Michigan's Weakened Helmet Law Leads To Costlier Injury Claims, Study Finds

Jon Langston
by Jon Langston

Freedom may not be free, but it is getting more expensive.

According to a new study by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), the average insurance payment on a motorcycle injury claim rose substantially in Michigan after the state changed its helmet law to exempt most riders last year.

For more than 40 years, Michigan required all motorcycle riders to wear helmets. As of April 2012, however, the requirement applies only to riders younger than 21. All others may opt to ride without a helmet if they have either passed a motorcycle safety course or have held the motorcycle endorsement on their driver’s license for at least two years. Unhelmeted riders also must carry at least $20,000 in medical coverage.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that helmets cut the risk of a motorcycle fatality by 37 percent, and safety groups predicted that deaths would increase in Michigan as a result of the change. The trends reported by HLDI confirm that motorcyclists’ injuries in the state have indeed become more serious.

To see how the law change affected injuries, HLDI analysts compared medical payment (MedPay) losses from the 2010-11 riding seasons with the 2012 season. HLDI measures insurance losses three ways: by claim frequency, or rate; claim severity, or the average amount paid on each claim; and overall losses, which is the product of frequency and severity. The HLDI found that MedPay claim frequency was 10 percent higher than would have been expected without the law change, claim severity was 36 percent higher, and overall losses were 51 percent higher. (MedPay coverage insures against injuries sustained by motorcycle operators.)

The study compared losses in Michigan with losses in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin — where helmet laws did not change — and controlling for motorcycle age and class; rider age, gender and marital status; weather; and other factors.

Because policies with higher limits will pay more for serious injuries than those with lower limits, HLDI analysts expected that the law’s requirement that helmetless riders carry at least $20,000 of MedPay coverage would affect claim severity and overall losses. To see how much of the change in severity was a result of riders going without helmets, as opposed to such coverage changes, they controlled for policy limits – and found that claim severity still increased 22 percent after the new law went into effect.

“Weakening the helmet law seems to have made it somewhat more likely that riders will sustain injuries, but the big impact has been on the seriousness of the injuries,” says David Zuby, chief research officer of HLDI and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Helmets can’t protect against all injuries, but they do help prevent debilitating and often fatal head trauma.”

Opponents of helmets sometimes argue that they make crashes more likely by increasing fatigue and impeding visibility and hearing. Contradicting that logic, HLDI found that claim frequency didn’t fall once helmets were no longer mandatory. In fact, collision insurance claims, which cover crash damage to a motorcycle and is the coverage most likely to come into play after any crash, rose 12 percent.

It’s not clear what would cause collision frequency to rise, but HLDI analysts surmised that riders who prefer not to wear helmets rode more miles after the law change. That also could explain the 10 percent increase in MedPay claim frequency.

“More riding might account for more frequent crashes, but it doesn’t explain the increase in severity,” says HLDI Vice President Matt Moore. “Motorcyclists are sustaining more injuries per crash or more serious ones after the law change than before.”

HLDI data don’t include information on where a crash occurred, so in this analysis, Michigan crashes are crashes of motorcycles insured and garaged in the state. Likewise, the control-state crashes are only crashes of motorcycles insured and garaged in those states. There also is no way to know how many of the claims involved unhelmeted motorcyclists.

Michigan is one of 28 states that currently have helmet laws covering only some riders, usually those under 18. Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire have no helmet requirements. Only 19 states and the District of Columbia require helmets for all motorcyclists.

The Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, is a nonprofit research organization that publishes insurance loss statistics on most car, SUV, pickup truck and motorcycle models on U.S. roads. HLDI is wholly supported by auto insurers.

Jon Langston
Jon Langston

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  • Neckbone Neckbone on May 22, 2014

    Being a Lawyer doesn't make one all knowing, Dick. Your ideas are fairly incoherent.

    I'm not sure "weakened" is the correct wordage. Changed certainly is. Its a fact that costs would rise due to the extra liability that is expected to be paid out...duh No surprise there, Jon.

    There's not enough data to support a lot of the arguments. Important data missed - How many more/less riders were there before and after the law change? What is the average experience of the riders in an accident (with and without helmets)? Were they wearing a helmet?

    Without the pertinent data to support the argument, this article says nothing that isn't already known or expected. Just malarkey. If I was to guess, it seems to be fueled by insurance companies trying to make a point so they don't have to pay out so much...basically so insurance can earn more profits.

  • Allie Allie on May 22, 2023

    The benefits of helmets are not in doubt here in my opinion. I see the issue as one of personal choice, personal responsibility and freedom. The big question for me is who pays for my injuries if I'm injured while not wearing a helmet and the severity of those injuries has significantly upped the cost of care.

    I'm a long time motorcyclist and bicyclist and we can learn a few things from looking at how helmet requirements have influenced bicyclists and bicycle racing. There's a much larger data set available for comparison accross many countries and competitions.

    Still the issue remains for me one of freedom and personal choice along with accepting the responsibility for one's choices.

    The bottom line for me is that as long as riders who wish not to wear a helmet bare the brunt of the additional costs of injuries, they are making a personal choice. In places where the public will pay the bill for your choice to ride without a helmet I think that's very problematic and then the public who pay the bill should have a say in exacting and enforcement of helmet laws.

    After saying the above I always ride bicycles and motorcycles with a helmet but I will defend your right to ride without one if you won't make me pay for your injuries.