New UCSF Study Shows California Motorcycle Helmet Law Saves Money

September 15, 1998

The California law that requires motorcycle drivers to wear helmets saved the state and its taxpayers a significant amount of money during its first two years, primarily by reducing the number of head injuries associated with motorcycle accidents, a new University of California San Francisco study has found.

The study, published in the September 15 edition of The Journal of Trauma: Injury, Infection and Critical Care, shows that total medical costs for motorcycle accident-related injuries were $35 million less in 1993 than 1991, a reduction of 35 percent. The total medical cost for motorcycle crash injuries dropped from about $98 million in 1991 to about $63 million in 1992 and 1993, the first two years of the helmet law.

Total medical costs included hospitalizations, emergency department care, outpatient care, rehabilitation and follow-up care. Though the law, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 1992, has successfully reduced the number of serious head injuries and deaths caused by motorcycle accidents, there is still opposition, primarily from motorcyclists who want to choose whether to wear helmets.

However, the UCSF study "which marks the first time researchers have taken a statewide look at the law's economic impact" shows the law clearly makes economic sense, researchers said.

"The helmet law has definitely saved the state quite a bit of money," said Wendy Max, PhD, UCSF professor of medical economics, associate director of UCSF's Institute for Health and Aging and the study's principal investigator. "For economic reasons, the helmet law is a success."

Costs decreased for all parties that pay for injury-related costs, including the state and private insurance companies, the study found. There were significant savings for California taxpayers, who have carried much of the economic burden for motorcycle crashes as fewer than half of hospitalized motorcyclists have private insurance.

The study also showed that 73 percent of the reduced hospital costs were due to the fact that fewer patients hurt in motorcycle accidents had serious head injuries.

The number of motorcyclists who were hospitalized with injuries in California dropped from 4,696 in 1991 to 3,410 in 1992 and to 3,057 in 1993. The rate of motorcycle crash hospitalizations was 25 percent less in 1993 than in 1991. The rate fell from 735 hospitalizations per 100,000 registered motorcycles in 1991 to 548 per 100,000 in 1993.

The rate of motorcyclists hospitalized for head injures dropped even more, from 230 per 100,000 registrations in 1991 to 119 per 100,000 registrations in 1993, a 48 percent decrease.

In turn, the average length of hospitalization, as well as hospitalization costs, also dropped, since head injury patients tend to be hospitalized longer than patients with less serious injuries.

Motorcycle crash victims stayed an average of 7.9 days in the hospital in 1991, versus 6.6 days in 1993. Total hospitalization costs for motorcycle injuries in California fell from $79.5 million in 1991 to $50.9 million in 1992 and $51.4 million in 1993.

In 1991, 512 people were killed and 16,910 people were injured in California motorcycle crashes. By 1993, the number of people killed in such accidents had dropped to 303 people, a 33 percent decrease, and 11,043, or 26 percent fewer, people were injured.

While the helmet law cannot be solely credited with the reduction in injuries and deaths, as programs such as heightened driver's education could also play a role, the researchers found that the helmet law probably contributed to about 60 percent of the reduction in injuries, Max said.

The study was funded by a grant from the California Office of Traffic and Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Co-researchers include Brad Stark, BA, UCSF research associate, and Sharon Root, RN, a clinical nurse in San Diego.

University of California - San Francisco

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