motorcycleA move to make helmet use optional under Michigan law is meeting with stiff opposition from a coalition of health care organizations, who say that helmets save both lives and money.

“From a medical perspective, repealing Michigan’s mandatory helmet law just doesn’t make sense,” says William Barsan, M.D., chair and director of the University of Michigan Health System’s Department of Emergency Medicine. “Helmet use greatly reduces a rider’s chance of dying or suffering a life-altering brain injury.”

U of M, along with other large health systems, the Michigan College of Emergency Medical Physicians, Michigan Health & Hospital Association and dozens of county medical associations are urging state legislators to refrain from repealing the 42-year-old universal helmet law.

“The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider universal helmet laws the single most effective way for states to reduce motorcycle deaths. Helmets cut the risk of death by 37 percent and the risk of head injury by 69 percent,” echoes Robert McCurdy, M.D., chairman of St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor’s Department of Emergency Medicine.

Meanwhile, hospital staffers continue to see firsthand the devastation caused by serious motorcycle crashes.

Helmet use also reduces medical expenses for taxpayers and families, says Karla Klas, B.S.N., R.N., C.C.R.P., injury prevention education specialist at the U-M Trauma Burn Center.

Klas – an avid street and off-road motorcyclist – was one of the authors of a 2002 U-M study which found riders who didn’t wear helmets incurred much higher medical costs. It found that inpatient hospital and rehabilitation costs were about $26,000 more for patients who were not wearing helmets. Moreover, the study did not include long-term rehabilitation costs or income loss, which can run into the millions.

Other studies have found that just over half of motorcycle crash victims had private health insurance coverage. For patients without private insurance, a majority of medical costs are borne by taxpayers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Most patients in the U-M study were insured but, the authors cautioned, “The increased cost of hospitalization in these patients merely shifts the costs from the operator to the insurance company, and ultimately to the subscribers.”

The CDC estimates that helmet use in Michigan saves $43 million for every 100,000 motorcycles registered in the state. Across the country, helmet use saved roughly 1,829 lives and $2.9 billion in medical costs and lost earnings in 2008, the NHTSA reported.

Universal helmet laws have been shown to increase helmet use and weakening helmet laws has resulted in significant drops in helmet use, according to a CDC report. For example, when Florida repealed its law in 2000, use fell from 99 percent to 53 percent.

After California’s universal helmet law went into effect in 1992, hospital costs for motorcycle-related head injuries fell from $36.6 million the previous year to $15.9 million, according to the NHTSA. During this time, the share of medical costs accounted for by head injuries fell from 46 percent to 31 percent.

“As a nurse, I can tell you that it deeply saddens all of us when someone comes in with severe head trauma or dies despite our best efforts because of an injury that could have been prevented by wearing a helmet,” Klas says. “Every day we see the life-changing results of these crashes. We see people with permanent brain damage that keeps them from ever working again. We see fiercely independent people suddenly reliant on others to take care of them. We see the enormous strain it puts on families.”

Lena M. Napolitano, M.D., trauma director of U-M’s Level I Trauma Center, chief of acute care surgery at the U-M Health System and professor of surgery at the U-M Medical School, agrees.

“We are unified in our opposition to the repeal,” she says. “This is about standing up for a smart public health policy – one that will save lives, prevent injuries and reduce health care costs.”