A new study claims that young motorcyclists who live in US states where helmet use is mandatory are much less likely to experience traumatic brain injury, compared with those who live in states where helmet use is only mandatory under the age of 18 or 21.

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Motorcyclists living in states with universal helmet laws are much less likely to sustain traumatic brain injury, researchers find.

The researchers of this study, led by Dr. K. Tinsley Anderson of the University of Arizona, present their findings at the 2014 Clinical Congress of the American College of Surgeons in San Francisco, CA.

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a blow or jolt to the head that interferes with normal brain functioning. In the US, TBI contributes to around 30% of all injury-related deaths, and in 2010, TBI was the cause of around 2.5 million emergency department (ED) visits.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more people in the US are riding motorcycles than ever before. As such, the number of motorcyclist injuries and deaths are on the rise. A recent study from the CDC found that between 2001 and 2008, around 22% of nonfatal motorcyclist injuries treated in EDs were to the head and neck.

There is no doubt that wearing a helmet can protect motorcyclists from sustaining head injuries, but laws on their use can vary between US states. Some states – such as Alabama, California and New York – require all motorcyclists to wear a helmet, while in others – such as Connecticut, Kentucky and Ohio – motorcyclists may only need to wear a helmet if they are aged under 18 or 21.

For their study, Dr. Anderson and colleagues wanted to see how universal helmet laws affected the incidence of TBI among young motorcyclists, compared with age-limited helmet laws.

From an analysis of more than 1 million hospital admissions for TBI using the Nationwide Inpatient Sample database, the team identified 598 patients who had sustained TBI as a result of a motorcycle accident, in which they had been the driver of the motorcycle or the passenger.

The researchers then placed the patients into one of three groups dependent on the state in which they lived and the helmet laws of that state. The three groups were: universal helmet laws, under-18 helmet laws and under-21 helmet laws.

The team found that, compared with states that have age-limited helmet laws, incidence of TBI was much lower in states with universal helmet laws. For states with under-18 and under-21 helmet laws, the rate of TBIs stood at 307 per 1,000 motorcycle accidents and 366 per 1,000, respectively. In states with universal helmet laws, the TBI rate was 282 per 1,000.

After controlling for all sustained injuries, the researchers estimated that young motorcyclists who lived in states with universal helmet laws were 2.5 times less likely to sustain a TBI, compared with those who lived in states with age-limited helmet laws.

In addition, the researchers found that states with universal helmet laws had a much lower average mortality rate from TBIs than states with age-limited helmet laws.

Commenting on these findings, Dr. Anderson says:

Our study is unique because we prove that universal helmet laws save lives and decrease TBIs in the pediatric population as well. I think it’s an important group to look at because they are the least risk-averse group and the most inexperienced rider population, and are more likely to be unprotected in the absence of universal laws.”

Co-author Dr. Bellal Joseph, an associate professor at the University of Arizona, adds that this study may encourage motorcyclists to wear helmets, even if they are in a state where it is not required by law.

In 2013, Medical News Today reported on a study claiming that motorcyclists aged 60 and over are three times more likely to be severely injured in a motorcycle accident than younger bikers.