Helmets and training essential for motorcyclists of all ages

Study after study confirms that helmets reduce motorcycle-related deaths by around 40 percent for both riders and passengers. The findings are significant because for the last two decades, motorcycle crashes have increased close to 10 percent each year nationwide.

In Minnesota, the increase has been even greater. In 2012, the number of motorcycle crashes was up 19 percent over the previous year. Fatalities and injuries rose statewide, too, increasing 31 and 17 percent, respectively. By July 2013, motorcycle deaths were 50 percent higher than the same period in 2012.

Although motorcycle sales have grown consistently since the 1990s — hitting record highs in 2012 — increased ridership doesn't fully account for the steep rise in motorcycle casualties. But the repeal of universal helmet laws in many states does.

A large, well-financed lobbying effort led to the repeal of helmet laws in Texas and Arkansas in 1997, followed by Florida, Pennsylvania and, most recently, Michigan. In each case, the number of motorcycle deaths rose sharply after the laws were repealed or weakened. Today, only 19 states have universal helmet laws, which require all riders and passengers to wear a helmet every time they ride; 28 states have laws that apply only to riders under age 21.

"There is a big push among rider groups to repeal helmet laws at the state and federal level," explains Todd M. Emanuel, R.N., injury prevention coordinator for Mayo Clinic's Trauma Center in Rochester, Minn. "Among other things, they argue that helmets affect their ability to see and hear while riding, but recent studies have shown that helmets don't impair seeing or hearing."

Studies also prove that helmet laws save lives and money. According to fatal crash data from 2008 to 2010, almost 90 percent of riders wore helmets in states with universal helmet laws compared with 21 percent of riders in states without such laws. And cost savings in terms of medical care and productivity were four times greater in helmet-law states.

Minnesota has no mandatory helmet law for motorcyclists 18 and older. In 2012, 80 percent of riders who died and 64 percent of those injured weren't wearing helmets.

The same trend was seen at Mayo Clinic Hospital, Saint Marys Campus, in Rochester, Minn., a Level I adult and pediatric trauma center. Of the six fatally injured riders admitted there in 2013, four were unhelmeted.

Midlife crashes

Over half of motorcycle crashes involve a single vehicle — riders collide with objects or lose control of their bikes. Most often, this is due to speeding or driver error, but high-speed, high-powered bikes get some of the blame, too. "Kids go for fancy bikes with big engines that are built for speed and racing and usually aren't appropriate for their skill level," Emanuel says.

Yet although motorcycles are usually associated with testosterone-driven teens, by far the fastest growing group of riders is middle-aged. In 2012, men over 40 accounted for the greatest number of motorcycle deaths. Most weren't wearing helmets.

"Inexperience is a leading cause of motorcycle crashes, and part of that is certainly young riders, but we're also seeing a huge increase in older adults getting back into the sport or taking it up for the first time," Emanuel says. "Operator training is important for all age groups. Nationwide data from 2012 indicate that 1 out of every 5 motorcycle operators involved in a fatal crash did not have a valid endorsement to drive a motorcycle. I can't emphasize enough the importance of appropriate training for motorcyclists. Training is just as important for drivers; in crashes involving another vehicle, the biker many times isn't at fault."