Join Date: Mar 2002
Location: California Central Coast
Motorcyclist suggests that the "decline in injuries sustained in motorcycle accidents from 65,000 during 2002 to 64,000" and the resulting "higher ratio of deaths to crashes" might be explained by "the growing number of states that have repealed or softened helmet laws, and the greater number of riders riding—and crashing—without helmets." There's another possible explanation.
The ratio Motorcyclist mentions—deaths to injuries—can increase for two reasons: increasing deaths or decreasing injuries. A smaller percentage of riders wearing helmets can certainly lead to more fatalities. But what can cause a decrease in non-fatal injuries? Better safety gear worn by more riders.
Gear prevents or reduces injuries that used to be much more common. A crash that would have resulted in an ambulance ride for abrasions, bruises, or burns in 1990 may not even break a well-geared 2004 rider’s skin. He’ll just bend the shift lever back into place and ride home. Thus, less severe crashes are more likely to be non-injury crashes than before.
At the other send of the severity scale, however, less has changed. The helmet is the only piece of gear we wear than can save one’s life, and it’s mostly the same as it was in 1990. Comfort, ventilation, and visibility have improved to make them more likely to be worn, but actual impact protection is basically the same. A crash that would have killed the rider in 1990 is likely to have the same result today.
Thus the trend toward better safety gear, which began in the 1990s, may have had the perverse statistical effect of making motorcycling look more dangerous, when it has actually made it less dangerous.
I've attached a chart showing how the number of rider deaths per 100 injuries has changed in recent years. The injury data for the US is NHTSA estimates; for California it's from actual CHP counts. Hurt's finding is an interesting comparison to a time when helmet use was much lower than now.