After years of inaction, federal officials are trying to regulate the use of cheap novelty helmets linked to thousands of motorcycle crash deaths and injuries in recent years.
The novelty helmets do not comply with federal safety standards and provide little or no protection against head injuries in a crash. Still, as FairWarning has reported, tens of thousands of the helmets — also known as “loophole lids” or “brain buckets” — every year are imported from overseas and peddled over the Internet.
But now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is proposing rules to cut off the supply of novelty helmets and make it easier for state law enforcement officials to identify offending gear on the road. Together, agency officials say, the moves could save dozens or even hundreds of lives annually.
The helmets are snapped up by motorcyclists because they sell for as little as one-third the price of compliant helmets. Lighter and less durable, they also offer more comfort.
For years, sellers have skirted the law by using disclaimers that say the helmets are not intended for highway use, even though they have been marketed to motorcycle riders.
The safety agency’s proposal would for the first time require distributors to make sure the helmets they sell comply with the agency’s standard for manufacturers, known as Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 218. They would also limit the ability of distributors to insulate themselves from legal liability. The rules appear to give the agency the power to shut down novelty helmet distributors as they currently operate.
The safety failed to respond to interview requests. But in a prepared statement this week, agency administrator Mark Rosekind said: “Wearing a helmet that meets DOT (Department of Transportation) standards can literally mean the difference between life and death. Our proposal ensures that when motorcyclists put on a helmet it offers that lifesaving protection.”
Federal officials have long been aware of the dangers of novelty helmets. In the Federal Register notice of the proposed rule, the safety agency cited a 2009 study of injured motorcyclists in Maryland. In the study, 56 percent of those wearing a novelty helmet had serious head injuries versus just 19 percent of riders wearing a DOT-certified helmet.
Novelty helmet use is especially common in some states. In states requiring helmets, the proportion of motorcyclists observed wearing substandard gear has ranged from 8 percent to 27 percent. Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia require motorcyclists of all ages to wear helmets that meet DOT or other standards.
The proposal “sounds promising if you are at all interested in getting bogus helmets off the street,” said Ed Becker, executive director of the Snell Memorial Foundation, a North Highlands, Calif., group that develops helmet standards. “It may discourage the sale of these to the point that a lot of the interest in them will dry up.”
The safety agency is seeking public comment on the proposal until July 20. Even if a final rule is adopted, the agency said, manufacturers would have two years to comply.
The novelty helmet industry and rider groups are expected to contest the proposal.
“I don’t think anybody is going to roll over and die and say, ‘OK, government, you win. We are out of business,’” said Karl Steinmeyer, a Grand Rapids, Mich., retailer who sells DOT and novelty helmets at www.badasshelmets.com. “I think there is always going to be a market for something like that so long as bikers are trying to look cool on the road.”
The safety agency said 235 to 481 lives could be saved every year if all novelty helmet users in states that have helmet laws switched to approved helmets. Even if just 5 to 10 percent of current users made the switch, 12 to 48 lives annually would be saved in what the agency called “a modest and achievable projection.” The estimated extra cost of a DOT-approved helmet is $48.92.
The proposal would also give police simple tests to identify illegal helmets and curb a practice of riders using counterfeit DOT helmet stickers to avoid detection.
For example, any helmet with an inner liner that is less than three-quarters of an inch thick would be considered inadequate. Law enforcement could measure the liner thickness with a thin metal probe such as a pin or needle.
FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org) is a nonprofit news organization based in Los Angeles that focuses on public health, safety and environmental issues.