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Michigan Helmet Law Repeal: Tragic Consequences Explained

The Michigan helmet law repeal ended the 40-year-old legal mandate that all motorcyclists wear protective headgear. The fatality rate for motorcyclists without helmets has been nearly twice that for helmeted motorcyclists. There has been an overall 14% in head injuries among hospitalized motorcyclists.

History of the Michigan Helmet Law Repeal

Between 1969 and 2012, Michigan had a “universal” motorcycle helmet law which provided that “A person operating or riding on a motorcycle . . .  shall wear a crash helmet on his or her head.” (Former MCL 257.658(4))

It was called a “universal” helmet law because it applied to everyone operating or riding a motorcycle, regardless of whether they were driving or riding, owner or borrower, experienced motorcyclist or novice, or adult or child.

In the case of People v. Poucher, 398 Mich. 316, 247 N.W.2d 798 (1976), which involved a City of Adrian ordinance that was identical to Michigan’s universal helmet law statute, the Michigan Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Michigan’s universal motorcycle helmet law. The justices explained:

  • “We believe there is a distinction between regulations which solely protect the individual from himself, and those which primarily protect the individual and secondarily protect society as a whole. More is involved than the unfettered freedom of the cyclist. For example, the ordinance benefits the driver of a vehicle which may accidentally collide with a motorcyclist. Since the helmet is designed to reduce injury to the cyclist, it also has a concomitant effect on the status of the automobile driver. If the helmet succeeds in mitigating what would otherwise be a fatal injury, then not only has the cyclist survived, but the automobile driver has not killed anyone. Government agencies have gathered impressive statistics on the increased hazard associated with these vehicles, as compared to enclosed transportation. The helmet ordinance is therefore a creative, relatively nonintrusive response of government to protect the public from detrimental technological change. Wearing a helmet is a minor burden, the effects of which benefit not only both parties involved in an accident, but society as a whole. Enforcement of the provision is open and public. Because the cost of the safety device is not only low, but technologically simple to achieve, it does not unduly burden the use of motorcycles.”

On March 24, 2011, a Michigan state senator introduced Senate Bill 291 to repeal Michigan’s universal motorcycle helmet law. After being passed by both the Michigan Senate and the Michigan House of Representatives, Gov. Rick Snyder approved the repeal on April 12, 2012. 

The repeal was officially enacted in Public Act 98 of 2012 and it became effective on April 13, 2012. 

Why did Michigan repeal the motorcycle helmet law?

The lawmakers who pushed for changing the law claimed repeal of the motorcycle helmet law would boost Michigan’s economy by increasing tourism and the sale of motorcycles and related items. They also insisted helmets were not effective at preventing death or serious injury. 

The pro-repeal lawmakers made the following arguments, according to a House Fiscal Agency analysis:

  • “[W]earing a helmet, or not wearing one, should be a matter of personal choice and not a legal mandate.”
  • “[H]elmets are not effective in preventing death or serious injury in motorcycle accidents. They say that fatality rates are not higher in states that have modified their helmet laws.”
  • Motorcyclists dispute the impact of helmet law modifications on insurance costs . . . argu[ing] that historically insurance rates do not . . . go up when they are repealed or modified.”
  • “[T]he easing of the helmet requirement will have a positive effect on the state’s economy. The current law discourages out-of-state motorcyclists from traveling to Michigan. Changes to the state’s helmet laws are likely to increase tourism spending, as well as increase the sales of vehicles and accessories.”

Reasons to oppose the Michigan motorcycle helmet law repeal

Safety advocates, including both the insurance industry and medical professionals, opposed repealing the law that required all motorcyclists to wear crash helmets:

  • “[A]llowing motorcycle operators, and/or their passengers, to ride without crash helmets . . . will increase the number of motorcycle fatalities, increase the number of serious injuries, increase the cost of health and . . . increase Medicaid expenditures.”
  • “The helmet law, like laws mandating seatbelts and child safety restraints, are an expression of public concern for the general welfare of motorcyclists and operators, as well as an attempt to reduce the costs of accidents generally.”
  • “Insurance industry representatives in previous sessions have testified that an unhelmeted rider is 40 percent more likely to suffer a fatal head injury compared to a rider with a helmet and helmets are 67 percent effective in preventing brain injuries (citing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics). They say that motorcyclists impose disproportionate costs on the state’s No-Fault insurance system, particularly the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association.”
  • “Hospital officials have said that an unhelmeted rider is 37 percent more likely to need ambulance services, be admitted to a hospital as an inpatient, have higher hospital costs, need neurosurgery, intensive care, and rehabilitation, be permanently impaired, and need long-term care.”

