|Jan 23, 2001
Motorcycle Helmet Law:
If Riders Want to Feel the Wind, State Shouldn't Get in the Way.
A. BARTON HINKLE
State legislators have an opportunity this year to scale back the scope of paternalism exercised by the Commonwealth. They can do so by repealing the requirement that adults must wear helmets when riding motorcycles. The idea might seem fruitier than Carmen Miranda's hat, but the current law - and the arguments for it - are affronts to principle that cannot withstand scrutiny.
Let us stipulate for the record that repeal probably would increase the highway death toll. Other states repealing their helmet requirements have seen helmet use decline, and fatalities rise. In Texas, motorcycle deaths rose 31 percent the year after the state relaxed its helmet law; the proportion of riders treated for traumatic brain injury also increased. In Arkansas, deaths rose 21 percent. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says a motorcyclist without a helmet is 40 percent more likely to die in a crash.
There's no guarantee fatalities will rise - in Maryland, the percentage of wrecks resulting in death actually rose after helmets became mandatory. In Virginia, fatalities continued to climb after the mandatory helmet law was passed; they began to decline only after the inception of a motorcycle rider training course. And a helmet can prove a liability in some ways - such as making a rider sweat more on a hot day, perhaps interfering with his vision. Still, while riding bare-headed is not as risky as playing Russian roulette with an automatic, the odds over time favor the rider with a proper helmet.
SO WHY REPEAL the law? For the same reason the state does not monitor individuals' diets or require swimmers to wear life jackets. The state has a duty to protect people from one another - not from themselves. In fact, the state has a duty not to protect people from themselves. It is a case of that which is right (personal autonomy) overruling that which is good (personal safety).
Critics of this position take the view that helmet use does affect other people through higher medical costs. That assertion does not stand up on either practical or philosophical grounds.
As a group, motorcyclists rely less on public funds to pay their medical expenses than patients as a whole. (Biker stereotypes aside, motorcyclists tend to affluence; their median income is more than $44,000.) Nor do injured, helmetless motorcyclists have a visible effect on insurance rates. For one, riders constitute only a small fraction of the motoring public. Injured riders constitute only a fraction of that, and helmetless head-trauma victims constitute only a portion of that fraction. A couple of years ago, in response to a policy-holder's inquiry, the underwriting operations supervisor for one of the country's biggest insurance companies wrote: "Motorcycles account for a very small percentage of our total book of business, and the new helmet law would be unidentifiable in our private passenger loss experience."
Even were the case otherwise, insurers could address the matter by charging motorcycle riders more. Even were that case otherwise, the insurance argument has an insidious premise: People should make their personal choices in ways that will maximize the financial advantage of the collective. The implication of such a notion goes well beyond helmet use to - well, it's hard to say what decisions the premise would not affect. Where one lives, what one does for a living, who or when one marries all have financial consequences. It would be interesting to see legislators explain why it is necessary to regulate one personal choice for financial reasons and not others.
THE STRONGEST reason for repeal also is the most basic: freedom. Repeal would trim the coddling nannyism that has been growing across the state like kudzu. Riding helmetless is a risky proposition, but then so is riding a motorcycle in the first place. So is driving a car. (Why not require helmets in cars and trucks, too?) So are bungee-jumping, and whitewater rafting, and rock climbing, and a host of other activities many adults engage in for no other reason than enjoyment. Some of them, lamentably, die. But society lets them pursue their interests anyway, because - so long as they are not hurting anyone else - they have a right to.
One of the advocates of repealing the helmet law passes along a quote from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. Trenchant and apt, it seems a fitting way to end today's sermon:
The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man's spiritual nature, of his feelings, and of his intellect. They knew that only a part of the pain, pleasure, and satisfaction of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions, and their sensations. They conferred, as against the government, the right to be let alone - the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.