Charleston News - January 13, 2008

Highway safety, helmet use

Sunday, January 13, 2008

As the debate on highway safety and motorcycle helmets continues (see the featured letters to the editor today) some recent observations from Department of Transportation Secretary H.B. "Buck" Limehouse are in order.

In a letter to state legislators last week, Mr. Limehouse cited highway safety as a major DOT initiative this year and listed motorcycle fatalities as an area of particular concern. He wrote:

"South Carolina currently ranks second in the nation in motorcycle fatalities and the numbers grow each year."

A task force is developing plans for legislation to improve the situation. And while it's not clear if the task force will recommend mandatory helmet use, Mr. Limehouse notes that "of the 458 riders who were killed from 2002 to 2006, 74 percent were unhelmeted." Additionally, of the 9,535 riders injured during that same period, 66 percent weren't wearing helmets. The state requires helmets on riders under the age of 21.

Mr. Limehouse cites other safety issues, including insufficiently maintained secondary roads, drunken driving, and the need for citizens to use their seat belts.

South Carolina has a mandatory seat belt law, but usage is only 75 percent. The importance of wearing a seat belt is apparent in a figure cited by the DOT director: "Last year, 64 percent of people killed on the highway who had access to seat belts were not using them."

As it works toward its recommendations, the task force on motorcycle safety needs to review figures showing the apparent decline in helmet use.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that helmet use actually declined by 20 percentage points from 2000 to 2006, while both the number and rate of fatalities increased. The NHTSA estimated that helmet use could reduce fatalities by 37 percent.

Mr. Limehouse says the state's highway safety plan will include strategies for "increased seat belt and helmet usage."

The NHTSA figures, in particular, offer a compelling reason to reverse the trend of declining helmet use by motorcyclists.