For 43 years, all motorcyclists in the state of Michigan were required to wear helmets out on the road. In 2012, that changed.
In the four years following the more relaxed law, motorcyclist fatalities have gone up over 10 percent statewide.
In April 2012, legislators approved a new law allowing motorcycle riders 21 and older to no longer be required to wear a helmet, as long as they have at least $20,000 of medical insurance. In addition, motorcyclists who don’t want to wear a helmet must either pass a safety course or have been riding for at least two years.
According to data from the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning, there was an average of 113.75 motorcyclist fatalities per year from 2008 to 2011. In a similar four-year timeframe after the 2012 law change, from 2013 to 2016, that average increased to 125.75 fatalities per year, an increase of 12 more deaths a year.
Locally, Ottawa County data supports that national trend. A statewide fatality increase of 10.5 percent between those two windows is mirrored by an 11 percent increase in Ottawa County. From 2008 to 2011, the county averaged 2.25 motorcycle fatalities a year, while from 2013-2016, the county saw an average of 2.5 fatalities a year.
On the other side of the spectrum, Allegan County had a decrease in motorcycle crash fatalities. With an average of 2.5 fatalities from 2008 to 2011 and an average of 1.75 fatalities from 2013 to 2016, the more rural county had a 30 percent decrease in deaths. However, with numbers as small as those at the county level, one or two individuals can significantly sway averages in the data.
Allegan County Undersheriff Mike Larsen said, in the past few years, he has seen an increase in the severity of injuries at motorcycle crashes in the area.
“Locally, we have seen an overall increase in the number of fatalities by motorcyclists and part of that is a high increase of what would have been a survivable crash had they been wearing a helmet,” Larsen said. “Obviously, when the only trauma is to the head and that results in death, it’s our belief that a helmet would have made that crash survivable, even with other injuries to the body.
“We are seeing more fatalities since the helmet law changed.”
When the law change was going through the state legislature, one group strongly advocated for its success. ABATE of Michigan, a motorcycle rights group, pushed for the partial repeal of the universal rule.
“Our objective has been to teach people to ride and make a choice on equipment that has questionable benefits,” said Jim Rhoades, legislative officer for ABATE of Michigan. “Helmet laws do nothing to make for a safer rider.”
Rhoades advocates instead for proper motorcycle licensing and training courses so riders can determine for themselves what safety equipment they want to wear on the road. Rhoades said he does not wear a helmet when he rides his motorcycle, except in the winter when it’s cold.
“The idea that putting a helmet on someone is going to save their life all the time is not true,” Rhoades said. “Our objective is to get people to learn how to ride and let them make the choice on the equipment.
“Our country was founded on individual choice and individual responsibility. The data that’s being put out by the government is skewed.”
At the end of 2016, researchers at the University of Michigan did a study of the state’s trauma center treatment of motorcyclist head injuries after the universal helmet law was modified. Lead author Patrick Carter and fellow authors found that in the year after the helmet law changed, helmet use dropped 24 percent among motorcyclists involved in crashes. The researchers also found a 14 percent increase in head injuries and a fatality rate twice as high among motorcyclists not wearing helmets compared to those who did wear helmets in crashes.
Carter’s team also cited previous studies that showed wearing a helmet decreases the risk for head injuries by 69 percent and the overall risk of fatality after a motorcycle crash by 42 percent.
So far this year in Ottawa County, there have been two motorcyclist fatalities, said Sgt. Steve Austin. Neither of those motorcyclists were wearing helmets.
“From what I see in Ottawa County, about 75 percent of the riders wear helmets,” Austin said. “I would strongly suggest wearing a helmet, just because other drivers may not see you. You could be the best driver in the world, but you could be put in harm’s way by other drivers.
“I’m an accident reconstructionist, and seat belts and helmets can save your life. If I was a motorcyclist, I would wear a helmet.”
The Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning recommends all motorcyclists wear helmets when driving.
“Our office is not allowed to push for or against any legislation, so we go by where the statistics take us,” said Kendall Wingrove, OHSP senior editor. “I would say that we encourage everybody to practice safety no matter what vehicle they’re using on the road, whether that’s a helmet or high-visibility clothes.
“We encourage you to increase your safety with anything available to you.”
Rhoades said the real issue with motorcycle safety is the lack of riders who have a motorcycle certification. He wants all motorcyclists to go through training to learn to better control their vehicles.
“Michigan is a very unique state,” he said. “There’s not really great penalties for not being licensed, and that’s what the problem is. A helmet law does nothing to prevent that.”
But Chris McIntire, Michigan State Police post commander in Rockford, said going through a certification course is not enough.
“The little ‘cy’ on a license has no way of keeping me safe in a collision,” McIntire said. “Somebody that’s better trained is a much better rider, but they can’t control the person that didn’t see them and hits them. That training and ink on your license will not keep them safe once they hit the ground.
“It’s everybody’s right. If you don’t want to wear a helmet, then don’t, but there’s no possible way the head injuries could be better with no helmet. The numbers speak for themselves.”