Highway Safety: NHTSA's Motorcycle Helmet Activities

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-12-19.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

United States
GeneralAccounting  Of6ce
Washingtxm, D.C. 20548

Besources, Community, and
Economic Development Division


December 19, 1997

The Honorable Don Young
House of Representatives

Subject: Hi&wav Safetx      NHTSA’s Motorcvcle Helmet Activities

Dear Mr. Young:

As you requested, we reviewed the National Highway ‘Rz&ic Safety
AdmW&ation’s (NHTSA) funding of motorcycle helmet activities. Specitiically,
you asked us to follow up on our June 25,1997, report to you on this issue’ and
determine (1) how much NHTSA obligated and expended for motorcycle helmet
activities annually during tical years 1994 through 1997, (2) whether the funds
are having their desired effect by reducing the number of fatal head injuries,
and (3) whether these expenditures are havmg their desired effect by
influencing the number of states that have helmet laws.


Information provided by NHTSA shows that it obligated an average of $123,194
annually to activities pertaining to motorcycle helmet safety during fiscal years
1994 through 1997.2 However, the funds obligated for motorcycle helmet

‘NH’ISA’s A ctivities Concerning State Motorcvcle Helmet Laws (GAO/RCED-97-
185R, June 25, 1997).
20ur June 1997 report to you stated that on average about $74,000 was budgeted
for motorcycle helmet activities. The larger amount-$123,104-represents
(1) additional amounts budgeted and obligated from June through September
1997 in fiscal year 1997 and (2) $100,000 budgeted and obligated in fiscal year
1995 that NHTSA did not previously report to us. These obligations do not
include NHTSA employees’ salaries. NHTSA characterizes funds as both
budgeted and obligated, when a contract is actually awarded and expended
when a contractor’s invoices are paid

                                 GAO/RCHD-9844R   NHTSA’s   Motorcycle   Helmet   Activities

activities were not spread uniformly over this period. As shown in table 1, the
annual obligations ranged Tom a low of $10,492 to a high of $204,138. The
table also presents NHTSA’s expenditures for motorcycle helmet activities for
Gscal years 1994 through 1997. Expenditures in a fiscal year may be higher or
lower than obligations that year because payments (expenditures) may occur in
years subsequent to the obligations.

Table 1: NHTSA’s Obliaations and Exoenditures for Motorcvcle Helmet Activities,
Fiscal Years 1994-97

IIYear                               Obligations I              Expendiires II
II 1994                 I            $ 10.492 I                   $ 48.421 11
II1995                  I              G6.388     1                   4.271 11
II 1996                 I              204.138a 1                   26.388 11
                                        .3,398                     156,921
                                       $492,416                     $236,001

7he fiscal year 1996 obligations of $204,138 for motorcycle helmet activiies include a
$149,060 contract for a video and white paper for state legislators.
Source: NHTSA.


Research by NH’ISA has shown that when motorcycle crashes do occur, the
most important factor in reducing injury is personal protection for the
motorcyclist with equipment such as a jacket and trousers, gloves, proper
footwear, eye protection, and a helmet According to NHTSA a helmet is by far
the motorcycle rider’s most important safely equipment NBTSA points to the
fdct that head injury is a leading cause of death in motorcycle crashes; since
1989, the states that enacted universal helmet laws (arqlying to all motorcycle
riders) have experienced reductions in fatalities rangy 5om 15 percent to 37
percent in the first year? Also, in two 1991 reports, T -valuated 46 studies
relative to motorcycle helmet laws.’ Eleven of these ,&es compared fatality

%klmets have also been shown to reduce the severity of injury among surviving
accident victims.
4Highwav Safetvz Interim Reuort on Safetv Belt and Motorcvcle q&net
Effectiveness (GAO/RCED-91-158, May 10,199l) and Hiehwav Sa&x

2                                   GAO/RCED-9844It   NETSA’s    Motorcyde   Eehet   AcGviiies
B-278800                                                     . -
rates between helmeted and nonhelmeted motorcycle accident victims. AlI of
these studies indicated a lower incidence of deaths among helmeted riders,
ranging from 28 percent to 73 percent lower, depending on the rider population
studied. F’inahy, NHTSA’s 1996 report on crash outcomes, which the Congress
directed the agency to prepare, found that motorcycle helmets are 34 percent
effective in preventing fatal injuries and 67 percent effective in preventing
serious brain injuries.5


