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Vanderbilt Trauma surgeons speak out against proposed motorcycle helmet legislation

Mar. 17, 2014, 8:46 AM

Despite 40 years of definitive data that confirms increased deaths and medical costs in states that do not support universal motorcycle helmet laws, members of Tennessee’s legislature have again this year filed legislation — Senate Bill 548/House Bill 44, Helmet Exemption for Certain Motorcycle Operators — to amend the state’s law so that wearing a motorcycle helmet would be optional for riders 25 and older.

Having proposed similar legislation in prior years, legislators say again this year efforts to modify Tennessee’s universal motorcycle helmet law are about personal choice and freedom.

Trauma surgeons at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Middle Tennessee’s only Level 1 Trauma Center, express concern over the proposed legislation that if passed will result in increased fatalities and increased health care costs for all Tennesseans.

The proposed legislation limits the amount of required insurance coverage to $25,000 for bodily injury or death for an individual or $50,000 for two riders.

“Tennessee’s universal motorcycle helmet law, enacted in 1967, has saved tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Richard Miller, M.D., professor of Surgery and chief of Vanderbilt’s Division of Trauma and Surgical Critical Care.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that in 2010 alone Tennessee’s motorcycle helmet law saved 46 additional lives and $94 million in economic costs.

“At a time when our state and our nation are attempting to reduce health care costs, this legislation, if enacted, will result in increased deaths and substantial financial consequences not only for the accident victims but for all Tennessee taxpayers,” Miller said.

The ability of motorcycle helmets to save lives and health care dollars through reduced severity of injury is without question. On average, motorcycle helmets reduce the risk of death by 37 percent, reduce the risk of traumatic brain injury by 69 percent, and save the U.S. approximately $3 billion each year. In 2010, the U.S. could have saved an additional $1.4 billion if all motorcyclists had worn helmets.

“The data is so convincing that motorcycle helmets save lives this issue should be put to rest once and for all,” Miller said.

According to Oscar Guillamondegui, M.D., associate professor of Surgery and director of the Vanderbilt Multidisciplinary Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic, motorcyclists who do not wear helmets are at much greater risk for death or costly recovery and rehabilitation in long-term care facilities. These facilities can cost more than $2,500 per day.

“The nature of non-helmeted motorcycle crash victims cared for at VUMC is that although an increased loss of life is difficult to ascertain, the increased cost of long-term rehabilitation is undeniable,” said Guillamondegui.

According to the NHTSA, each year each state with a universal motorcycle helmet law saves on average 36 additional lives and $73 million in economic costs.

Tennessee’s neighbor Kentucky amended its motorcycle helmet law in 1998 to make helmets optional for riders over age 21. Kentucky has since seen the number of motorcycle-related fatalities rise by more than 50 percent. In Kentucky during 2012 there were 1,490 motorcycle injuries and 96 fatalities. Of those injured, 792 were not wearing a helmet. Of those killed, 59 were not wearing a helmet.

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