How did the Michigan motorcycle helmet law repeal change things for motorcyclists

Motorcyclists who are 21 years of age or older can ride without wearing crash helmets so long as certain licensing and insurance requirements are met. 

Operators must have a motorcycle endorsement on their license for at least two or have passed a motorcycle safety course. (MCL 257.658(5)(a)) 

Both operators and riders must have at least $20,000 in first-party medical benefits coverage. (MCL 257.658(5)(a), (b) and (c))

Fatalities, injuries and helmet use since the repeal

Motorcycle-involved motor vehicle crashes dropped from 3,178 in 2011 (the year before the Michigan motorcycle helmet law repeal in 2012) to 2,723 in 2019.

The number of motorcyclists killed in motorcycle-involved crashes increased from 109 to 122 over that same period, but the number of motorcyclists injured fell from 2,556 to 2,176.

In the years since the repeal, the percentage of motorcyclists who were killed and who were not wearing helmets has averaged approximately 43%: 2013-46.1%; 2014-44.9%; 2015-40.6%; 2016-49.6%; 2017-43.1%; 2018-38.1%; 2019-44.3%.

Research has also revealed the following:

  • Compared with motorcyclists who were wearing helmets, motorcyclists without helmets were nearly twice as likely to suffer craniomaxillofacial injuries (i.e., injuries to the mouth, jaws, face and skull) and had lower Glasgow Coma Scale scores and higher Injury Severity Scores, according to 2017 study, “The Effects of Motorcycle Helmet Legislation on Craniomaxillofacial Injuries,” which was published in the Journal of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.
  • In the three years after the repeal, researchers found that non-helmeted motorcyclists had a significantly higher in-patient mortality rate injury severity score than motorcyclists who had been wearing helmets, plus unhelmeted motorcyclists stayed in intensive care longer and more often required mechanical ventilation, according to the December 2015 study, “Repeal of the Michigan helmet law: the evolving clinical impact,” which was published in The American Journal of Surgery.

Do helmets save lives?

NHTSA says helmets save lives. In 2017, it is estimated that motorcycle helmets saved 1,872 motorcyclists’ lives nationwide and 46 in Michigan. If there had been 100% crash helmet use by all motorcyclists, an additional 749 lives across the U.S. and 27 in Michigan could have been saved. 

The fatality rate for motorcyclists without helmets after the repeal was nearly twice that for helmeted motorcyclists and there was a 14% increase in head injuries among hospitalized motorcyclists, according to the 2017 study, “The Impact of Michigan’s Partial Repeal of the Universal Motorcycle Helmet Law on Helmet Use, Fatalities, and Head Injuries,” which was published in the American Journal of Public Health.

How has Michigan been affected by the helmet law repeal?

With the Michigan helmet law repeal in affect motorcyclists who choose to ride without protective headgear now have to pay more for insurance because in addition to the liability coverage they have always been required to carry, they must now also purchase first-party medical benefits insurance. (MCL 500.3103(1); 257.658(5))

It does not appear that there has been an increase in motorcycle tourism. Researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that: “Before and after the modification, the percentage of out-of-state riders who were involved in Michigan crashes has remained stable at 5%. This is one way of estimating whether there has been any change in out-of-state ridership after the modification.”

Need help? Call the attorneys at Michigan Auto Law

If you have been injured in a Michigan motorcycle accident and would like to speak to an experienced attorney, call toll free anytime 24/7 at (800) 968-1001 for a free consultation with one of our attorneys. You can also get help from an experienced accident attorney by visiting our contact page or you can use the chat feature on our website.

(Sources: House Fiscal Agency, Legislative Analysis, Senate Bill 291 (Enacted as Public Act 98 of 2012), dated 11/1/2011; Michigan Traffic Crash Facts, Fact Sheets, “Motorcycles”; NHTSA, “Traffic Safety Facts,” “Lives and Costs Saved by Motorcycle Helmets, 2017,” published December 2019; University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, “Analysis of Motorcycle Crashes in Michigan 2009-2013,” November 2014)