As of 1975,47 states had enacted laws requiring helmet use by all motorcycle
riders. The Department of Transportation (DOT) required state highway safety
programs to provide for universal helmet use, and a portion of federal-aid
highway funds was withheld from states without approved safely programs.
Legislation enacted in 1976, however, prohibited DOT from requiring universal
helmet laws as part of state highway safetyprograms and from withholding
federal funds from states without such laws. In 1976 through 1980,27 states
repealed or weakened their laws requiring helmet use. Subsequently, the
Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 required the kansfer
of up to 3 percent of highway construction funds to highway safety programs
for states without universal helmet laws.” This provision was repealed by the
National Highway System Designation Act of 1995. During 1996 and 1997,
legislation was introduced in 20 states to repeal or weaken motorcycle helmet
laws. As of early November 1997, repeal efforts had been defeated in 15 states
but had succeeded in 2 states. Action is pending in the remaining three states.
Figure 1 shows the status of state motorcycle helmet laws as of early November

Motorcvcle Helmet Laws Save Lives and Reduce Costs to Societv (GAO/RCED-
91-170, July 29, 1991).
5Benefits of Safetv Belts and Motorcvcle Helmets, NHTSA’s report to the
Congress (Feb. 1996), was based on data from the Crash Outcome Data
Evaluation System (CODES).

?lke transfer of highway construction funds from three programs to highway
safety funds was set at 1.5 percent for fiscal year 1995 and 3 percent for fiscal
year 1996 and thereafter.

3                                 GAO/MXD-9S-44X   NHTSA’s     Motorcycle   Helmet   Activities
          B-C -3800

Fiaure 1: Status of States’ Mandatorv Motorcvcle Helmet Laws

                                        0    No repeal wzdty
                                        0   Pending legtsiation
                                        111 Repealed helmet law
                                            Repeal effort defeated

Note: References to pending legislation and repeals-include bills to eiim: :ie motorcycle helmet laws
completely as well as bills to impose motorcycle helmet requirements or ” A5basis of a ride& age.

Source: NHTSA.

           4                                   GAO/lgCED-98-44R      NHTSA’s   Motorcycle   Helmet   Activities
B-278800                                                   -
Nonetheless, it is NHTSA’s position that the state legislature, the governor, and
the citizens of a state are the ones responsible for making the finaT decision on
whether helmet laws remain in effect. NHTSA has stated that its role in the
debate over repealing states’motorcycle helmet laws is to provide data and
information that will be helpful in making that decision.


We provided a draft of this report to DOT for its review and comment DOT had
no comments on the d&t.


Our analysis of NHTSA’s funding of motorcycle helmet activities is based on
obligation and expenditure data provided by NHTSA for pertinent contracts for
fiscal years 1994 through 1997. To review motorcycle fatalities, we reviewed
relevant studies and data, including our 1991 reports, which encompassed 46
studies that contained original data or analyses and met our minimum criteria
for methodological soundness7 We also reviewed a February 1996 NHTSA
report to the Congress that was mandated by section 1031(b) of the Intermodal
Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991.’ In addition, we analyzed
NHTSA’s statistics on motorcycle fatalities in terms of motorcycle registrations
and miles trxveled. We reviewed federal legislative requirements concerning
motorcycle helmets and obtained data on the status of states’ mandatory helmet
laws from NHTSA We performed our work in accordance with generally
accepted government auditing standards, from October through December 1997.

We are sending copies of this report to the congressional committees and
subcommittees with responsibilities for highway safety matters, the Secretary of
Transportation, and the Admin&rator of NHTSA We will make copies
available to others upon request

7see footnote 4.

*see footnote 5.

5                                GAO/RCED8W      NHTSA’s   Motorcycle   Helmet   Activities
B-278800                                                   . -

Please call me zt (202) 5123650 if you have any questions. Major contributors
to. this report were Helen Desaulniers, Yvonne Pufahl, and James Ratzenberger.

Sincerely yours,

Phyllis F. Scheinberg
Associate Dire.Tor, Transportation Issues


  6                               GAO/ICED-98-44E   -A’s         Motorcycle   Helmet   Activities
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