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Children's Health

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'All-Age' Helmet Laws Save Young Motorcycle Riders

Study Shows Helmet Laws Are Most Effective for Young if They’re Enforced for Youths and Adults
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Nov. 16, 2010 -- Youth-specific motorcycle helmet laws may be hurting the young people they are designed to protect.

A new study shows the rate of serious brain injury among youths in states that require motorcycle helmets for motorcyclists under age 21 -- but not for adults -- is 38% higher than in states with universal motorcycle helmet laws.

Researchers say motorcycle helmets have been shown to reduce head injury by 69% and death from head injury by 42%. But after the federal government withdrew its sanctions withholding funding for highway safety funds to states that did not require helmets for motorcyclists over age 17 in 1976, 30 states abandoned their universal helmet laws.

Motorcycle helmet laws vary greatly by state:

  • Twenty states and the District of Columbia (51% of the population) have universal helmet laws.
  • Three states (6% of the population) have no helmet laws.
  • 27 states (43% of the population) have age-specific laws, such as those requiring minors wear helmets but not adults.

State-by-State Comparison

In the study, researchers compared traumatic brain injury rates among 17 states with universal helmet laws, six states with laws requiring helmets for people under age 21, and 12 states with laws for children under age 18.

The results showed states with partial-age laws had higher proportions of severe traumatic brain injuries and in-hospital deaths from motorcycle injuries among young people than states with universal motorcycle helmet laws.

In states with an under-21 helmet law, the risk of serious traumatic brain injury in young people was 38% higher than in universal helmet law states. Motorcycle riders aged 12 to 17 in states with under 18 helmet laws also had a higher proportion of serious traumatic brain injuries.

"The only method known to keep motorcycle-helmet use high among youth is to adopt or maintain universal helmet laws," write researcher Harold Weiss, PhD, MPH, of the Center for Injury Research and Control at the University of Pittsburgh, and colleagues in Pediatrics.

"The lower helmet use in states with limited-age laws is likely related to the difficulty law enforcement officers experience in gauging the rider's age during a potential traffic stop and enforcing a helmet law on a relatively small segment of the motorcycle-riding population," write the researchers. "Less rigorous enforcement may also result from perceived lack of priority once older age groups have been exempted from helmet-use compliance."

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