Photo credit Jason Edward Scott Bain, flickr creative commons
Photo credit Jason Edward Scott Bain, flickr creative commons

By Rose Hoban

Motorcycle riders love to hit the road on two wheels. They say they love the feeling of freedom, the ease of travel, the thrill, the cool, even the gas savings.

Many also say they would love to feel the wind in their hair and on their faces, bemoaning the fact that in 20 states, including North Carolina, adult riders have to wear a helmet.

UNC-Charlotte researcher Gwendolyn Gill calculated the economic costs of not wearing a motorcycle helmet. She presented her findings at the annual American Public Health Association conference in New Orleans this week. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Public health researcher Gwen Gill gets that frustration. As a motorcycle rider herself, she said she can understand why riders would like to go helmetless.

But as a public health researcher, she’s working to convince her fellow riders that wearing a helmet is the smart thing to do, financially.

“You’re saving about $90,000 per crash event just by wearing a helmet,” said Gill, a PhD student at UNC-Charlotte who presented her findings at this year’s annual American Public Health Association conference in New Orleans. “That savings is because you’re preventing a death – yours.”

Gill calculated how much it can cost a rider to not wear a helmet, not just in terms of injury but in dollars and cents. She found that in motorcycle crash “events,” 4 percent of riders die outright and another 41 percent require treatment at a hospital. Two-thirds of the riders who die are those who weren’t wearing helmets. Helmetless riders also had higher injury costs and a greater chance of suffering a traumatic brain injury.

Gill calculated that more riders who wear helmets actually end up in the hospital with injury than folks who don’t wear helmets. “But that’s because you are surviving wrecks that would have killed you otherwise, because you were wearing a helmet,” she said.

And though more riders wearing helmets end up in the hospital, their injuries are not as severe and they don’t require as much care. Injured helmet riders can expect to live a high quality life for 31 more years. Injured non-helmet wearers average only 17 years of high-quality life expectancy.

“What these [numbers] represent is how much are you losing by not wearing a helmet,” Gill said.

Keeping helmet laws intact

During the 2013 legislative session, motorcycle riders descended on the General Assembly to advocate for repealing North Carolina’s law requiring riders to wear helmets. Gill said she’s sympathetic to the resistance to the helmet laws, “because it’s not motorcycle riders making the law, it’s car drivers.”

Nonetheless, she said, 96 percent of riders in North Carolina comply with the state’s helmet law. She said that she always wears one.

“North Carolina has never repealed their helmet law, so it’s an ingrained practice, a habit,” Gill said. But one state has repealed its motorcycle helmet law and nine others are considering repeal.

Gill said all riders can reduce their risk of accident and injury if they take a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course, available through most community colleges and motorcycle dealerships. Photo credit: Jason Edward Scott Bain, flickr creative commons

“For example, the state of Louisiana repealed their law and then brought it back, and so they’re going to have a lower compliance rate because people got used to not wearing them. They say, ‘I was fine without wearing it, I don’t care about the law,’” she said.

North Carolina’s high compliance rate, she said, is a product of the state having been consistent in its laws.

In 27 states, helmet laws only apply for younger riders. But Gill pointed out that data show that many accident victims are not kids under 21 but baby boomers who are climbing aboard motorcycles in their middle age.

“People learned to ride motorcycles in their teens and early 20s, but they had to come off of them because they were parents and professionals. Now they’re empty-nesters, they’re getting back on the motorcycles and they’re probably not getting trained,” she said.

Gill said she believes though that a coercive law might not be necessary if there was convincing information available at the point of sale about the costs of not wearing a helmet.

“I want to show people, if that’s the decision you’re going to make, realize that this is what it’s going to cost you potentially,” she said. “For 26, 27 dollars a year, you’re potentially saving $90,000 a year,” she said.

“I’m kind of hoping that once people see the value and the numbers, they’ll say maybe I should consider wearing the helmet.”

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...