There are few times in life when helmets are legally required or recommended, including while riding a bicycle or motorcycle, competing in high-contact sports, and working in construction or other industries with a high risk of falling objects. However, despite recommendations to don a helmet during these activities, is there any proof that helmets prevent a person from incurring a head injury? Here is a look at the issue.
The Safety Benefits of Wearing a Helmet
One of the most severe injuries is a traumatic brain injury, which involves damage to the brain due to a sudden, violent blow or jolt to the head or body. While brain injuries break down into mild, moderate, or severe categories, there is nothing "mild" about a traumatic brain injury.
The brain controls nearly all of the body's functions and involuntary responses, and yet it has only a limited ability to heal from injuries. This means that the “mild” effects of a concussion—including dizziness, fatigue, memory loss, and pain—can be permanent in many cases.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), wearing a helmet when motorcycling reduces the rider's risk of dying in an accident by up to 42 percent and reduces their risk of suffering a brain injury by up to 69 percent.
Numerous studies have backed these statistics, including a study by the National Trauma Data Bank that revealed that helmeted motorcyclists involved in accidents typically had lower injury severity and reduced death. Researchers predicted that increased helmet use during the seven-year study period could save approximately $1,750 per injured patient by reducing the costs associated with hospitalizations and treatment through the intensive care unit.
According to a recent study published in Injury Epidemiology,
approximately 75 percent of all child bicycle-related mortality is secondary to head injuries. Bicycle helmets would prevent 85 percent of these fatal injuries. Previous research concluded that bicycle helmets could reduce head, brain, and severe brain injuries by up to 88 percent. Other published studies indicate those bicycle helmets are more effective in protecting riders from slow-moving accidents (such as single bicycle crashes in which the rider collides with a stationary object or falls) than in fast-moving motor vehicle accidents.
For Sports Competitors
Following media reports about the number of professional football players suffering life-altering impacts from repeated concussions throughout their sports careers, there is growing interest and debate over the effectiveness of the use of helmets by competitors in high-impact sports such as football and recreational activities such as skiing. Do helmets effectively prevent competitors and participants from incurring brain injuries?
According to the American Academy of Neurology, a study tested ten popular football helmet brands to determine how effectively they prevent head injuries. The study found that the average risk to competitors of a traumatic brain injury decreased by 20 percent when using a football helmet.
However, the helmets most preferred and used by players performed the worst in tests. One reason for the poor performance of the preferred helmets is that their design aims to address linear impact rather than rotational forces.
Researchers suggest a lack of understanding that rotational forces (sudden changes in the rotation of the head) are a greater cause of sports-related head injuries than linear forces, which involve the impact of the head against an object such as the ground.
Most sports helmets buffer the head from the impact, not the rotation of the head resulting from the collision, which is a factor that contributes to severe brain injury, brain bleeds, and brain injury complications.
In many industries, workers must wear hard hats or safety helmets. This requirement is particularly true in the construction industry, where workers are at risk of being struck by falling or swinging objects or falling from heights. While studies show that a hard hat is somewhat effective at protecting a worker from injury—and a safety helmet is even more effective than a hard hat everyday mistakes prevent them from providing complete protection.
These common mistakes include workers failing to buckle the chin strap to keep it in place during falls and workers failing to replace their hard hat after it sustains damage or overuse. Workers should replace their hard hats every two years or whenever the hat sustains damage in an accident or after being dropped.
An Opposing View to the Question
While most traffic safety experts answer whether helmets prevent head injury with a resounding “yes,” Dr. John Lloyd, a motorcycle accident expert and biomechanics researcher, disagrees at least regarding motorcycle helmets. Like football helmets, testing performed to determine the safety of a motorcycle helmet focuses on the impact the helmet can withstand rather than providing protection against damage caused by the angle at which the rider's head strikes the pavement or other object.
Dr. Lloyd's views on the matter align with a 1995 European study of 4,700 motorcycle accidents, confirming the need for helmets to address rotational force injuries. The study discovered that while 75 percent of all motorcycle accidents result in head injuries, only 31 percent happened from linear forces (the type the helmet most aims to protect). In comparison, 60 percent of motorcycle head injuries resulted from rotational forces.
