Washington — Traffic deaths in Michigan rose 5.3 percent in 2012, while motorcycle deaths jumped 18 percent in the first year since Michigan allowed bikers to ride without a helmet, statistics show.
The number of riders killed without a helmet went from five in 2011 — less than 5 percent of all deaths — to 55, or just under 43 percent, in 2012, the Michigan State Police reported Monday. In April, Michigan became the 31st state to allow motorcycle riders the option of riding without a helmet if they met certain criteria.
Government officials and studies have repeatedly found that motorcycle deaths rise after a state allows riders to not wear helmets.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief David Strickland said in an interview last year he hoped Michigan would still encourage riders to wear helmets. "Every state that has repealed their mandatory helmet law has unfortunately seen a requisite increase in fatalities in motorcycle crashes," Strickland said.
NHTSA estimated that helmets saved 1,829 motorcyclists' lives in 2008. Another 822 motorcyclists who died that year would have survived had they worn helmets, the agency said.
But motorcycle advocates said many of the deaths were riders who weren't properly licensed. It also was not clear how many riders who were not wearing helmets would have survived with one on. The advocates noted that Michigan's riding season was longer in 2012 due to good weather.
"Michigan's fatality rate has a history of fluctuation," said Vince Consiglio, president of the motorcycle advocacy group ABATE of Michigan. "When you consider it was the hottest summer ever and there was a slight increase in registrations, we consider this a wash. Last year was an exceptional year for weather."Consiglio said more than half of all riders didn't have a permanent motorcycle license and there are parts of the state without proper safety training or classes.
"The state needs to focus more on that," he said.
In 2012, Michigan had 3,509 motorcycle crashes, the highest number recorded since 2008, which had 3,977 crashes — even as total motor vehicle crashes in the state fell by 4 percent.
The state recorded 655 incapacitating injuries of motocrycle riders in 2012, up from 575 in 2011. The number of seriously injured riders not wearing a helmet jumped from 24 in 2011 to 195 in 2012.
Nationally, motorcycle deaths now account for about 1 in 7 of all road deaths.
Motorcycle deaths have risen nationally in 12 of the last 13 years. They doubled from 2,116 in 1997 to 5,312 in 2008.
And in 2011 motorcycle deaths rose 2 percent to 4,612, while, during that same period, total traffic deaths fell 1.9 percent to 32,367.
After the helmet laws were repealed, motorcyclist deaths increased by 108 percent in Louisiana, 81 percent in Florida, 58 percent in Kentucky, 31 percent in Texas and 21 percent in Arkansas.
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, helmets are 37 percent effective at preventing fatal injuries among motorcyclists and are 41 percent effective for motorcycle passengers.
And when weighted against miles traveled, motorcyclists are 37 times more likely to be killed than a car passenger in a crash, according to NHTSA.
Today, 19 states have universal helmet laws. No state has enacted a must-wear helmet law since Louisiana reinstated its law in 2004.
State police said despite the increase in deaths last year, traffic safety actually is improving over the long term. Overall, Michigan traffic crashes and injuries were down in 2012, but traffic deaths rose from 889 to 936.
"Michigan's increase in traffic fatalities mirrors what has taken place across the country," said Col. Kriste Kibbey Etue, Michigan State Police director.
"Despite an increase in traffic deaths last year, the long-term picture indicates this is the fifth year in a row Michigan had fewer than 1,000 traffic deaths."
In Michigan, traffic crashes fell in 2012 by 4 percent to 273,891 from 284,049 in 2011. Injuries were down 2 percent to 70,519 from 71,796 in 2011.
The safety association estimated teen traffic deaths were up 19 percent nationally in the first half of 2012, while they declined 14 percent, from 99 in 2011 to 85 in 2012.
Michigan State Police said alcohol- and drug-involved fatalities rose 3 percent to 281 and 6 percent to 135, respectively.
Cellphone-involved crashes decreased 9 percent, from 821 in 2011 to 748 in 2012.
Cellphone-involved fatal crashes increased from six in 2011 to eight in 2012. Michigan is not able to track crashes involving texting.
Bicyclist fatalities were down 17 percent, from 24 in 2011 to 20 in 2012, while pedestrian fatalities decreased 5 percent, from 140 in 2011 to 133 in 2012.
The number of crashes involving deer declined 9 percent, from 53,592 in 2011 to 48,918 in 2012.
Michigan mirrors what is taking place nationally.
Traffic deaths in the United States rose 7.1 percent in the first nine months of 2012, according to preliminary estimates.
NHTSA estimates 25,580 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes through Sept. 30 — about 1,700 more people killed on the roads than over the same period in 2011.
The 7.1 percent increase is the largest such increase during the first nine months of the year since 1975 — the first year NHTSA started collecting detailed crash data.