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Disappointing Motorcycle Helmet Usage Rates in Illinois

Helmets in Illinois Some individuals enjoy using their motorcycle as the preferred way to move about the city or take a leisurely trip on Illinois State routes. Others see motorcycle riding as an economical choice to reduce the expense of buying gas and paying high insurance premiums when traveling to work, shopping or other local destinations. Most riders know the risks of motorcycling and should wear a motorcycle helmet to protect themselves should they crash, which choose not to.

The Illinois Department of Transportation (DOT) released crash information for the year 2014 involving motorcycle accidents with injuries and fatalities. The report revealed that 92 percent (3030 incidents) of the 3292 motorcycle crashes occurring that year involved males, and more than a third of those (1146 accidents) were between 21 and 34 years of age. Motorcyclists who suffered fatal injuries in these accidents that year “were less likely to have been using safety equipment” like wearing a helmet.

Statistics show that of the 118 motorcycle fatalities occurring in 2014, fewer than 2 percent had been wearing a DOT-compliant helmet and 80 percent (68 fatalities) were not wearing any helmet at the time of the accidents. The number of deaths associated with motorcycle accidents occurring in Illinois in 2015 rose 24 percent from the previous year.

Helmets Saving Lives

Riding a motorcycle is significantly more dangerous than operating a car or truck because of the lack of protection. In fact, every time you ride your motorcycle, the odds of your survival are significantly worse if you are riding without a helmet. However, you likely already know that wearing a motorcycle helmet saves lives. While that statement might be obvious to most of us, some knowledgeable bikers choose to ride without a helmet, especially in Illinois where there is no mandated requirement to do so.

According to the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), in 2014, the number of accidents involving motorcycle fatalities in the United States rose 8.3 percent and claimed the lives of 380 motorcyclists more than the year before Nationwide. This rise in fatal motorcycle accidents is tragic. However, that same year in Illinois the number of motorcycle fatalities rose 24 percent, likely because the state does not have any helmet law on the books that requires always wearing a helmet when riding. This significant rise in fatality rates are much higher when compared to the 31 states and District of Columbia that have helmet laws where the death rate fell by 16 percent.

Illinois Motorcycle Laws

As of 2017, there are approximately 300,000 license motorcycles traveling on the roadways, highways and side streets of Illinois. According to the state of Illinois owner’s manual for motorcycle riding, every biker is required to wear the right gear, check their equipment, and make themselves familiar with how their motorcycle operates and how to “be a responsible rider.”

Illinois DOT recommends that every biker should wear a helmet that has been properly fitted and certified according to federal and state guidelines. Additionally, there is an Illinois law that requires all motorcyclists to wear eye or face protection and protective clothing that is preferably constructed of a material that is highly reflective during the day and night. This includes wearing pants and jackets to cover the legs and arms completely along with shoes or boots with sturdy construction that provide support and covers the ankles.

Gloves are an important piece of safety equipment to protect the hands during a collision and provide optimal grip under all weather conditions. The Illinois Motor Vehicles Department recommends that bikers wear leather gloves or those constructed of the durable material. Wearing durable rain gear during inclement weather can keep the motorcyclists mostly dry and provide protection from severe chills and wet conditions during the colder months.

Observational Surveys

To better understand the effects of motorcyclists riding without helmets on city and rural roads, the Illinois DOT under their Bureau of Safety Programs and Engineering conducted an observational survey in June 2016. The survey, based on requirements by the NHTSA, provided valuable insight. The observations were conducted during daylight hours at various locations throughout the state including on country roads, freeways, interstate highways, and some residential streets in random areas.

Of the 1442 motorcyclists and their passengers observed during the survey from nearly 300 statewide locations, the results of the findings on the rate of helmet usage were determined as followed.

  • City of Chicago – 60 observations – Of the 60 bikers and passengers observed within the city limits of Chicago, 33 percent (one-third) wore motorcycle helmets.
  • Cook County – 262 Observations – Of the 262 motorcyclists and their passengers observed traveling throughout Cook County, 42 percent wore helmets.
  • Collar Counties – 572 Observations – Of the 572 observations made from 120 various locations, it was determined that 47 percent motorcyclists and their passengers on average wore helmets.
  • Downstate Illinois – Of the 548 observations made from 70 various locations, it was noted that 34.5 percent of all bikers and passengers on average wore helmets.

The days of the week had a significant impact on the percentage of bikers and passengers who wore helmets. On weekdays, out of the 581 observations made of motorcyclists and bikers, 44.9 percent wore helmets. This was in direct contrast to the 861 observations made of bikers 112 locations on weekends were only 38.4 percent on average wore helmets.

The type of road also had a direct impact on whether a biker or passenger wore a helmet. These include:

  • Residential Observations – Fewer individuals wore helmets on residential streets compared to state highways. Of the 326 bikers and passengers observed and 144 residential locations, only 38.3 percent wore a motorcycle helmet.
  • Interstate Freeways Observations – The highest incident rate of motorcycle riders observed wearing helmets occurred on interstate freeways/highways. Out of the 677 motorcyclists and passengers observed from 60 various locations, 45.6 percent wore helmets.
  • State/Federal Highway Observations – Of the 439 observations of motorcyclists and passengers at 84 locations on Illinois and US highways, only 36.0 percent wore a helmet.