The Impact of Universal Helmet Laws on State Accident Statistics
Despite questions about whether helmets prevent all types of head injuries or some types of head injuries, many states have passed helmet laws requiring some motorcyclists to wear helmets when riding. The federal government initially introduced universal helmet laws in the 1960s, offering funds for safety programs and highway construction to states who agreed to require that all motorcyclists wear helmets on public roadways.
By 1975, 47 states and the District of Columbia had helmet laws. After the federal government eliminated the penalties for not having these laws, many states chose to repeal them. Several states have revisited the issue over the years, with some choosing to require young and inexperienced riders to wear helmets while leaving it up to choice for adult riders.
In states where universal helmet laws exist, around 94 percent of riders and their passengers use them. However, helmet use in states with no helmet law or requiring specific riders to use helmets reveals usage rates at around 60 percent.
The statistics involving helmet use and its effectiveness in protecting riders against head injuries are as follows:
- California reported a 37 percent decrease in motorcycle accident fatalities after introducing its universal helmet law in 1992.
- When Nebraska reinstated its universal helmet law in 1989, the state reported a 22 percent reduction in serious head injuries from motorcycle accidents and a 38 percent reduction in acute medical hospital charges for injured motorcyclists.
- Texas had a universal helmet law from 1968 to 1977. In 1977, Texas amended the law to require only riders under 18 to wear helmets, coinciding with a 35 percent increase in motorcycle accident fatalities. In 1989, when Texas reinstated the universal helmet law, serious injury crashes involving registered motorcyclists decreased by 11 percent.
- Motorcyclist deaths increased by 50 percent and 100 percent in Kentucky and Louisiana after they repealed their universal helmet laws in the late 1980s.
- In Florida, when the state weakened its helmet laws to allow riders over 21 with at least $10,000 worth of insurance coverage to forgo helmets, the motorcyclist death rate increased by 25 percent, and hospital admissions for motorcyclists suffering from head injuries increased by 82 percent in the first 30 months.
Seeking Compensation After an Accident Involving Riders Without Helmets
All helmets effectively prevent head injuries, such as those that occur from a sudden impact including concussions and skull fractures. Helmets are less effective in protecting the rider from head injuries caused by rotational forces on the head, such as diffuse traumatic brain injuries or brain bleeds.
How does helmet use affect a rider's ability to seek compensation for injuries caused by another driver's negligence after an accident?
The answer to that question depends mainly on the state where the accident occurred. In states that do not have helmet laws or that only apply the laws to the youngest and most inexperienced riders, helmet usage will likely not affect compensation. However, if state law requires the rider to wear a helmet, there is a potential reduction in compensation if the victim was not wearing a helmet during the accident.
Even in states with a universal helmet law, not wearing a helmet does not negate a negligent driver's liability or mean they do not need to compensate you. It simply makes the claims process a bit more complicated. An experienced motorcycle accident attorney can speak with you in greater detail about any potential impacts to the value of your claim that could result from not wearing a helmet.
The Motorcycle Accident Claims Process
Individuals who sustain injuries in a motorcycle accident can seek compensation through the personal injury claims process. This process involves filing the claim as a demand to the at-fault party's auto liability insurance provider. The insurer can either approve the demand for payment, deny the claim, or offer to settle the claim out of court for less than its established value.
If the insurance provider fails to pay the claim or enter a settlement agreement, the victim can file the claim as a personal injury lawsuit. In a lawsuit, a judge or jury decides liability and compensation. While this process sounds simple, complexities can make pursuing compensation overwhelming for those without education and experience in the law. A personal injury attorney brings that education and experience to your claim, helping you to obtain the most compensation possible for your claim.
Some of the services a personal injury lawyer provides include:
- Identifying liability and available insurance resources.
- Establishing a claim value.
- Managing communications with the at-fault party's insurance provider to negotiate a fair settlement.
- Managing the claimed timeline to file the personal injury lawsuit within the statute of limitations.
- Gathering the evidence and witness testimony needed to prove the claim.
- Litigation services.
- Assistance collecting your compensation.
Did a motorcycle accident injure you? Contact a lawyer near you for your free case evaluation.