Skip to content
Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Reagan and Corporatism: Motorcycle Helmet Laws

There is an interesting ideology maturing in Reagan’s Washington these days. It is best called “corporatism.”

Here is an example. For years Ronald Reagan would speak against mandatory seat belt use laws and mandatory motorcycle helmet use laws. Long before he was president he would give these proposals as prime examples of a meddling Big Brother. I heard him orate this way during a debate with him in 1975.
About two years ago, General Motors decided to reverse its policy and begin pushing state legislatures to pass laws requiring motorists to buckle up. The auto giant decided to launch this expensive lobbying drive in order to tap a provision in the federal standard requiring crash protection by stages in cars beginning with next year’s models. That provision says that if states with two-thirds of the population pass mandatory seat belt laws, the federal standard protecting all motorists would be revoked. Not surprisingly, GM was behind that provision as well.

Voila, Ronald Reagan suddenly became a supporter of mandatory seat belt laws.

But there is no corporate pressure behind mandatory helmet use laws. So Ronald Reagan, whose White House aides keep a tight control over Secretary Elizabeth Dole and her Transportation Department, shows no interest in restoring a federal requirement that could save at least 1500 motorcycle riders killed every year because they were not wearing helmets, along with rescuing a larger number of brain damaged survivors in such crashes.

The corporatist imperative is not operating on Mr. Reagan to put life-saving helmets on motorcycle drivers and their passengers. Study after study concludes that motorcycle helmet use laws greatly reduce deaths and injuries in such crashes. Unhelmeted riders have 2 1/2 to 6 times as many critical or fatal head injuries as riders who wear helmets, according to a Department of Transportation report.

The data also shows that motorcyclists overwhelmingly obey laws requiring that helmets be worn. Surveys of motorcyclists’ opinions conclude that from 40 to 81 percent favor helmet use laws, while the general public registers even higher rates of approval.

The Transportation Department in 1967 issued a standard saying that if states did not enact helmet use laws, they would be penalized with a 10 percent reduction in federal highway funds. By 1975, 47 states passed the laws, saving many young lives and injuries all the way. The motorcycle fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled had declined 49 percent from 1967 to 1975 and hundreds of millions of tax dollars for disability payments were saved.

Then Congress flipped. In a tragically quirky move it amended the law to repeal the financial penalty. Today only 20 states have use laws. Most of the rest repealed their requirement for riders above 18 years of age. Seven states have no requirement at all. Blood and brains hit the highway with sharply increasing frequency. Neurosurgeons became sick at the spectacle of youths lying before them in hospital surgery rooms. Last year, 4570 motorcycle riders lost their lives.

The head injury rates, according to the Department, ranged from about 50 percent to almost 200 percent greater in the post-repeal period than in the pre-repeal period for the various states. Another Department study reported that “the use of a safety helmet is the single critical factor in the prevention or reduction of head injury.”

Now, if the motorcycle manufacturers, led by Honda whose founder,

Mr. Honda spends his retirement advancing traffic safety, were to demand that Reagan move on helmet use laws, the corporatists imperative would register once again. Off the handlebars would go the President’s conservative compunctions. Such is the variable that spells life or death for many young Americans and huge sums for the taxpayers to expend on hospital, rehabilitation and other costs. In the meantime the facts simmer.

Readers who wish a documented analysis of the helmet issue may send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Arthur Murphy, P.0 Box 19404, Washington, DC 20036).