NTSB adds motorcycle safety to Most Wanted List, pressures states to adopt universal helmet laws

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The National Transportation Safety Board today updated its Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements directed at state governments by adding a new issue area — motorcycle safety (read: helmet laws) — and dropping another, recreational boating, where it claims substantial progress has been made.

“State governments are in a unique position to effect the most significant improvement in certain areas of transportation safety,” NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman says in a press release. “Our Most Wanted List spotlights those states that have made noteworthy progress in better protecting the traveling public — and those that have not.”

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, head injury is the leading cause of death in motorcycle crashes. The NTSB says this is why it recommends that everyone aboard a motorcycle be required to wear a helmet that complies with DOT's Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 218. The board first made the recommendation in 2007.

The Associated Press has reported on move in an article titled “Feds say all motorcycle riders should wear helmets,” in which the author quotes NTSB vice chairman Christopher Hart as saying, “People have to get outraged about this safety issue that is causing so many deaths needlessly.”

The AP notes that nearly all states had universal helmet laws when they were necessary for full federal highway funding. “But in the mid-1990s Congress repealed the requirement, leaving the issue up to states to decide,” the report says. “As states began repealing or weakening helmet laws, fatalities rose.

“The safety board can't force states to enact tougher helmet laws or offer money as an incentive. Its primary power is its bully pulpit.” Hersman, the article continues, “promised to keep pressure on states and, if that doesn't work, to seek help from Congress or the administration.”

The call for tougher helmet laws, the AP says, comes after a new report showing the U.S. lagging behind nearly every other wealthy country in reducing traffic fatalities in general.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety has issued a statement commending the NTSB’s decision and calling on Congress to enact federal legislation that will result in all-rider motorcycle helmet use laws, among other things.

The NTSB press release says that from 1997 through 2008, the number of motorcycle fatalities more than doubled during a period when overall highway fatalities declined. (The NTSB did not mention that new-unit motorcycle sales increased 235 percent during this same time period.) Although the number of motorcycle fatalities fell in 2009, the 4,400 deaths still outnumber those in aviation, rail, marine and pipeline combined.

Currently, 20 states, the District of Columbia and four territories have universal helmet laws that apply to all riders. Twenty-seven states and one territory have partial laws that require minors and/or passengers to wear helmets. Three states — Iowa, Illinois and New Hampshire — have no helmet laws.

The NTSB’s Most Wanted List also contains the following areas:

  • Eliminate Distractions for Young Drivers
  • Improve Child Occupant Protection
  • Enact Primary Seat Belt Enforcement Laws
  • Eliminate Hard-Core Drinking and Driving

Almost 700 people die every year in recreational boating accidents in the United States. In 1994, the NTSB added this issue area to the Most Wanted List, asking the states to require personal flotation devices for children and implement training and licensing requirements for their recreational boaters. Since that time, 70 percent of the states have responded favorably to those recommendations. The NTSB has removed this issue from the Most Wanted List, but will continue to push for action in the remaining states.

A complete package explaining state actions on all these recommendations, including maps, is available on the board’s website at www.ntsb.gov/Recs/mostwanted/state_issues.htm.

Posted by Arlo Redwine