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Ride Free or Die

Helmet-Law Foes Strike a Blow Against
the Nanny State

by D. Dowd Muska

n June Harley-Davidson celebrated its 95th anniversary with a parade and party in Milwaukee, the company’s home town. Over 100,000 motorcycle enthusiasts—led by the nation’s most famous biker, Jay Leno—turned out to pay tribute. For millions of Americans, motorcycles of any type are symbols of the individuality and mobility permitted in a country as vast and free as the United States. It came as no surprise when Easy Rider, the seminal counterculture biker film, was recently named to the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American motion pictures.

Motorcycles are a conspicuous part of American consciousness, but in most states—including Nevada—riding isn’t quite as free as it once was. Helmet laws are currently on the books in all but four states.

To non-riders, requiring bikers to wear protective headgear probably seems quite reasonable. Yet scratch the surface of helmet laws and one finds serious financial, constitutional and philosophical questions, all of which have the potential to affect the activities of non-riders. As aging, affluent boomers discover the joys of riding—and a vibrant economy keeps sales of motorcycles strong—many are questioning not only the need for helmet laws, but the dangerous precedent they provide for further expansions of the Nanny State.

Let’s start by examining the "problem" helmets are said to solve. Contrary to the propaganda of some helmet law activists, America’s roads and highways are not littered with the mangled corpses of bikers. A mere 2 percent of all vehicles are motorcycles. And while their riders do represent a somewhat greater percentage of vehicular fatalities (6 percent), they account for a smaller percentage of total accidents (just 1 percent). And the nation’s motorcycle accident rate is not rising, but falling. Total accidents have dropped by 60 percent since 1985.

Helmet-law supporters forced to concede these points are quick to shift strategy. Sure, they say, motorcycle accidents do not represent anywhere near a majority of all crashes, but look at how much injured bikers cost taxpayers in health care costs.

It’s not uncommon for paternalists to use fiscal austerity as a justification for their crusades, but this argument rings a bit hollow when applied to helmets. Motorcyclists do not excessively drain public and private insurance coffers. Motorcycle accidents account for less than 1 percent of all U.S. health care costs. A study by the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center found that bikers do not have disproportionately less insurance coverage than those who drive cars. While 49.5 percent of injured motorcyclists had insurance, 50.4 percent of those injured in all other vehicles were insured.

Clearly, public funds cover the medical costs of some bikers involved in accidents (although the helmet debate never seems to address the question of why it is government’s duty to cover such costs). But the tax revenue lost due to the imposition of helmet laws is seldom discussed. Many motorcyclists will not ride at all if forced to wear a helmet. Thus, states that do require helmets lose revenue that would come from sales taxes on motorcycles and related products, motor vehicle registration fees and gas taxes. In Oregon, motorcycle sales dropped 36 percent in the first year after the adoption of a helmet law. Nebraska experienced a drop of 41 percent. A completely accurate cost/benefit analysis is impossible to produce—although some have tried—but it’s safe to assume that helmet laws can cost states revenue just as easily as they can save it.

Crash totals and financial considerations never weigh as heavy as the bottom-line issue regarding helmets: the value they have when accidents actually do happen. "Helmets save lives," said Nevada Assemblywoman Vonne Chowning in 1997, after voting against a repeal of Nevada’s helmet law. Chowning’s view is typical of the groupthink that prevails outside the motorcycle community. Helmets certainly can save lives, under the right conditions—not even the most strident helmet-law foes dispute that. But they can also interfere with a rider’s ability to hear and see. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which lobbies for helmet requirements, published a report in 1996 revealing that over 17 percent of riders do not turn their heads in order to compensate for the interference helmets cause with their fields of vision.

Some analysts have concluded that protective headgear is not effective at speeds above 13 mph, and there is also evidence that helmets cause certain kinds of injuries. Dr. Jonathan Goldstein has concluded that helmets can reduce the risk of head injuries "at the expense of increasing the severity of neck injuries." As is the case in any public policy dispute, both sides in the helmet debate pore over the research to reach conclusions supportive of their positions. And there’s certainly enough research to examine—pro- and anti-helmet studies are about as common as Social Security reform proposals. But despite the conventional wisdom regarding helmets’ importance as life-saving devices, the compelling evidence amassed by helmet foes cannot be explained away.

