Motorcycle Helmet Laws
Laws that require motorcycle riders to wear a helmet are intended to reduce serious head injuries and fatalities that may occur when a motorcycle rider has an accident. At one time, almost all 50 states had laws that required anyone who rode a motorcycle to wear a helmet. The federal government punished states that did not have helmet laws by withholding a small portion of their funds for highways. The federal government relaxed those requirements in 1995 and made way for the individual states to adopt their own laws regarding motorcycle helmets. Since that time, some of the states have changed their helmet laws. Today, there are 20 states which have some type of law that requires all motorcycle riders to wear helmets (National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB], 2007). Another 27 states have laws that do not require adults to wear a helmet but do require minors and/or motorcycle passengers to wear helmets (NTSB, 2007). Only three states – Colorado, Illinois, and Iowa – have no laws that require motorcycles riders to wear a helmet (NTSB, 2007).
The inconsistency of helmet laws across the United States has fueled the debate about whether or not motorcycle riders should be required to wear a helmet. Supporters of mandatory motorcycle helmet laws argue that helmets save lives and prevent serious head injuries that could leave the rider permanently disabled. Supporters also argue that because helmets reduce the risk of serious head injury, they also help to reduce the cost of providing medical care for a motorcycle rider in the event of an accident. Those who oppose mandatory helmet laws argue that motorcycle riders have the right to decide whether or not they want to be protected by a helmet. Personal freedom includes the right to make decisions with which others might disagree. Opponents of helmet laws argue that if they have a right to choose whether the enjoyment that they get from riding their motorcycles without a helmet is worth the risk.
Helmets save lives
Statistical information from the government about helmet use indicates that motorcycle helmets help save lives and prevent serious head injury. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), wearing a motorcycle helmet is the single greatest predictor of whether a motorcycle rider will survive a crash or not (NHTSA, 2006). A motorcycle rider who is not wearing a helmet is 40 percent more likely to sustain a fatal head injury and 15 percent more likely to sustain a nonfatal injury in a crash than a rider who has a helmet (NHTSA, 2006). The NTSB noted that since 1997, when the states began to revise or remove their mandatory helmet laws, motorcycle fatalities have increased 127 percent (NTSB, 2007). Not surprisingly, motorcycle accidents and motorcycle-related deaths are highest in the states in which the climate allows motorcycles to be ridden year round. Colorado, a state which has no helmet law, has a limited motorcycle riding season because of the severity of Colorado winters.
Helmets are only one factor in preventing injuries
Opponents of helmet laws have pointed out that helmets are only one of many factors that can reduce the number of motorcycle accidents and fatalities. The best way to reduce the number of motorcycle-related injuries, according to these groups, would be to reduce the number of motorcycle-related accidents (Riders for Justice, 2005). Reducing accidents could be accomplished by better training for motorcycle riders, including training in riding safety and how to avoid an accident. The number of accidents could also be reduced if automobile drivers became more aware of the presence of motorcycles on the road and if these drivers would treat motorcycles with the same respect that they would have for another car or larger vehicle, instead of treating motorcycle riders as if they were second-class citizens on the road.
Helmets may reduce the likelihood of a fatal head injury in case of an accident, but motorcycle helmets do not appear to reduce the likelihood that a rider will have an accident. In fact, it is possible that helmets may actually increase the likelihood that an inexperienced rider might have an accident. If the rider believes that wearing a helmet can protect him from serious injury, then he might be more likely to take risks that another rider who was not as confident in the ability to protect him or who was not wearing a helmet might reconsider and avoid. A report that was published in 1990 seems to confirm this idea. During the 14-year period from 1977 to 1990, motorcycle riders living in states with mandatory helmet laws had 12.5 percent more accidents and 2.3% more fatalities than states that did not require motorcycle riders to wear helmets (Riders for Justice, 2005).
Helmets save moneySupporters of helmet laws also cite economic reasons for their position. NHTSA estimated that in one year (2002), motorcycle helmet use saved $1.3 billion in the cost of treating motorcycle riders that were involved in a crash (NHTSA, 2006). According to NHTSA (2006), helmets saved $19.5 billion in the period from 1984 through 2002. NHTSA also estimated that an additional $14.8 billion would have been saved during this same period if all motorcyclists who were involved in accidents had been wearing helmets, for a total possible savings in healthcare costs of $34 billion (NHTSA, 2006).
