted riders suffered serious injuries.
Those who hate helmet laws often point fingers at riders without motorcycle licenses or with limited motorcycle experience. And in fairness, that could account for some of the increase in fatalities and serious injuries between 2011 and 2012. The weather could also play a role: weather was more motorcycle-friendly in 2012, allowing for a slightly longer riding season.
And HDLI admits that the repeal of the helmet law could have encouraged more riders to hit the road, which might, in turn, have caused a jump in motorcycle accidents. However, HLDI Vice President Matt Moore notes that "More riding might account for more frequent crashes, but it doesn't explain the increase in severity.... Motorcyclists are sustaining more injuries per crash or more serious ones after the law change than before."
If there's a silver lining here, it's that the new $20,000 minimum that non-helmet-wearers must carry has mitigated the payouts somewhat. After controlling for policy limits, the average severity of claims was up 22% for insurers.
That may slow the impact that the new helmet law has on insurance premiums for Michiganders, but if those numbers remain high, premiums are sure to follow.
Bottom line: Wearing a helmet may be uncomfortable, but it's good for your health and your wallet. Not to mention your neighbor's wallet.
[h/t John Voelcker]