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Walker in helmet

Gov. Scott Walker straps on his motorcycle helmet in this photo from 2015.

MADISON — Motorcyclists who don’t wear helmets are twice as likely to suffer neck injuries in crashes as those who use helmets, according to a study of UW Hospital trauma patients.

The findings counter other research saying the weight of helmets can make the neck more vulnerable to injuries, an argument that is one reason many motorcyclists oppose mandatory helmet laws.

The leader of a Wisconsin motorcycle rights group didn’t dispute the UW research conclusions, but said the main reason he opposes requiring helmets is personal freedom.

“It’s up to an adult to be able to choose,” said Dave Charlebois, executive director of ABATE of Wisconsin.

Wisconsin requires only riders 17 and younger to wear helmets. The state has had an annual average of 2,287 motorcycle crashes, with 84 motorcyclists killed, in recent years, according to the state Department of Transportation. About 73 percent of those killed were not wearing helmets.

The UW study was published this month in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine. It looked at the 1,061 patients treated for motorcycle crashes at UW’s trauma center from 2010 to 2015.

Nearly 70 percent didn’t wear helmets. Among them, 15.5 percent had neck injuries, including 10.8 percent with spinal fractures. Among riders who used helmets, 7.4 percent had neck injuries, including 4.6 percent with spinal fractures.

“The helmet seems to be protective to these types of injuries,” said Dr. Nathanial Brooks, an associate professor of neurological surgery at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health and an author of the study.

The study didn’t look at other kinds of injuries or deaths. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, helmets reduce the risk of head injuries from motorcycle crashes by 69 percent and deaths by 37 percent.

Laboratory studies that analyzed the biomechanics of helmets in 1986 and 2011 found helmets can increase the risk of neck injuries because of greater torque on the neck.

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But among patients treated at UW’s trauma center, the new study found, the opposite was true.

“The goal of our study was to look at real-world situations, rather than the lab situations,” Brooks said.

Charlebois said helmets may have become lighter in recent years, making them less likely to increase torque on the neck.

ABATE of Wisconsin opposes mandatory helmet laws for adults. The group has recently urged legislators to support bills to make vehicle data recorder information private and define three-wheeled motor vehicles as autocycles, not motorcycles.

Wisconsin is among 28 states with partial motorcycle helmet laws, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Nineteen states make all motorcyclists use helmets. Three states — Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire — have no motorcycle helmet law.

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