Opponents of helmet laws view these statistics from a different perspective. From their perspective, it is clear that one of the primary beneficiaries of helmet laws is the insurance industry. They argue that the real reason behind helmet laws is not a concerned interest in reducing injuries or saving lives, but in reducing the potential liability for insurers. From this perspective, helmet laws are simply another example of corporations exerting control over the lives of ordinary people who should have the right to make their own choices without outside interference.
The argument against insurance companies, however, is weakened by the fact that not all motorcycle riders have insurance. Unfortunately, some motorcycle riders cannot afford health care or choose not to pay for it. This means that the cost of treating riders who sustain an injury must be passed along to the hospital, the state, and, ultimately, to the taxpayers. The problem of uninsured motorcycle riders led one state, Florida, to pass a law which makes it legal for adult motorcycles to ride without a helmet, but requires the rider to have a minimum of $10,000 in insurance coverage which will pay for any head injuries that the ride may sustain as the result of an accident (“Motorcycle Helmet Laws in Florida”).
The Florida helmet law may represent a reasonable compromise between those who want to require helmets and those who wish to have the freedom to ride without a helmet. However, the Florida law also raises the question of discrimination against motorcycle riders. Head injuries that are caused by a motorcycle accident are no more expensive to treat than head injuries that are sustained while skiing, rock climbing, or doing any number of other activities that have a serious potential for an accident, yet people who participate in these sports are not required by the state to carry additional insurance. Forcing motorcycle riders to carry additional insurance could be the first step towards forcing all people who enjoy these types of activities to carry additional insurance.
The Right to ChooseIt is difficult to argue with the statistics about head injuries and the cost of treatment of rides who sustain them. Supporters of mandatory motorcycle helmet laws rely on arguments about protecting riders from head injury and about the cost of treating riders who are not wearing a helmet. For these people, money and safety are apparently two of the most important things on earth. These arguments, however, miss the point of why motorcycle riders object to wearing helmets. Motorcycle riders who choose not to wear a helmet have a different set of priorities, one that is not necessarily based on safety or an economic balance sheet.
As noted above, the freedom to make decisions includes the freedom to make choices that may not be the same as what the government recommends or what other people would have us to do. While wearing a helmet may reduce the risk to head injury, it also reduces the enjoyment that many riders experience while they are riding their motorcycles. Opponents of helmet laws view forcing a motorcycle rider to wear a helmet as a violation of the individual’s right to choose.
ConclusionHelmet laws are an example of the conflict that exists between the individual’s right to personal choice and his or her obligations to society. In this case, the right of the rider to not wear a helmet must be weighed against how much that decision may cost society through medical costs, accident recovery costs, and the lost productivity of an individual who has sustained a serious head injury. These are serious expenses and they deserve serious consideration.
The United States, however, was founded on the principle that people have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. For many motorcycle riders, happiness is best pursued at 75 mph and without wearing a helmet. People who disagree with that position have the right to either wear a helmet or to not ride a motorcycle. The American Motorcyclist Association (2008) is correct in maintaining that helmet use should be voluntary. Adults have the right to weigh the risks and to decide for themselves how they want to live.
ReferencesAmerican Motorcyclist Association (2008). AMA position in support of voluntary helmet use. Retrieved October 12, 2008, from http://www.amadirectlink.com/legisltn/positions/helmet.asp
“Motorcycle Helmet Laws in Florida.” Best Syndication (September 17, 2008). Retrieved October 12, 2008, from http://www.bestsyndication.com/?q=node/17540
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (2006). Motorcycle helmet laws. Traffic Safety Facts, January 2006. Retrieved October 12, 2008, from http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/staticfiles/DOT/NHTSA/Rulemaking/Articles/Associated%20Files/03%20Motorcycle%20Helmet%20Use.pdf
National Transportation Safety Board (2007). NTSB recommends legislation to mandate all motorcyclists use Department of Transportation FMVSS 218-compliant helmets. NTSB News, SB-07-44 Retrieved October 13, 2008, from http://www.ntsb.gov/Pressrel/2007/070911b.htm
Riders for Justice (2005). Helmet facts: Do you need a helmet for safety? Riders for Justice Newsletter, 20 (3), p. 3. Retrieved October 12, 2008, from http://www.ridersforjustice.com/newspapers/RFJ_Nov_05.pdf