Automobile vs. Motorcycle Fatalities

The numbers of motorcycle fatalities compared two automobile accidents-related deaths is significant. In 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released statistics on the numbers and percentages of motorcycle crashes occurring in the State of Illinois. That year, 3756 crashes involving motorcycles occurred statewide, which led to 3020 injuries and 145 motorcyclist deaths. The injuries and fatalities included accidents involving motorcycles, motorbikes, mopeds, and scooters.

However, even though the number of motorcycle crashes, collisions, and accidents accounted for just over 1 percent of all moving vehicle accidents occurring in Illinois in 2011, the number fatalities associated with motorcycle accidents accounted for 15.8% of all vehicle accident deaths in 2011. The obvious reason for the increase in fatalities likely involves a lack of a physical barrier around the motorcyclist and whether the biker was wearing a helmet at the time of the accident.

Of the 145 individuals in Illinois who lost their life in 2011 in a motorcycle crash, 61 motorcyclists were killed on local streets, county roads, interstate and state routes. The other 85 bikers were killed in accidents occurring on urban roads including on city streets and local area interstates.

Why Wear a Motorcycle Helmet?

Many motorcycle enthusiasts enjoy the opportunity of riding their bike without a helmet for the thrill of the wind moving through their hair and the sensation of total freedom a traveling with the road moving beneath their feet. These bikers make that choice even though they know that riding without helmets makes them more likely to suffer severe head trauma in an accident.

A February 2011 article published by Johns Hopkins Medicine revealed that motorcycle helmet use “appears to be associated with a lower risk of cervical spine injury.” The article included information about a study published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons that showed how motorcyclist wearing helmets are “22 percent less likely to suffer a cervical spine injury” compared to “those without a helmet.”

The most common excuses given by bikers as the reason they do not wear a motorcycle helmet include:

  • Helmets Are Ugly – While there are no fashionable trends in helmet design, they are not primarily built to be attractive but functional.
  • Helmets Are Uncomfortable and Cumbersome – Motorcycle helmet manufacturers have made great advancements in designing comfortable and less cumbersome products. Today’s helmets are crafted with better ventilation and soft interiors constructed with lightweight materials.
  • I’ve Always Ridden without a Helmet – It is possible to live a lifetime or at least years or months without ever being involved in the severe motorcycle accident, whether you ride all the time or not. However, it only takes one crash to cause serious injuries or death.
  • Experience Bikers Never Wear Helmets – It is important to remember that wearing a helmet will only protect your head, not all the heads of all the other motorcyclists on the road. If you want to prevent the serious ramifications of head trauma, it is important that you wear your motorcycle helmet.

Currently, the state of Illinois does not require any biker or passenger to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle. However, there are significant reasons why wearing a helmet make sense, both physically and financially. Some of these reasons include:

  • Save Your Life – Traumatic brain injury is likely to be the result of most motorcycle accidents when the rider does not wear a helmet. Alternatively, by wearing a helmet during an accident, you have a 37% better chance of not dying from the crash and a 67% better chance of not having a brain injury.
  • Easy Law to Enforce – State legislatures can enact motorcycle helmet laws that are easy to enforce because just by looking at the motorcyclists or passenger riding on the bike, law enforcement officers can quickly identify violators, write tickets, and reduce motorcycle accident-related mortality rates and injuries.
  • Injury and Fatality Rates Are Climbing – The incident rate of motorcycle-related fatalities has reached its highest peak in the last two decades. Approximately 10 percent of all vehicle accident-related deaths involve motorcycles, which account for slightly more than 1 percent of all registered vehicles in the U.S.
  • Increasing Health Care Costs – Because of the rising numbers of motorcycle accident-related injuries and fatalities, bikers must pay higher health care costs. The state also has an additional financial burden for treating and caring motorcycle accident victims who are uninsured, which places the costs and ongoing expense of continuing care on the taxpayers. A study out of Maryland in 2005 estimated should they repeal their helmet law, the costs of Medicaid expenditures would rise by upwards of $1.5 billion every year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that every motorcycle accident-related fatality costs more than $1.2 million and serious motorcycle-accident related injuries cost more than $170,000. The calculation is based on all the associated expenses involved with medical and emergency services along with household-related expenses from the loss of work productivity.
  • Ineffective, Unproven Alternatives – Many bikers promote making motorcycle riding training mandatory as an alternative to enacting a helmet law. However, the Traffic Injury Research Foundation reviewed this request and concluded that no scientific evidence exists that shows how mandatory motorcycle riding training reduces the potential of a biker being involved in an accident with injuries or fatalities.
  • Helmets Do Not Cause Injury – Many, critics are pushing back on enacting helmet laws by basing their opinions on highly disputed reports that suggest that the weight and cumbersomeness of wearing a helmet can cause significant spinal cord injuries during a motorcycle collision. However, there are numerous peer-reviewed research studies that refute this claim and instead prove the opposite. The refuting studies show that wearing a helmet will not interfere with the bikers hearing, nor restrict their vision or cause any discomfort that could lead to an accident.
  • Improves Your Visibility – Wearing motorcycle helmet constructed with reflective materials can make it much easier for motorists to see you on the roadway especially when the conditions are compromised at night or during storms.
  • Road Debris Protection – Road debris can be a serious problem for motorcycles who must deal with numerous environmental obstacles. This can include debris and materials that get kicked up by other vehicles on the road, or by blowing dust that can obstruct the biker’s vision. Other debris problems include materials, including rocks, soil, and sand that fall from trucks traveling ahead.
  • A Protection from Outdoor Elements – Wearing a helmet provides protection and warmth to the head during winter months, falling snow, and in ice storms. During the summer months, the helmet can minimize the potential of suffering a sunburn. The helmet is an effective windbreaker, especially if the biker and/or passenger is wearing a full-face shield.

