Riding a motorcycle without a helmet may conjure up images of a cool rider with the wind blowing through his hair.
The reality? A fractured skull, and a bruised and battered face – or worse – are much more likely if a crash occurs.
Since Michigan eased its helmet laws, the number of skull fractures and other head and facial injuries related to motorcycle accidents has doubled, a new study finds.
Double the injury risk
Michigan repealed its universal motorcycle helmet law in 2012. The new law allows riders to go without helmets if they meet criteria for age (over 21), training/experience and insurance coverage.
In South Africa the law pertaining to motorcycle helmets is very clear: "No person shall drive or be a passenger on a motorcycle, motor tricycle or a motor quadrucycle, or be a passenger in the side-car attached to a motor cycle, on a public road, unless he or she is wearing a protective helmet."
The US researchers reviewed motorcyclist injury data for three years before and three years after the change in helmet laws. The study included a total of nearly 4 700 motorcycle trauma patients. They were seen at 29 Michigan trauma centres.
The proportion of motorcycle trauma patients who were riding without helmets more than doubled, from 20% to 44%, during the study period. Compared with those who wore helmets, those who didn't wear helmets were about twice as likely to suffer head and facial injuries, the findings showed.
However, in the case of young motocross (rough-terrain motorcycle racing) riders, a study found that helmets do little to ward off serious injury when they crash on the off-road courses.
The rate of head and facial injuries rose from 25.5% under the universal helmet law to 37% under the partial helmet law. That's a 46% increase. There was a 28% increase in fractures and a 56% increase in soft tissue injuries, the investigators found.
Certain types of facial injuries increased significantly after the change in helmet laws, including fractures of the cheekbones, facial cuts, scrapes and bruises. All types of injuries were more common in people who didn't wear helmets, the study authors said.
The study was published in the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.
"Our study demonstrates the negative impact of weakened motorcycle helmet laws leading to decreased helmet use," study lead author Dr Nicholas Adams said in a journal news release.
He is with the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine and Spectrum Health, Grand Rapids.
Previous studies have shown that helmets prevent nearly 40% of fatal injuries and 13% of nonfatal serious injuries, according to the news release.
However, as many as one in three US motorcyclists don't wear helmets. And that figure is higher in American states without universal helmet laws, the study authors noted.
"We urge state and national legislators to re-establish universal motorcycle helmet laws," Adams said.