Saturday, December 2, 2023

‘Unhelmeted’ motorcycle deaths are at a decade high. Here’s why

Deaths of motorcyclists not wearing helmets during a crash is at a decade high, according to data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. (WYDaily file/Courtesy of Pexels)
Deaths of motorcyclists not wearing helmets during a crash is at a decade high, according to data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. (WYDaily file/Courtesy of Pexels)

When riders hop on their motorcycles, they never assume they will get into a crash.

But it can happen.

Now, for the first time in a decade the number of “unhelmeted” motorcyclist deaths is at a record high.

“We don’t know the reason why fatalities are on the rise,” said Brandy Brubaker, public relations and media liaison for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. “It’s definitely something we are looking into.

In 2019 there have been seven unhelmeted motorcyclist deaths in Virginia which is a huge increase compared to zero deaths the previous year, one in 2017 and only four in 2016, according to data from the DMV.

Data also showed those unhelmeted deaths did not happen in York or James City County.

Brubaker said Virginia is a state that requires riders and passengers to wear a helmet, so it is surprising to see these numbers go up significantly.

But Eric Teoh, a senior statistician with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said the numbers could be even more drastic if Virginia didn’t have that law. 

“There’s a big difference in state helmet law,” he said. “For those who don’t have helmet laws, it would be 72 percent fatalities. Whereas in states like Virginia with a universal law, only eight percent of fatalities [were not wearing helmets].”

According to the DMV website, Virginia motorcyclists and passengers have to wear helmets that meet or exceed particular standards, such as impact management. 

Helmets create a safety barrier for a motorcyclist. They are 29 percent effective in preventing deaths and about 67 percent effective in preventing brain injuries. An unhelmeted motorcyclist is 40 percent more likely to suffer from a brain injury after a crash than one who was wearing a helmet.

However, it would seem as though riders are still hitting the road without this crucial safety gear.

“People might not understand the benefits,” Teoh said. “When they go out for a ride, they don’t think they’re going to crash. If they did, then they probably wouldn’t go.”

However, helmets aren’t the root of crashes.

“One thing we know is that helmets reduce the risk of death, but they don’t prevent the actual crashes,” he said. “It’s driver behavior.”

Teoh said most of the crashes occur in urban settings because it provides more opportunity. The most common crash for motorcycles is when the driver of another vehicle has turned left into oncoming motorcycles. The second most common is single vehicle crashes.

Research also shows that nationally, about a fourth of crashes were a result of impaired driving and a third were because of speeding. 

However, some of those crashes are the cause of neglect from other drivers on the road.

“A motorcycle is a more vulnerable road user,” Brubaker said. “Motorists need to do their part as well to help protect motorcyclists by keeping an eye out for these smaller vehicles.”

But Brubaker said state agencies like the DMV are looking at ways to address the issue. At the DMV, there is a full time motorcycle safety coordinator who looks for ways to promote and track safety patterns throughout the state.

In addition, the department also sends out notices to the public news outlets and posts on social media to make drivers aware. 

Teoh and Brubaker said they hope to see the numbers go downin the coming year so people can enjoy their rides in safety.

“Part of riding a motorcycle is that feeling of independence,” Teoh said. “Feeling the wind in your hair, that sort of thing. But another big part is understanding how to be safe.”

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at

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