What Helmets to Wear

Simply wearing any motorcycle helmet will not provide the protection you need in the event of a serious collision, crash or accident. This is because there are two main components of a motorcycle helmet that provide the highest level of protection. These include the construction of the helmets outer shell of hard, thin polycarbonate fiberglass, plastic or Kevlar (the material used in making bulletproof vests). The second component includes the construction of a soft interlining made of thick expanded polypropylene or polystyrene foam.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has set minimum standards on helmet specifications. However, bikers should consider purchasing a helmet that is constructed beyond the federal government’s minimal legal compliance requirements. This might include avoiding the purchase of a novelty helmet that may be attractive in design but does not provide a heightened level of safety.

Snell Standard for Motorcycle Helmets

In recent years, a private firm has developed the Snell Standard whose standards are much stricter than the federal government because it involves testing the helmets using impact replication tests where the exact same spot is struck twice. These tests help determine the effectiveness of the helmet’s liner and hard thick exterior.

While these tests are necessary for determining the stability of materials and the potential outcome of the serious accident, there is no way to accurately duplicate the function of a helmet involved in a crash. Even so, every helmet manufacturer selling products in the United States is required to follow the DOT standard guidelines.

The best motorcycle helmets available in the marketplace include those with noise reduction, advanced aerodynamics, modular design, enhanced comfort and visibility, and those sold in various sizes and assorted colors that meet the biker’s needs. These features are especially important individuals who ride motorcycles at high-speed and need guarded eye protection. That said, simply purchasing a simple motorcycle helmet with minimal safety ratings just to travel around town will not provide the highest level of protection available.

Safety Certifications for Motorcycle Helmets

It is essential to ensure that the motorcycle helmet you purchase is certified with one or more acronyms including DOT, SHARP, AUS, or ECE. However, a Snell certification is just as crucial because these helmets are constructed with materials that can handle a crash including having a vehicle run over it. This certification focuses on the helmet’s anti-puncture strength that is used as the benchmark for many helmets sold in the United States.

It is important to understand that any helmet involved in a one-time crash is no longer safe, or likely no longer safe, at providing full protection of the biker’s head. Because of that, it must be thrown away and replaced. This is also true if the helmet is dropped from a significant height. Imagine the strength and durability of your home and is much like the exterior of an egg, that when met with an impact, is compromised. The compromised helmet might have tiny cracks caused by an accident or impact that go completely undetected.

The Helmet Fit

The well-constructed certified helmet that provides the highest level of protection will fit properly and not wiggle around on the head or pinch the temples. It is crucial that the helmet fits snugly around the skull and on the forehead and remains comfortable even after it has been worn for ten minutes or more. It is very important that it does not shake or move at all once it is strapped in place. This is important because any movement could cause the helmet to push down on the head and cause uncomfortable pressure while obstructing your view.

Testing the Helmet

Testing a helmet inside the store is not a sufficient way of determining it fits, is comfortable and functional. A good fit is especially important if you wear an open face helmet where the wind can move inside the helmet. This type of helmet requires a highly functional chin guard or visor. Note that the cost of a helmet in no way correlates with its safety features or its ability to protect your cranium in the event of a serious life-threatening accident. Most expensive helmets are priced according to their styling features that might have additional venting, elaborate painting, integrated shields or leather trim. It is more important to focus on functional features and its comfort and fit to ensure your safety or the safety of your passenger.

Protection When Riding

While there is no Illinois law mandating that motorcyclists or passengers wear a helmet, all motorcycle riders must protect their eyes using a transparent shield, goggles or glasses. However, the glasses or sunglasses must be constructed of shatter resistant materials. The transparent shield can be an installed windshield on the front of the motorcycle, so long as the shield extends to a point that is high enough to guard the eyes against the wind when the biker sits in a normal upright position.

In addition to protecting the skull by wearing a helmet, a biker can wear reinforced jackets, leathers, gloves, and non-slip boots. Purchasing safety gear and clothing in bright colors made of reflecting materials can enhance the motorcyclist’s visibility to other motorists and elevate their level of safety while riding Illinois streets and roads.

Many statistics support the facts that using common sense when riding by wearing a helmet and other safety equipment can save lives. In addition, traveling at safe speeds based on the condition of the roadway and avoiding too much wind, dust or smoke that can increase your safety and help you live longer and healthier.