Helmet Use by U.S. Motorcyclists Trends Higher in Past Decade

Helmet Use by U.S. Motorcyclists Trends Higher in Past Decade

Could the availability of better helmet options be part of the reason?

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS) is the only survey that provides nationwide probability-based observed data on motorcyclist helmet use in the United States.

The NOPUS is conducted by NHTSA on an annual basis and the findings of the survey over the past ten years show a gradually increasing trend in the use of helmets by motorcyclists nationwide.

According to the NHTSA survey, helmet use nationwide increased among motorcyclists from 54.3 percent of all riders (including passengers) in 2010 to 70.8 percent in 2019.

From 2018 to 2019, helmet use increased among riders in states that have a mandatory helmet law. According to the survey data, that rose in those states from 83 percent to 89.2 percent. In all other states—those that only require helmet use for specific riders—helmet use stayed statistically about the same going from 56.9 percent in 2018 to 56.5 percent in 2019.

Study of motorcycle riders wearing helmets

According to NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) Traffic Safety Facts Report (DOT HS 813 021), motorcycle crash-related fatalities were also statistically unchanged, declining by 0.5 percent from 2018 to 2019. In 2018, NHTSA reported that there were 5,038 fatalities nationwide and 5,014 fatalities in 2019.

On a regional basis in 2019, riders in the West (see which states are in which region below) helmeted up most often, with helmet use noted among 83.7 percent of those observed. The south was next at 74.6 percent, followed by the northeast region at 74.1 percent, and the Midwest at only 43.4 percent.

Having a passenger aboard is an apparent factor in increased helmet use by the driver, with 79.7 percent of riders wearing a helmet when they have a passenger, compared to 74 percent when riding solo, based on the data for 2019.

The survey methodology considered several factors, including typical weather conditions, traffic conditions, and regulatory factors such as mandatory helmet usage laws.

At the time of the 2019 survey, 19 states and the District of Columbia required all on-road motorcyclists to wear helmets. Twenty-eight states required helmets for only specific riders, such as those with instructional permits, under 18, 19, or 21 years of age, or passengers only. Three states had no helmet requirements.

States with mandatory helmet use laws for all riders* States with mandatory helmet use laws only for specific riders States without helmet laws
Alabama, California, District of Columbia, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado,

Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico,

North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma,

Pennsylvania, Rhode Island,

South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas,

Utah, Wisconsin, Wyoming

Illinois, Iowa, New Hampshire

*In effect as of May 31, 2019, Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Occupant Protection Use Survey Report, June 2020, Table: Gary Ilminen, RN 11/19/2020

The survey process uses actual on-road observers at selected locations along “probabilistically sampled” roadways and observers in vehicles in traffic on interstate/expressways. They do not stop or interview motorcyclists to gather the data—only observation in the riding environment is done. In the most recent survey in CY 2019, 828 motorcyclists on 707 motorcycles were observed on the road between June 2 and June 17 at 1,877 sites.

The observations were made in the northeast, Midwest, South, and West regions; urban and rural settings, weekdays, weekday rush hours, weekends, high-speed traffic, medium and slow speed traffic; heavy, moderate and light traffic volume; clear and non-clear weather conditions.

The regions are defined as:

  • Northeast: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont
  • Midwest: Iowa, Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin
  • South: Alabama, Arkansas, District of Columbia, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia
  • West: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming

According to the description of the observation methodology, the observers attempt to also distinguish between helmets being observed that are DOT (FMVSS 218) compliant and those that are not. The report states that the helmets counted as DOT-compliant as observed on the road were of the type that “cover the motorcyclist’s ears, are at least one inch thick, have hefty chin straps and do not have protrusions longer than two-tenths of an inch.”

Other than simply excluding most half-helmets from the sample, it isn’t reported how they determined the other factors without examining any of the helmets they counted. Presumably, they have a way.

All this is interesting information and it got me thinking about what may be a factor in increasing helmet use over the past decade apart from any changes in state regulatory requirements. It occurred to me that improvements in helmets themselves could be an important factor.

collection of motorcycle helmets
Could the availability of better helmets be part of the reason for the increase in helmet use? This line-up illustrates the progress in design from the surprisingly heavy Fulmer open face helmet of the past on the right to the surprisingly light Simpson Mod Bandit on the far left. See the article narrative for more detail.

