Motorcycle deaths have risen significantly since Michigan repealed its mandatory helmet law in 2012, with the number of helmetless deaths climbing 460 percent.
The dramatic increases are the strongest evidence yet that the state’s repeal in 2012 has led to more roadway deaths. Backers of helmetless riding say the data isn’t conclusive, however, and could simply reflect a rise in the number of motorcycles on the road.
Motorcycle deaths have risen 26 percent since the law was repealed, according to figures reported Tuesday by the Insurance Institute of Michigan. In 2011, there were 109 deaths; that number rose to 138 in 2015, according to the institute.
“We knew from other states’ experiences that deaths increase when motorcyclists are allowed to ride without helmets,” Pete Kuhnmuench, executive director of the Insurance Institute, said in a statement Tuesday. “Unfortunately, the predictions were accurate and more motorcyclists are dying in motorcycle crashes.”
More helmetless riders have been dying since the repeal, Michigan State Police data show.
In 2011, the year before the repeal, five of the 109 motorcyclists who were killed in crashes were not wearing a helmet, according to the state police. Last year, 56 of the 138 riders were killed were not wearing helmets.
Michigan is one of 32 states that does not require all motorcycle riders to wear helmets, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Governors Highway Safety Association. Advocates of the repeal say it’s a matter of personal choice and point out that motorcycle riders are required to carry extra insurance if they choose to forgo helmets.
Todd Ritter of Traverse City believes his brother, James Ritter, might be alive today if the helmet law had not been repealed.
Todd Ritter said his brother had been riding motorcycles for about 10 years before the crash in May 2012 that took his life. Todd said his brother wore helmets “up until the repeal,” but he did not have one on the day of the fatal accident.
“The day the law changed, he quit wearing them,” said Ritter, a captain with the Grand Traverse County Sheriff's Office and also a 30-year motorcycle rider himself.
Republican Sen. Phil Pavlov of St. Clair Township, who wrote the 2012 helmet law repeal, disputed the motorcycle death data Tuesday, questioning how many of the perished riders were killed from injuries sustained to their heads.
“There’s a number of factors that you have to consider. ... What actually caused the death?” Pavlov told The Detroit News. “Was it a head injury or a lower body injury where excessive bleeding took place?”
Pavlov also believes motorcycling has increased since lawmakers made helmets voluntary.
“People are riding more,” Pavlov said. “It’s a fundamental freedom that they’ve enjoyed. ... The center of my support for the bill was the freedom to be able to choose.”
A spokesman for Gov. Rick Snyder, who signed the repeal into law, said the governor is deferring to state lawmakers to determine if it should be reversed and that he has no plans to initiate a change.
“If the legislature decides the issue needs to be revisited and wants to send something to the governor, he will of course review it,” Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said in an email. “At this time, however, the governor does not have any initiative underway to revisit that change in law.”
Motorcycle riders in Michigan are required to have a special motorcycle endorsement on their drivers’ licenses for at least two years prior to being cleared to ride without a helmet.
Riders who opt to forgo wearing a helmet are also required to carry at least $20,000 in first-party medical benefits on their insurance policies.
Vince Consiglio, president of the American Bikers Aiming Toward Education (ABATE), the Michigan group that pushed for the repeal of the helmet law, believes most motorcyclists who are killed in crashes are not properly licensed. He said helmets give riders a false sense of security that they do not need to complete needed training.
“People feel they don’t need to have proper training if they wear a helmet, but they’re not ready to survive on the road,” Consiglio said.
Fred Woodhams, a spokesman with the Michigan Secretary of State’s office, said there are currently 490,427 motorcyclists who are endorsed by the state to ride.
He estimated that there are about 40,000 riders who are not endorsed on the state’s roads, which he said is down from about 50,000 before the Secretary of State’s office began conducting a program to target “shadow riders” with the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning in 2013.
Woodhams said motorcyclists can be ticketed or have their bikes impounded if they are caught riding without endorsements.
“That’s often the biggest motivator for folks,” he said. “They don’t like to see their often very expensive bikes being hauled away.”
Ritter, who is in favor of reinstating the helmet law, said he is not sure his brother would have been saved if he was wearing a helmet at the time of his accident.
“He had a combination of speed and poor judgment that put him into a tree at about 50 miles per hour, although he did have some head trauma,” Ritter said.
He added that he wears helmets and other protective gear like leather jackets with sleeves to protect his skin and gloves to guard his hands when he rides motorcycles, however.
“Just like seat belts, helmets save lives,” Ritter said. “There’s enough data to show that.”
Staff writer Chad Livengood contributed.