Posted on Mar 25, 2018

A recent study by the University of Wisconsin claims that helmet use reduces the chance of neck injury. man on motorcycle with small white dog

This finding disputes a long held belief by motorcyclist's rights activists that helmets cause fatigue, reduce peripheral vision and hearing, and compromise the neck due to the weight of the helmet (analogous to the shaken baby syndrome). That belief stemmed from studies conducted in the state of  New York  that concluded there was a drastic increase in cervical spine injuries after enactment of the mandatory helmet law there. In fact there was such a great concern that a national protest rally was planned, concentrating on those very issues, in May, 1974.

1974 National helmet day poster

The narrow scope of the UW study prompted a response from ABATE of Wisconsin Legislative Committee Chairman Steve Panten. This is the official ABATE position on the recent study: 

Abate of Wisconsin logo

Many studies and reports have been published regarding the safety of motorcycling and helmet use.

While each one of these reports is biased on whether a helmet would save a life or prevent serious

injury, the results rarely focus on the actual cause of the fatality. I have not seen any study that looked

at if the helmet would have made a difference when the operator died as a result of massive trauma to

the body, it’s just reported that the operator was not wearing a helmet.

A recent report out by the University of Wisconsin states that motorcycle operators that wear helmets

are less likely to suffer neck trauma. This same study also states that other studies contradict these

findings and it does not look at other injuries or factors that may have affected the injury.

There is a constant public push for requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets as a means to prevent

injuries or death without publishing all of the information. A helmet is considered a “silver bullet” to

reducing motorcycle fatalities when in fact a helmet will not help in a case of a driver suffering trauma

to the body. Even in a case where there is a fatality and the driver was not wearing a helmet the

question should be asked if there was in fact a head injury, and if the injury was the actual cause of the

death or was it something else.

A quick comparison of states with the highest motorcycle fatality rates shows that out of the 10 states

with the highest rates, 3 are states that require motorcyclists to wear helmets, whereas the 10 states

with the fewest fatalities, 6 of them are “choice” or no requirement states. These numbers show there is

no true correlation between helmet use and safety. Again, these numbers do not show what the cause

of death was, just whether there was helmet use. Did the helmet prevent a fatality in these situations or

did the helmet cause more harm? These are the questions that are not even addressed when reporting.

With all of the different studies that are represented and all of the conflicting information regarding a

motorcycle helmet and its ability to prevent spinal injury or even death, one thing is known; wearing a

motorcycle helmet is not a “silver bullet” to reducing motorcycle fatalities. A motorcyclist should review

the information and make an educated decision on what is best for the individual. Nothing prevents

injuries or death while operating a motorcycle better than avoiding the crash altogether. Proper training

and driver awareness should be the focus of everyone with an interest in reducing fatalities.


The debate on helmet use effectiveness will continue, but comparisons between mandatory use and personal choice states indicated there is no real difference in overall fatality rates.

Tony Sanfelipo
Connect with me
Senior Motorcycle Accident Investigator