Motorcycle Helmets: Safety vs. Freedom for Cyclists

On May 29, 1979, Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes “reluctantly” (say his aides) signed House Bill 161 into law. As a result, more motorcyclists who could have survived crashes will die every year in the state. For House Bill 161 repeals the requirement that adults wear protective head gear if they operate or ride a motorcycle. Minors under 18 years of age have heads which the legislature and the governor still want helmeted. Unlike his predecessor, Blair Lee III, who a year earlier vetoed a similar bill with an eloquent explanation, Governor Hughes made no statement. But his associates indicated he was not contesting the evidence that helmets saved motorcyclists’ lives. He was merely upholding the principle of letting motorcyclists do what they want on the public highways.

Supporters of Hughes’ decision will say he struck a blow for freedom–the freedom to die on the highways. Additional freedoms were created as well–the freedom to jeopardize motorists and other road users involved in secondary accidents made possible by avoidable motorcyclist injuries. Risks go up in traffic where injured motorcyclists are unconscious on roads, when, with helmet protection, they could have remained conscious and could have gotten themselves off the traffic paths.

There also is the freedom to burden police and medical emergency vehicles, hospital facilities and other tax-supported services already burdened with non-suicidal casualties. And, of course, there is the freedom to add to everybody’s insurance rates.

Critics of Governor Hughes’ position will define freedom quite differently–the freedom to live on the highways (in order to enjoy many other freedoms in our society) and the freedom for motorists entitled to a non-accident littered highway.

The debate over mandatory motorcyclists’ helmets has been raging ever since the federal government was authorized over a decade ago to withdraw some financial assistance to states which did not have a mandatory helmet law. Helmet laws have been in effect in western Europe and other democracies for years without controversy. But in the United States a small percentage of motorcyclists, goaded by their magazines, pushed through a repeal of that sanction in 1976. Then 27 state legislatures rapidly repealed their helmet laws.

What happened on the highways was predicted by engineers, physicians and insurance specialists who studied traffic casualty patterns. Motorcycle deaths in 1977 zoomed upward 24 percent over 1976. A key factor in this increased toll was a decline in helmet use.

Studies compiled by the Department of Transportation (DOT) have concluded that motorcyclists who do not wear helmets and are involved in crashes suffer twice as many head injuries as those wearing helmets and from three to nine times as many fatalities. DOT also reported that in most states with mandatory laws, compliance of over 95 percent helmet usage dropped sharply to below 60 percent after these laws were repealed.

Finally, DOT rebuts contentions that safety helmets cause accidents and injuries that would not have otherwise occurred. In a detailed study of some 900 motorcycle accidents in the Los Angeles area, researchers found only four minor injuries caused by helmets, and in all four cases the helmet prevented a much more serious injury from resulting. (Write to Department of Transportation, Washington D.C., for more information on helmets.)

Numerous public opinion surveys over the years show that an overwhelming number of drivers favor mandatory helmet laws. Surveys of motorcyclists have come out variously for the laws, against the laws or split fairly down the middle. Surveys of motorcyclists involved in accidents have shown wide support for the effectiveness of the helmet.

Post-crash opinion is most impressive. In Missouri a rider was wearing the required helmet on which was written a protest message–Helmet Laws Are Unconstitutional, One day he bounced and skidded 177 feet along the pavement, much of it on his head. His allegedly unconstitutional helmet saved his life.

Not only are mandatory helmet laws possessed of constitutionality in many mandatory safety equipment precedents, but they can be intellectually sobering as well.

One anti-helmet-law youth wrote to Governor Lee after his veto of the repealed bill these telling words: “Three weeks ago a friend and I were in a motorcycle accident. We are both still in the hospital recuperating. If not for your veto, I would not have been wearing a helmet. According to the doctors, if not for the helmets, at 22 years of age we would have been dead. My opinions on personal freedoms have not changed, but I guess there is a point at which some people need protecting. In other words, thank you for saving my life.”

It is tragic that Governor Hughes made certain that he would never receive such a letter. In a society which even supports police rescue action in private homes when masochism or suicide attempts occur, it is a serious trespass on our community conscience to prevent the law from contributing to safer conditions on the very public highways.

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