Even in the depths of winter, power mad do-gooders continue their holy quest to compel all motorcyclists to wear special, plastic hats.
This winter the center of the fifty-year-old helmet law debate is in Michigan where adults who had been eligible to vote for President for at least three years were allowed to go hatless starting last April. After the law went into effect, members of the Transportation Research Group at Wayne State University began a study to find out how many riders were actually going bareheaded. The report titled, “Direct Observation Survey of Motorcycle Helmet Use,” was published last September but it did not begin to attract news coverage until last month.
The Wayne State Report
The four Wayne State researchers, in cooperation with the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, video surveilled nine Michigan motorcycle rallies and an unspecified number of poker runs last summer to see what people had on their heads.
The study found that now that they have a choice 27 percent of Michigan’s riders have ditched their helmets. The authors conclude that the increase in helmetless riders is “clearly associated with the weakening of the Michigan helmet use law.”
The rest of the findings in the 31-page report seem obvious to anyone who knows how to start up a bike. Ninety-four percent of sport bike riders wear helmets but only a third of the people on choppers and custom bikes do. Women wear helmets 59.6 percent of the time. On average four and a half percent fewer men wear plastic hats.
Michigan requires helmetless riders to buy an extra $20,000 in insurance.
The report has become part of an escalating propaganda war over the consequences of going helmetless. The war centers around the question of whether wearing a helmet is a private or a police matter. Helmet law opponents generally see the laws as infringements on individual rights. Proponents are increasingly inclined to argue that making helmets optional places an unfair burden on taxpayers.
Even helmet law opponents concede that a helmetless rider is more likely to suffer a traumatic brain injury in a crash than a rider wearing a skid lid. Helmet law advocates emphasize the catastrophic cost of these injuries and argue that since nobody can afford to pay what doctors and hospitals charge the cost of these injuries must be born by society at large. The argument then boils down to this: The freedom to choose whether or not to wear a helmet is too expensive to be tolerated.
A woman named Jacqueline Gillan, who has become famous overnight for running an insurance company lobbying group called Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety, replies to the common slogan “Let those who ride decide” with the snappy “Let those who pay have a say.”
Last week, an editorialist for the York Dispatch was baffled that Pennsylvania legislators, “whose jobs, after all, are to make rules – have taken such a hands-off approach to regulating motorcycles and their operators.” The Dispatch, published in a town that is uniquely linked to Harley-Davidson, called the decision to repeal Pennsylvania’s helmet law a decade ago, “one of the worst decisions the General Assembly has ever made, and completely inconsistent with other legislation, such as the mandatory seat belt law.” The paper accused state politicians of “caving to lobbyists’ complaints that it (the helmet law) infringed on their rights.”
But a couple of other recent news items help put the Dispatch’s self-righteous ire in perspective. The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported yesterday that Iowa’s 317 traffic deaths in 2013 were the lowest total since 1944. Iowa is one of three states with absolutely no helmet law.
And just before Christmas Elizabeth Hovde wrote in The Oregonian that “we need to be careful about applying economic arguments to risky behaviors.” Hovde thinks the cost benefit argument for mandatory helmet use “does not consider the possible economic benefits related to dying young.”
“Helmets do better protect riders from serious injury and death,” Hovde wrote, “but if a motorcycle rider crashes and dies, there is no emergency care, urgent care or rehabilitation required. And when people die young, it can reduce the cost to others of Social Security and end-of-life care. Governments also might save on the assistance used by many traumatic brain injury survivors if more riders died.”
Elizabeth Hovde has a point. The economic argument is largely specious.