Being the old-fashioned curmudgeon that I am, I have hung on to some of the old helmets I’ve acquired over the years, thinking that they may come in handy for something someday. Well, today is someday. The image I’ve included uses some of my collection of clunker headgear to provide a vivid look at the progression of helmet technology over the years, which may help explain some of the gradual increase in helmet use.

Looking at the Fulmer ¾ coverage helmet on the far right that was purchased new with the 1974 Honda CB350F by that bike’s original owner I got at an auction in 2006. Open-face helmets were probably the most common style in use then, with full-face types more common among riders involved in competition. It was a heavy fiberglass shell with no ventilation into the shell and three-snap bases to snap on one of those good ol’ bubble face shields, if the rider wanted to avoid wearing every bug that came along. Since this helmet was on the market before the DOT FMVSS 218 standard was enacted, it doesn’t bear a DOT certification label or any other certification, for that matter.

Next to that is black a Vetter helmet; an example of a fairly early full-face helmet. Even heavier than the Fulmer and with no ventilation to the inside of the shell, it has a non-removable comfort liner, but does bear a DOT label.

In the middle of the grouping is a Bell full-face. It is fairly heavy, but had closable air inlet vents on the chin bar and above the eye ports, but no outlet ports in the back to allow air to flow out. It did not ventilate well, but it had the DOT label on it as well as Snell 90 certification. When I bought it, I felt it was pretty much top of the crop.

To the left of the Bell is a 2019 model Icon Airform full-face helmet. It has a slick, easily changed gold reflective-coated face shield with a wide range of other options, closable crown vent and non-closable chin bar vents and rear exhaust vents, ECE 22.05, DOT (FMVSS 218) and PSC (Japan) compliance, a removable, moisture-wicking comfort liner, a sculpted neck roll shell, an interior drop-down sun visor, interior pockets for com gear and weighs only 3.6 lb.

Next to that on the far left end of the row is a 2020 model Simpson Mod Bandit helmet. It has a range of face shield options that include being Pinlock-ready, the silver reflective shield shown, closable crown and chin bar vents and rear exhaust vents, UN ECE 22.05 and DOT (FMVSS 218) standards compliance, removable, washable comfort liner, interior drop-down sun visor, com system compatibility and weighs in at 3.85 lb. In addition, unlike full-face helmets with one-piece design, the modular style helmet allows the rider to open the face piece, unlocking the chin bar with a single button on the bottom of the chin bar and swinging it up out of the way.

Clearly, modern helmets offer more effective impact protection, more comfort, more controllable ventilation, more coverage, light weight, and a range of mission-capable performance options unheard of years ago. How big a factor the advancement of helmet design has been on the increase in helmet use in the past decade is difficult to quantify, but for those riders interested in riding with the best protection possible, where helmets are concerned, the options these days have never been better.

In a separate study from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in 2018 there was confirmation that the old claim that helmets actually contribute to neck injuries was untrue. Indeed, the study found that concomitant neck injuries were more likely in crashes where the riders were not wearing helmets. The study found that neck injuries occurred in 15.4 percent of riders not wearing a helmet, while that rate was only 7.4 percent among riders wearing a helmet—about half that for those without a helmet.

In addition, a study published in the Wisconsin Medical Journal, “Increased Risk of Death or Disability of Unhelmeted Motorcyclists in Wisconsin,” (2005) found, “Compared to helmeted motorcycle riders, unhelmeted riders were more likely to require inpatient hospitalization or die, but were equally likely to be treated in emergency departments.

“Injury patterns differed by helmet use. Unhelmeted riders were more likely to suffer injuries to the head or face than helmeted riders.” And the study found, “Head injuries were frequent—found in 33.6 percent of inpatients and 53.1 percent of riders who died, and riders without helmets were more likely to sustain head injuries than riders with helmets.” That study focused on 2,462 motorcyclists involved in crashes in 2002.