One Wrongheaded Turn 

The legislature is on a crash course to repeal the motorcycle helmet law—despite the costs

The legislature is on a crash course to repeal the motorcycle helmet law—despite the costs

On a beautiful spring evening 24 years ago, I nearly killed two guys who were on a motorcycle. I didn't see them until they were practically dead. I found out that's one of the problems with motorcycles.

It was all a blur, and yet I will never forget it. I was approaching an intersection where I planned to turn left. It was twilight. The streetlamps were on. My light was green—there was no protected left-turn arrow—so I proceeded.

I turned across the oncoming lane when, suddenly, as if it had materialized from thin air, the motorcycle appeared directly in front of me. I had not seen it until that second. I barely had time to apply my brakes. I barely had time to notice the expressions on the riders' faces.

We collided virtually head-on. The impact was so forceful that both my car and the motorcycle were declared total losses. The bike slammed into my car's grill. The two riders sailed over the hood, as if in slow motion, it seemed, before I lost sight of them.

When I got out, I saw one of the riders sprawled on the street behind me. He had suffered a concussion, chipped a tooth and sustained scrapes and bruises, as it turned out. He was the lucky one.

The other rider's head struck a curb. He lay motionless. A dark, viscous fluid oozed from his ear. I thought he was dead.

I later learned that the doctors also thought this man would die. He sustained a severe skull fracture and a broken leg. But he survived that first night. He remained in intensive care for another week, and in the hospital for another two or three weeks after that, and underwent months of rehabilitation.

Fortunately, unlike many head-trauma victims, he fully recovered. And, fortunately, I was well insured, since his medical bills in today's dollars would have surpassed $120,000.

Did I mention that neither of these young men was wearing a helmet? Or that my state had repealed its helmet law just months earlier?

Helmets, of course, would not have prevented the crash, which was unambiguously my fault. But the doctors believed there was a good chance that a helmet might have prevented the skull fracture that posed the life-threatening injury and created the lion's share of the medical costs and the pain and suffering to this young man and his family.

According to statistics, motorcycle helmets are effective in preventing serious head injuries in about two-thirds of all crashes. There is no question they save lives and needless costs.

So it was with a mixture of surprise, disgust and anger that I learned last week that the Tennessee Senate had supported a bill that would gut the current law requiring all motorcycle riders to wear helmets.

The bill contains a couple of concessions to make its passage more palatable. All riders under 25 still would have to wear helmets. Riders would need proof of insurance coverage. Those who wish to go commando would have to pass an approved motorcycle-riding course. And $10 from the proceeds of a $15 state-mandated fee would go toward the state's Traumatic Brain Injury Fund (perhaps a more revealing provision than the bill's backers would care to acknowledge).

After sailing out of committee faster than you could say "public interest," the no-helmet bill whizzed through the full Senate last week by a vote of 24-8, and now goes to the House.

Its supporters take the libertarian view that helmet requirements infringe unduly on personal freedom—and that if riders willingly assume the risks of not wearing helmets, that's their business. These "free birds" have plenty of company. Following a wave of dehelmetization in recent years, only 22 states still require all motorcycle riders to wear the protective headgear.

There's just one glaring problem with helmet repeal: Many more people die.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), motorcycle helmets reduce the risk of dying in a crash by 29 percent. Studies show that, when state helmet laws are repealed, fatalities rise by up to 30 percent—and treatment costs for traumatic brain injuries rise by an average of 75 percent.

The experience of every single state that has repealed or scaled back its helmet law bears out these statistics. The NHTSA found, for example, that rider deaths rose by 37 percent in Kentucky after helmet restrictions were loosened. In Louisiana, 75 percent more riders died.

When California passed a law in 1992 requiring all riders to wear helmets, motorcycle deaths and injuries fell by half. Hospital costs for treating brain injuries among motorcyclists shrank by 60 percent.

This information is not locked in some vault. Any legislator with Internet access can find it in five minutes.

I can also tell you this: Motorcycles are often difficult for drivers to see. That's one reason why, although bikes account for only 0.4 percent of all vehicle miles traveled, they register 6 percent of all traffic deaths. Even if both the driver and biker operate their vehicles responsibly, motorcycles get hit. The bikers I struck had their headlight on, but it didn't help. Somehow, to me, it just blended in against the streetlights in the background.

Given the overwhelming, unspinnable evidence that helmets save lives, injury, money and heartache, why in the world would our legislators vote to weaken the law so severely?

After the bill passed, I called my senator, Douglas Henry, to ask that question. I read that Sen. Henry, who voted for helmet repeal, said government had no business serving as people's guardian.

The senator took time to call me on his cell phone after I voiced my opinion to his assistant. His quote, I told him, disappointed me almost as much as his vote. By his logic, we should have no seat belt laws either.

That's right, he replied. And that's why he was against seat belt laws.

The senator listened as I explained how my experience had convinced me that repealing helmet laws was a terrible mistake. He thanked me for sharing my opinion and said goodbye.

If motorcycle riders put only themselves at risk, I might buy the anti-helmet argument. But they don't. And we no longer exist in some Jeffersonian world of farmers and frontiersmen who live independently of one another. We are woven together in a society where one person's unbridled freedom imposes costs on the rest of us.

We all pay when motorcyclists are injured because they fail to wear helmets. We pay through higher insurance premiums. We pay through higher costs to the public health and welfare systems. We pay in the form of families who are left without breadwinners. And we pay in months and years that others must be responsible for providing care to some helmetless rider who said, "Let me be responsible for my own safety." All of these are costs that are unacceptably, needlessly high.

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