A bearded man with sunglasses sits on a motorcycle. He is not wearing a helmet.
Two new studies document the medical and financial fallout of the 2012 decision to relax Michigan’s helmet laws. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

This is not one of those times when anyone wants to say, “Told you so.”

But it is, in fact, one of those times. Because they told you so. And now they have the statistical evidence to prove it.

A pair of doctors are urging Michigan lawmakers to reexamine the grave ramifications of the 2012 decision to relax the state’s motorcycle helmet laws.

Despite plenty of warnings about the likely medical and financial consequences, legislators five years ago weakened the state’s requirement to wear headgear, effectively allowing motorcyclists ages 21 and older to forego a helmet if they carried an additional $20,000 on their insurance policy.

The slackening of the law came despite vocal opposition.

“We recognize that even people who ride bicycles need to wear helmets to avoid injuries,” said John Girotto, MD, pediatric craniofacial plastic surgeon at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “How come we decided people don’t need helmets when they ride motorcycles?”

Dr. Girotto and his colleague, Nicholas Adams, MD, a plastic surgeon resident with Spectrum Health and Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, continue to push for awareness about the increased risk that accompanies a decision to ride without a helmet.

Both men say they would like to see the law reinstated, although there’s currently no organized effort underway to reinstate the old law. Prior to 2012, motorcycle riders in Michigan had to wear a helmet.

Headed toward injury

Two recent scientific studies have found notable increases in the types of injuries that result from not wearing a helmet.

In the June issue of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, the official medical journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, researchers found the proportion of trauma patients who were not wearing helmets has increased from 20 percent to 44 percent.

Those not wearing helmets were about twice as likely to sustain craniomaxillofacial injuries, according to the report.

Then, in a September report in the American Journal of Surgery, researchers identified another trend: The weakened helmet law coincides with a massive spike in traumatic brain injuries, alongside a significant increase in the cost of caring for patients with such injuries.

Drs. Girotto and Adams are among a team of doctors who authored the reports.

One of the reports also indicated that traumatic brain injuries increased by 20 percent and neurosurgical procedures increased 40 percent after the law was repealed.

The researchers are urging lawmakers to look at the data in hopes they will re-adopt the universal helmet law that had been in place prior to 2012.

But there’s also a financial fallout from the change in law.

Taxpayers on the hook?

Drs. Girotto and Adams said the relaxed law places an additional financial burden on government medical insurance plans such as Medicaid and Medicare.

There are minimal requirements for a person to ride without a helmet. They must be older than 21, complete a safety course, and carry the minimum amount of insurance.

Those who are injured when not wearing a helmet, however, often don’t have insurance, Dr. Adams said. And even if they do, it is more likely to be a government insurance such as Medicaid or Medicare.

Consequently, follow-up medical treatment and rehabilitation costs could balloon—for the taxpayers who are effectively covering those costs.

Efforts to start a campaign to reinstate the old helmet law haven’t been fruitful.

“I have reached out to a multiple number of my representatives without much traction,” Dr. Girotto said.

While both doctors want to see the old requirements back in place, in the meantime they plan to warn people about the inevitable dangers of riding without a helmet.

“If you have a helmet on, you’re much less likely to have a facial injury or traumatic brain injury,” Dr. Adams said. “We strongly urge people to wear a helmet, even if there is no law.”