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National Transportation Safety Board Pressures States to Improve Motorcycle Safety



From 1997 to 2008, total fatalities on American roads declined. Despite this favorable statistic, motorcycle deaths more than doubled over the same period. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has noticed and targeted motorcycle safety for improvement.

On November 16, the NHTSA added motorcycle safety to its Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements directed to state governments. Recreational boating was dropped from the list due to substantial improvements. Motorcycle safety certainly seems to be a worthy addition to the list. In 2009, the 4,400 deaths of motorcycle riders exceeded fatalities in aviation, rail, marine, and pipeline categories combined. The leading cause of death in motorcycle accidents? Head injuries.

Therefore the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is recommending that all riders of motorcycles, both drivers and passengers, wear helmets. Presently only 20 states, the District of Columbia, and four territories require all motorcycle riders to wear helmets. Only minors and/or passengers must wear helmets in 27 states and one territory. Iowa, Illinois, and New Hampshire do not have any helmet laws.

States on both coasts tend to have universal helmet laws that require all riders to don a helmet, the only exceptions being Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, South Carolina, and Florida. These states do have "partial" laws that may require minor and/or passenger helmet use. The Midwest and Plains states more often are the ones that cite personal freedom as a reason not to require helmet usage. Missouri, Louisiana, and Nebraska are the only states from west of the Mississippi to Nevada that have universal helmet laws.

The NHTSA's recommendation for universal helmet usage laws is not new. The recommendation was first directed to the states in 2007. However, since that date no states have enacted the recommended legislation. Arizona, Hawaii, and Pennsylvania considered similar legislation in 2009 but have not enacted any such laws to date. Guam also considered a universal helmet law in 2010 but has not passed it to date.

The most recent announcement from the NHTSA indicates that it does not intend to stop pushing the states to enact this litigation. According to their statistics, motorcycle helmets could have saved the lives of 1,829 motorcyclists in 2008. Any change in the NHTSA's stance in this matter appears unlikely.