The helmet law debate, now in its 47th year, is starting to heat up again. In the last month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the British Magazine The Economist have editorialized for a national, mandatory helmet law for motorcycle riders. Yesterday a Republican Congressman from Michigan named Tim Walberg accused the CDC of trying “to reduce the use of motorcycles – a legal mode of transportation.”
The original helmet laws were a result of the National Highway Safety Act of 1966, which was passed in response to the publication of Ralph Nader’s book, Unsafe At Any Speed published the year before. Helmet laws were almost an afterthought in that bill which mandated the standardization of bumper heights, safer gas tanks, padded dashboards, collapsible steering wheels and factory installed seat belts. Forty-nine states had helmet laws by 1975. The lone holdout was California which led the nation in motorcycle registrations.
The original intent of that 1966 law was to reduce traffic fatalities. Most states repealed their helmet laws because, as a Michigan appeals court put it, the “logic” used to justify helmet laws “could lead to unlimited paternalism.” The current campaign for mandatory helmet laws is that riding without a helmet presents an unacceptable risk for insurers.
In its editorial in the United States print edition published November 16, The Economist argued, “When states repeal or weaken motorcycle-helmet laws, as dozens have, helmet use falls, fatalities rise and head-injury hospitalizations soar. Biker deaths rose 18 percent after Michigan repealed its all-rider helmet law in 2012. A rule obliges un-helmeted Michigan riders to carry at least $20,000 in medical-payments coverage. That does not even cover initial stabilization in intensive care after a nasty crash.”
The editorial continued, “Libertarians often demand: ‘Let those who ride decide,’ says Jacqueline Gillan, who heads Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an insurer-funded lobby group. Her retort is: ‘Let those who pay have a say.’”
The Economist noted that this is a partisan issue. Most helmet law opponents are Republicans. An important Republican Congressman named Tom Petri wants the CDC “to stop researching motorcycle safety” because he thinks the Centers have “an anti-motorcycle agenda.” Most opponents of helmet laws in state legislatures are also Republicans. So it’s not surprising that Walberg, a long time rider and a member of both the American Motorcyclist Association and the Congressional Motorcycle Caucus takes issue with the CDC’s most recent hymn to mandatory helmet use, a report published late last month titled, “Motor Vehicle Related Injury Prevention: Economic Impact of Motorcycle Helmet Laws.”
The CDC thinks mandatory helmet laws reduce health care costs – which is a subject of much fevered debate in Washington these days. As a matter of fact, all motor vehicle crashes are responsible for a little less than two percent of all American health costs and motorcycle crashes represent a tiny percentage of that.
But the CDC and The Economist agree that it is very expensive to survive a catastrophic bike crash. The British magazine alleges that helmetless riders in major crashes “typically run up $1.3m in direct medical costs” and that “fewer than a third work again.” The CDC study argues that taxpayers are stuck with paying 63 percent of the cost of the aftermath of these accidents.
So there is obviously going to be a push this winter to enact a nationwide helmet law. You just haven’t heard about it on your local news yet.