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37.5% Decline in Deaths Credited to Helmet Law

November 16, 1994|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES MEDICAL WRITER

In its first year, the California motorcycle helmet law produced a 37.5% drop in fatalities from motorcycle collisions and saved as many as 122 lives, according to UCLA researchers who have conducted what they termed the "definitive" study of motorcycle safety.

Nonfatal head injuries also decreased significantly after implementation of the law in January, 1992, and there were sharp declines in the time injured motorcyclists spent in intensive care units and in the hospital after nonfatal accidents, the UCLA team reports today in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

Motorcyclists who did not wear helmets suffered a disproportionate share of injuries: Although fewer than 0.5% of motorcyclists did not wear helmets, they accounted for 15% of deaths and serious injuries.

"The bottom line is it saves all of us a lot of money when you prevent someone from dying or becoming a paraplegic and ending up on the state rolls for assistance," said Ray Biancolana, deputy director of the state Office of Traffic Safety.

In Orange County, fatalities involving motorcycle and motor-scooter drivers and passengers actually rose in the helmet law's first year, from 29 in 1991 to 37 in 1992, according to the coroner's office. However, fatalities dropped dramatically in 1993, to 14.

Anti-helmet motorcyclists contend that there are other factors responsible for the decline in deaths, especially aggressive licensing and rider education programs. "That is not reflected in the medical studies," said Larry Alger, marketing director of Bikers Against Manslaughter. "The important thing is not to crash in the first place, and that stems from proper education and licensing."

Biancolana, however, noted that the education and licensing programs were initiated in the 1980s. Such programs are responsible for the ongoing decline in motorcycle fatalities, he said, but an additional, sharp drop in deaths occurred after the helmet law went into effect.

The researchers found that there were 523 fatalities in 1991, compared to 327 in 1992, a drop of 37.5%. Using two different techniques to predict the number of deaths that would have occurred in 1992 without a helmet law, they concluded that 92 to 122 lives had been saved by the law. The proportion of helmet use increased from 43% of motorcyclists in 1991 to 99.5% in 1992.

The fatality rate dropped from 70.1 deaths per 100,000 motorcycles in 1991 to 51.5 per 100,000 in 1992.

Most of the deaths were among motorcycle drivers, but the study also found that the number of motorcycle passenger deaths dropped, from 66 in 1991 to 20 in 1992, a 69% decrease. Some of that decrease, however, resulted from the fact that there were fewer passengers in 1992, although the actual numbers have not yet been determined, said UCLA's Corinne Peek, co-author of the study with David L. McArthur and Jess F. Kraus of UCLA and Alan Williams of the Institute for Highway Safety.

Among riders injured but not fatally, the average number of days spent in the hospital decreased by more than one day, the average number of days spent in intensive care decreased by 21.4% and the total number of surgical procedures decreased by 13%.

In large part because of the California study, the American Medical Assn.'s Council on Scientific Affairs issued a new report in today's journal calling for adoption of nationwide mandatory helmet laws for motorcyclists and bicyclists.

The California results play a significant role in promoting the council's support for the recommendations, said council member Dr. Mitchell S. Karlan, a cancer surgeon in Beverly Hills. The helmet laws and the rider education, he said, "are good public health and good preventive medicine."

By the beginning of this year, 23 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico had laws mandating helmet use for all motorcyclists. Twenty-four other states had partial laws, most requiring use by riders under age 18. Three states, Colorado, Illinois and Iowa, had no helmet laws.

According to the most recent figures from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 9,913 people died in motorcycle crashes in the United States from 1989 through 1991.

Several studies in other states have shown reductions in motorcycle deaths resulting from helmet laws, but many of those studies involved relatively small populations, which limited their statistical reliability, Peek said.

California, in contrast, has large numbers of motorcycles, which can be ridden year-round, making it ideal as the site for such a study, McArthur said. Moreover, in anticipation of the law's passage, the UCLA group was able to begin collecting data in January, 1991, a year before the law took effect. Because the data was gathered prospectively, Peek said, injuries and fatalities are less likely to be missed and the numbers are generally considered more reliable.

When the new data is combined with that of previous studies, she said, it is clear that "motorcycle helmet laws greatly increase helmet use, they definitely save lives and they prevent injuries."

Times staff writer Mark I. Pinsky contributed to this story.

Saving Lives

Although deaths from motorcycle accidents have been declining for years, a new UCLA study shows that the 1992 motorcycle helmet law reduced deaths that year by 37.5%

Fatality rate per 100,000 registered motorcycles in California

Source: Journal of the American Medical Assn.

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