[ Sunday, May 11, 2003 ]

Let those who ride decide

Align the car mirrors. Adjust yourself in a seat. Click your safety belt. Check the locks. Strap on your helmet.

Seems like an odd scenario just to drive down the road in a car, or truck or van. Imagine if people had to wear helmets when driving one of those vehicles. Citizens would be furious. Not many soccer moms would likely accept the helmet as part of their daily errand running. But motorcycle riders must wear helmets by law in many states, including Pennsylvania where one State Senator - Democrat John Wozniak - looks to change the commonwealth's policy.

Obviously, there is a difference. Motorcycle riders are exposed to the road like nobody else driving any other type of vehicle. Plus, cars have additional safety devices like airbags and seatbelts. There is no doubt about that. But a standard argument used in support of mandatory helmet laws is that if they save one life, then the law is worth it.

Okay, let’s accept that idea.

Then the same should hold true for people driving cars, trucks or vans.

But that’s not going to happen.

However, motorcycle riders are subject to helmet laws in many states.

First of all, let’s be honest here. Say you’re going 65 m.p.h. down a highway on a motorcycle. You skid on some cinders, lose control and hit your head on a guardrail. Your loved ones are picking out a casket one way or the other. No helmet is saving you.

Motorcycle riders know that. Riders understand the potential consequences of a motorcycle accident more than anyone else. They also realize the most important safety device is just being a skilled, educated, respectful and courteous rider. No helmet can take the place of those traits.

To be blunt, once a rider - even a skilled and respectful one - gets going faster than the speed needed to pull out of his driveway, the evidence is sketchy as to whether helmets do much to protect riders from increased injuries during accidents. The extra layer of protection likely does help. Just ask a baseball player who has ever been hit in the head how thankful he is for the helmet that possibly saved his life.

On the other side, some people suggest the limitation on sight and sound, along with the wear of the extra weight, can cause problems when wearing a motorcycle helmet.

Most statistics are useless when discussing the issue either pro or con. Too many variables exist to isolate the information, although numerous people attempt to interpret the data in favor of their positions. If you just type something like “motorcycle helmet statistics” into a search engine, then numerous articles will appear citing numbers in support of both sides.

The numbers are easy to twist, though.

Say for instance, state A eliminates its helmet laws and motorcycle accidents increase over the next two years. That would seem to be a straightforward connection. However, it ignores other variables. Maybe the number of riders in the state increased also. Maybe the number of young, first-time riders, who did not know how to properly operate their motorcycles, increased. Etc. Etc. Factors like those could also lead to increased accidents that just happened to coincide with the helmet law change.

A lot of the statistical problems come from how motorcycle accidents are just all lumped together, ignoring issues like drunk driving, at times. There are also other inaccurate scenarios. Imagine a motorcycle rider stopped at an intersection. He is not wearing a helmet. A drunk driver speeds through a yellow light, so he does not have to wait at the red. He loses control of his vehicle, crashes into the motorcycle and kills the rider. Through no fault of the motorcycle rider, that accident can be considered a statistical case of a rider killed while not wearing a helmet.

But it’s just not the deaths.

Individuals and groups suggest helmets help keep down medical costs by eliminating injuries. The claim is that the mandatory law is good because it protects people from what they consider an obvious dangerous situation. Again, let’s assume that is the case. Where do we draw the line? How should a government decide when to bow to the insurance companies and when not to do so? People who eat more red meat than salad are more likely to encounter costly medical problems with their hearts. Drinkers are more likely to encounter costly medical problems with their livers than non-drinkers.

Anybody for outlawing steak and beer?

It’s not the job of governments or insurance companies to attempt to protect people from themselves. Sometimes you just have to eat the fat steak, drink the liver-scarring booze and drive down the highway without a helmet or seatbelt. You have to do it, so you know you’re alive.

However, if people want to wear the helmets because it makes them feel safer, good for them. More power to them. But people who believe they do not provided any significant safety increase should not be forced to comply with the rule. That is the idea behind Wozniak’s proposed bill that would eliminate mandatory helmet laws for a person over 21 who has been licensed for two years, or an individual 21 or older who has passed a safety course, or a passenger over 21. In a release, Wozniak, a legislative voice for the Alliance of Bikers Aimed Toward Education, stated, “I believe responsible drivers can make their own decisions,” as seen in The Johnstown Tribune-Democrat.
Dave Sutor [10:22 PM]