Starting from the implementation of a federal auto safety law in the 1970s, states have been given authority to require drivers to wear seat belts, child restraints and other equipment.
By and large, these mandates and other protections have proved successful in reducing injury and death rates.
But the outcomes could be better if states uniformly tested mandating drivers and front-seat passengers to wear helmets, according to a study from the Missouri Department of Insurance.
New York, Washington, Massachusetts and Oregon all require all new drivers to wear safety helmets while Indiana, Virginia and Montana require just front-seat passengers.
Sixteen states currently mandate new drivers to wear helmets, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Some, such as New Jersey, Maryland and Florida, do not have a mandate, but do mandate occupants of all ages wear safety helmets.
Experts believe that requiring front-seat passengers, like drivers, to wear helmets can reduce injuries, because new drivers are more likely to put their heads up when they don’t feel it’s safe to.
Before 1994, states required drivers to wear a seat belt but not front-seat passengers. Missouri started enforcing the statute in 1995, but added front-seat riders to the list in 1997, the institute said.
In 2016, the federal government changed the way states calculate the death tolls they report to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from fatalities resulting from vehicle-related crashes to deaths due to all vehicle-related crashes.
In most cases, this means annual deaths were calculated as the number of traffic deaths and the number of traffic deaths that year is multiplied by the number of people age 25 or older who died that year.
According to the analysis from the Missouri Department of Insurance, which was reviewed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s study places more emphasis on fatalities resulting from side-impact crashes, rollovers, auto accidents and collisions with cyclists or pedestrians.
All up-to-date data show that seat belts and child restraint systems save lives.
According to the Missouri study, states’ disparity in requiring front-seat passengers to wear helmets has been reflected in injury rates. Over a 10-year period, from 2006 to 2016, Mississippi and Texas had the highest per capita injury rates. That was followed by Colorado, West Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky, New Mexico, Kansas, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio, and Virginia.
About 56 percent of those states still haven’t found funding to collect mandatory information that would show the effectiveness of mandating that front-seat passengers wear helmets.
Most importantly, states don’t have evidence to prove that the helmets protected against brain injuries that lead to fatalities. Missouri researchers found that total helmet use saved just 43 lives in 10 years. And, the researchers said, nearly all helmet-impaired deaths were frontal injuries, and more than half of them occurred in first car or truck crashes.
The study also concluded that 22 states don’t require states to collect helmet helmet-use data.
But the argument that helmets protect against in-vehicle injuries does hold some merit. At least four car crashes in the US every day kill at least one person as a result of head injury and head trauma, the study found. And nearly every person who dies from a car crash also has a head injury or trauma, including road debris and pedestrians, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The last time the Insurance Institute released a helmet-use comparison was from 2013 to 2016. In that study, 16 states, including Missouri, required helmets for all front-seat passengers. Fifteen states did not require all drivers to wear helmets. Thirty states had full in-vehicle laws requiring all new drivers to wear helmets, but they didn’t require all other riders to wear safety helmets.
Missouri and New York are part of that research review.
The sheer diversity in implementing helmet laws likely has something to do with their discrepancies in effectiveness, the authors said. Perhaps if more states had mandatory helmet laws for all riders, then all would see the same results.
“Given the differing vehicle/prevention outcomes for helmet use from state to state, the best way to tackle vehicle safety would be for all states to implement a uniform helmet law,” the researchers wrote.
Visit SNHRA for more information about Missouri’s Law on Motor Vehicle Safety.