The intellectual ammunition of helmet dissidents notwithstanding, advocating helmet-free riding often invites the worst kind of demagoguery. Helmet supporters can, and do, portray their opponents as short-sighted thrill-seekers who care nothing for public safety. Of course, if that were the case it would follow that bikers oppose all efforts to make riding safer. They don’t.

Most motorcycle associations and organizations devote significant attention to safety issues. As the American Motorcyclist Association puts it, "The most effective way to reduce motorcycle injuries and fatalities is to prevent accidents from occurring. Helmets and helmet laws do not prevent accidents." Since 92 percent of motorcycle accidents involve riders with no formal training, much emphasis is placed on rider education programs. In the Silver State, motorcycle classes are offered by the Community College of Southern Nevada, Western Nevada Community College and Truckee Meadows Community College. The TMCC program was recently honored by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, which itself trains 100,000 riders a year. Many motorcycle activists who oppose helmet laws support greater license requirements, as well as stiffer penalties for riding without a license or under the influence of alcohol.

his focus on safety isn’t surprising, given the profile of bikers today. The average motorcyclist in America is male, 31, college-educated and earns $33,200 a year. The average Harley-Davidson rider is male, 43, college-educated and from a household with an annual income of $68,000. These individuals are hardly reckless, hell-raising teens who are not mature enough to weigh the benefits and costs of wearing a helmet. The Associated Press reported that many of the riders in Milwaukee’s Harley-Davidson celebration were "middle-aged … doctors, lawyers and business executives," including a leather-clad municipal judge. "You get to pretend to be a kind of bad guy, but you’re not really," Gary Glojeck said of his subculture.

In fact, the stereotype many have of the average motorcyclist is more applicable to the average motorcycle accident victim. Blood alcohol level and speed are the most determinant factors in motorcycle fatalities, not the wearing or non-wearing of a helmet. In 1994, over 20 percent of all motorcyclists involved in fatal accidents were unlicensed—almost half of those involved in any kind of accident had no license. Viewed from a wide range of perspectives, statistics support the argument that the enjoyment of the careful majority of riders should not be limited due to the behavior of the careless minority.

And while the Nanny State advances virtually unfettered into many different areas—more and more states and municipalities have adopted bicycle helmet mandates, for example—the news on motorcycle helmets is somewhat encouraging. To his credit, in 1995 President Clinton signed a repeal of the financial penalties the federal government placed on states which did not impose helmet requirements. Since then a few states—and Guam—have loosened their laws. In 1997 Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee signed a repeal of his state’s helmet requirement for riders over 21. In February Kentucky Governor Paul Patton signed a similar measure, but Bluegrass State legislators imposed a mandate that bikers must have proof of medical insurance. Purists complain that any repeals that do not include all age groups—and do not add new regulations—are sellouts. But in a society that’s growing increasingly paternalistic, bikers should take what they can get.

Unfortunately, Nevada seems ambivalent about its motorcycle paternalism. The Silver State is perceived as a libertarian paradise by many outsiders—Nevadans know different—but its helmet law was adopted in 1972, a full two decades before California passed its own mandate. During the 1997 legislative session, Sun Valley Assemblyman Don Gustavson led a valiant but unsuccessful effort to adopt a Arkansas-style repeal. But given the support Gustavson collected from some well-known Nevada bikers, it won’t be a surprise if the legislature takes up the issue again in 1999.

If it does, hopefully the debate will not dissolve, as most helmet battles do, into endless bickering over statistics and studies. Helmet laws limit a fundamental freedom—the right to make one’s own decisions regarding safety—and that point should prevail over all others.

Helmet dissidents here and elsewhere can also aid their cause by building coalitions with other victims of the ever-expanding Nanny State. (Bicyclists would be a good group to target, as well as boaters who recently learned of a possible Coast Guard dictate that life preservers be worn on board at all times.) Their campaign would be wise to feature the question posed by activist Stephen W. McDermott: "Will anyone be left to stand with you when your pastime becomes regulated?" u

D.Dowd Muska is a Nevada Journal contributing editor.

Helmet Law Defense League
Motorcycle Safety Foundation
Motorcycle Rider Foundation
D. Dowd Muska


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