By Alanna Durkin, Associated Press
LANSING (AP) - A University of Michigan researcher estimates there would have been 26 fewer deaths and 49 fewer serious injuries in Michigan last year if all riders had worn helmets, as it was previously required under Michigan law.
Last year, Michigan joined 30 other states in allowing adult riders to go without a helmet, a move welcomed by supporters who said it would draw more motorcycle riders to Michigan and increase tourism revenue. But some say that early crash data shows that changing the law was a mistake.
The law, which went into effect April 13 of last year, allows people age 21 and older to ride without helmets if they have been licensed to operate a motorcycle for at least two years or have passed a safety course. Motorcyclists are required to buy additional insurance - at least $20,000 of first party medical benefits coverage - in case they are injured in an accident.
Carol Flannagan, an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute's Biosciences Group and co-manager of the Transportation Data Center, studied motorcycle crash data from April 13 through the end of last year and compared it to data from that same period in previous years.
The Office of Highway Safety Planning's data shows that motorcycle fatalities were up 18 percent last year, from 109 in 2011 to 129 in 2012.
Flannagan found that of those who crashed in that period last year, 74 percent wore helmets, compared to 98 percent in that same period the previous three years.
She also concluded that the fatality rate was nearly three times higher for those who didn't wear helmets last year than those who did. Her study only takes into account riders who crashed, not the entire riding population.
Vince Consiglio, president of Michigan's American Bikers Aiming Toward Education, said since the changes in the helmet law, motorcycle organizations throughout the country have shown increased interest in Michigan.
He said rider skill and experience are more important than helmets in preventing serious injury and death. He has trained more than 250 motorcycle students in the Detroit area this season, he said.
"We believe in tougher licensing, motorcycle safety programs and driver awareness," he said. "Some people talk about safety and some people do stuff about safety. We have made and done things about safety."
Consiglio said Flannagan's study does not take into account last year's mild weather, which likely meant more people were riding. He said ABATE did its own study in September examining data from January through August 2011 and 2012. It determined that fatalities decreased from 89 in 2011 to 85 in 2012, while the number of registrations increased.
Insurance companies and health care officials opposed changing the law last year, arguing it would cause more serious and long-term injuries that could raise medical and insurance rates for all Michigan residents.
Michael Dabbs, president of the Brain Injury Association of Michigan, said the $20,000 insurance coverage that riders are required to buy "would probably buy you part of the day in the ER and intensive care and not much more."
He said treating a serious brain injury can cost more than $1 million throughout a patient's lifetime. They often end up on Medicaid and that cost then gets pushed onto taxpayers, he said.
But he said it will take a few more years to determine the financial impact the law change has had on Michigan's health care industry.
Nancy Cain, spokeswoman for AAA of Michigan said since June, it has had three personal injury claims from motorcyclists not wearing helmets and in each case the cost will exceed $1 million. They cannot compare the number of claims to previous years because this is the first year they are tracking them by helmet or no helmet use.
Consiglio said that if the state wants to be serious about motorcycle safety, it should institute an awareness program warning drivers to look out for motorcyclists.
"Other states have shown reduction in car-motorcycle accidents that have used public service announcements," he said.
But while some say it is too early to tell what impact it has had in Michigan, supporters of helmet wearing point to data from states, like Florida.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, when Florida repealed its motorcycle helmet law for adults in 2000, motorcycle fatalities jumped from 259 in 2000 to 413 in 2009. More riders under the age of 21, who are still required to wear helmets, were also not wearing them because it is difficult to enforce a law when it applies to only one portion of the riding population, the group said.
Flannagan said the Office of Highway Safety Planning intends to do a survey this summer to get a better idea of how many riders are wearing helmets.
"I think the basic story from the crash data is pretty straight forward," she said. "Wearing a helmet reduces the risk and when the helmet law was repealed fewer people wore their helmet."
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