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Number 231                                                                                             September 2000

U.S. Department of Transportation
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
400 Seventh Street, S.W., Washington, DC 20590




In 1997, Arkansas and Texas amended their motorcycle helmet use laws. Before then, both states had required all motorcycle riders to wear helmets. Effective August 1, 1997, Arkansas required helmet use only for riders under the age of 21, and effective September 1, 1997, Texas required helmet use only for riders under the age of 21 and for older riders who have not completed a rider education course or who do not have at least $10,000 medical insurance coverage. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sponsored a study by Preusser Research Group to evaluate the initial effects of the law changes in Texas and Arkansas.

Observed Helmet Use Declines in Both States

Helmet use decreased following the Arkansas and Texas law changes as shown both in on-street observations of motorcycle riders and in reports covering motorcycle crash victims. This graph shows that while both states had their mandatory helmet use laws in effect, 97 percent of motorcyclists were observed to be wearing their helmets. By the following May, Texas' rate had Chart comparing motorcycle operator deathsfallen to 66 percent, and Arkansas' rate had fallen to 52 percent.

Helmet Use Among Motorcyclist Receiving EMS Services in Arkansas Declines

Another measure of helmet use comes from motorcyclists who received emergency medical services (EMS). In Arkansas, helmet use for these motorcyclists dropped from about 55 percent in 1997 before the law changed, to 33.5 percent in the remainder of 1997 and below 30 percent in 1998.

Arkansas EMS data showed an increase in the number of injured motorcyclists, the number of motorcyclists with head injuries, and the proportion of all injured motorcyclists with head injuries after the law change.

Number (and Percentage) of Head Injuries Among Injured Motorcyclists

in Arkansas

  January-July August-December
1996 51 (18.5%) 36 (21.4%)
1997 56 (20.1%) 56 (26.8%)
1998 99 (31.6%) 56 (23.5%)

August 1, 1997, Arkansas' universal motorcycle helmet law repealed

Fatalities and Injuries Increase

In the last few months in 1997 following their law change, motorcyclist fatalities did not change significantly in either Arkansas or Texas, compared to the same months the year before. In the first full year following repeal, however, fatalities in Arkansas increased by 21 percent, compared to the last full year under the universal law. In Texas, operator fatalities increased by 31 percent over these same periods. Texas police crash reports showed that the number of injured motorcycle operators increased slightly in 1998 compared to 1994-1996. The increases occurred in fatalities and in B and C level injuries. Serious (A) injuries declined.

Costs for Brain Injuries Increase

Texas Trauma Registry data showed that the proportion of motorcyclists treated for traumatic brain injury increased and that treatment costs for traumatic brain injury cases also increased following the law change. Treatment costs for other injury cases did not change markedly.

Case Studies

Statistics show the big picture, but often miss the details of what happens to individuals in a crash. The report includes a section that describes some of the stories of injured motorcyclists after their crashes, including at least one "saved by the helmet" story, and others involving months of rehabilitation. Many of these stories show that the motorcyclist was doing nothing wrong at the time of the crash, but that another vehicle made a maneuver without seeing the motorcyclist.


In 1990, at the request of Congress, the United States General Accounting Office (GAO) reviewed and evaluated available information about motorcycle helmets and helmet laws. GAO's 1991 report concluded that "helmet use reduced fatality rates and reduced injury severity among survivors of motorcycle accidents" and that "universal helmet laws have been very effective in increasing helmet use, virtually doubling use compared with experience without a law or with a limited law applying only to young riders. Under universal helmet laws, more states experienced 20 to 40 percent lower fatality rates than during periods without laws or under limited laws."

Average Number of Motorcycle Operators Killed in Texas by Month, With and Without a Universal Helmet Law, 1975-1998

Chart comparing motorcycle operator deaths

The evidence from this study supports the GAO conclusion that universal helmet laws are effective. They increase helmet use and decrease motor-cyclists injuries and fatalities.



For a copy of Evaluation of Motorcycle Helmet Law Repeal in Arkansas and Texas, (48 pages), write to the Office of Research and Traffic Records, NHTSA, NTS-31, 400 Seventh Street, S.W., Washington, DC 20590, fax (202) 366-7096. Linda Cosgrove, Ph.D., was the contract manager.


U.S. Department
of Transportation
National Highway
Traffic Safety

400 Seventh Street, S.W. NTS-31
Washington, DC 20590

Traffic Tech is a publication to disseminate
information about traffic safety programs,
including evaluations, innovative programs,
and new publications. Feel free to copy it as you wish.
If you would like to receive a copy contact:
Linda Cosgrove, Ph.D., Editor, Evaluation Staff
Traffic Safety Programs
(202) 366-2759, fax (202) 366-7096

U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590
1-800-424-9153 (TTY)