WASHINGTON – Federal safety officials called on states Thursday to require all motorcycle riders to wear helmets, citing a surge in fatalities since the late 1990s.
Motorcycle deaths have increased over the last decade even as other traffic fatalities have declined, the National Transportation Safety Board said.
There were 4,400 motorcycle deaths in the U.S. last year, more than in all aviation, rail, marine and pipeline accidents combined. That's nearly twice the fatalities a decade ago. Head injuries are the leading cause of death in motorcycle crashes.
Board members said at a news conference they were elevating the helmet recommendation to their annual list of "most wanted" safety improvements to spotlight the issue and pressure governors and state legislatures to act.
"People have to get outraged about this safety issue that is causing so many deaths needlessly," NTSB Vice Chairman Christopher Hart said.
Twenty states make all motorcycle riders wear helmets, the board said. Most states have limited helmet requirements, and three states — Iowa, Illinois and New Hampshire — have no requirement.
Nearly all states had universal helmet laws when they were necessary for full federal highway funding. But in the mid-1990s Congress repealed the requirement, leaving the issue up to states to decide. As states began repealing or weakening helmet laws, fatalities rose.
The safety board can't force states to enact tougher helmet laws or offer money as an incentive. Its primary power is its bully pulpit.
Deborah Hersman, the safety board's chair, promised to keep pressure on states and, if that doesn't work, to seek help from Congress or the administration.
The call or tougher helmet laws comes after a new report showing the United States lagging behind nearly every other wealthy country in reducing traffic fatalities, despite bringing them down 9.7 percent last year to 33,808, the lowest number since 1950. In 2008, an estimated 37,423 people died on the highways, representing a yearly decline of 9.3 percent.
The dramatic declines were likely due to a sour economy as people drove less, rather than changing their behavior, the report by the Transportation Research Board said. Fatalities are likely to increase as the economy improves, researchers said.
Other countries are doing better. The U.S. had the lowest fatality rate in the world in the 1970s, but Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Norway, France and the United Kingdom have surpassed the United States.
While fatalities dropped 19 percent in the U.S. from 1995 to 2009, they dropped 52 percent in France and 38 percent in the United Kingdom. Rates fell 50 percent in 15 high-income countries with available traffic data.
"The United States can no longer claim to rank highly in road safety by world standards," the report said.
Fatalities have fallen in other nations partly through programs that sometimes generate opposition in the U.S such as speed cameras and speed measuring devices, sobriety checkpoints and mandatory motorcycle helmets. Thousands of lives could be saved if such programs were widely adopted in the U.S., the report said.
More frequent checkpoints nationwide to detect drunk drivers could save 1,500 to 3,000 lives annually, researchers estimated. Systematic speed control programs could save 1,000 to 2,000 lives, and mandatory helmet rules for motorcyclists could mean 450 less deaths a year. Another 1,200 deaths would be avoided if seat belt use rose to 90 percent from 85 percent.
"Where is the public outcry against these preventable deaths?" Hersman asked.
"Americans should strive for zero fatalities on the road. We should be leading, rather than following the international community when it comes to roadway design and safety measures," he said. "But it is a sad fact that the U.S. is in their rear view mirror and falling further behind the rest of the world when it comes to highway safety."
Clinton Oster, an environment and public policy professor at the Indiana University-Bloomington and chairman of the committee that wrote the report, said there was no "silver bullet" program that stood out.
"I think we need to be much more systematic in developing clear goals, measuring results and making that information public," Oster said. Other countries "work very hard to demonstrate these techniques actually do save lives."