In Lansing last week, the state Senate voted 21-13 to repeal a 36-year-old law that made helmets mandatory for motorcyclists. The decision to repeal the law excited bikers who have been burning helmets, circling the Capitol and persistently lobbying for their personal rights since the bill’s passage in the early ’70s. The legislation represented government paternalism at its worst — infringing on citizens’ rights to make choices of personal responsibility. Should Gov. Jennifer Granholm throw her weight behind the Senate, she would be rightfully following in the footsteps of roughly 30 other state governors in repealing their mandatory helmet laws.
Enacted 36 years ago, the law that stands today, although modified throughout its existence, requires all motorcyclists to wear helmets. As bikers’ pleas for personal freedom have gained sway, the law has lost much of its bite. Fines for not wearing helmets can no longer exceed $200, and in most counties, average $50. Additionally, various legal loopholes have prevented police from stopping bikers without helmets. In the last five years, an increasing number of states has tossed their mandatory helmet laws, substituting them with more practical age limitations and other restrictions. The states that repealed the law did not do so with the intent of discouraging helmet use. To the contrary, the predominant justification for repealing helmet laws has been “adult choice.” Repealing the helmet law is an implicit recognition that each motorcycle-licensed adult has the capacity and right to make such decisions.
The new bill, which will reach Granholm if it passes the House, does not wholly repeal the existing law. If the proposed bill passes, helmets will only be optional for riders over the age of 21 who have held a motorcycle license for two years. In addition, helmetless riders must possess a sufficient amount of accident and medical insurance. This new bill is both rational — recognizing the importance of mandatory helmet requirements for young riders — and just — granting citizens’ personal freedom of choice.
Referred to as a “virtual death warrant” by an opponent of the new bill, many critics claim hospitals — specifically emergency rooms — will be swamped with fatal cases of accident-induced head trauma. However, just as smokers know the various health risks associated with smoking and yet choose to continue smoking, riders are well informed of the serious and frequently fatal consequences of riding without a helmet, and experienced riders should have the right to travel helmetless.
The American Motorcycle Club admits that over the past five years, motorcycle fatalities have increased. Nearly one in 22 accidents are fatal. However, despite the fact that many states have repealed mandatory helmet laws, overall helmet use has increased. Accidents due to a specific factor (intoxication, excessive speed, not wearing a helmet, recklessness) have remained the same or increased proportionally with the increase of riders. The largest contributing factor to the increase of motorcycle fatalities, however, is the “traffic mix,” and specifically, the introduction of sport utility vehicles. With or without a helmet, riders stand less of a chance of surviving in a crash with these gargantuan vehicles.
Motorcycling will never be accident free, with or without a helmet. Bikers should take all possible precautions, including wearing a helmet, to ride safely. However, in this situation, personal choice is a sacred right that cannot be taken for granted.