A Few Thoughts on Helmet Laws

Oct 20, 2012 View Comments by

We’ve all heard the old Bell Helmet’s ad, “if you’ve got a ten-dollar head, wear a ten-dollar helmet.” Following that line of logic, what does it say about the value of your noggin if you don’t wear a helmet at all? Unfortunately, helmet use and helmet laws can be a controversial topic among motorcyclists with most riders falling into one of two camps. The first, and usually most vocal, group are those opposed to mandatory helmet laws. The second group are those who feel that anything that increases helmet use is a good thing and therefore support helmet laws.

Interestingly, the states themselves are also pretty divided when it comes to helmet laws. Nineteen states and Washington D.C. have universal helmet laws requiring everyone on a motorcycle, regardless of age or insurance coverage, to wear a helmet. Twenty-eight states have limited helmet laws usually only requiring helmets for those under a certain age. Three states do not have helmet laws of any kind. So why is there so much disparity? Why does something as benign as a motorcycle helmet elicit so much controversy?

Those who oppose mandatory helmet laws do so primarily on the basis that the government shouldn’t be able to tell them what to do. This argument is quickly followed up by assertions that enforcing helmet laws takes money and resources away from rider education and safety programs thereby doing nothing to prevent accidents in the first place. While both of these are valid arguments to an extent, the truth is determined by lives saved on the road. Unfortunately, there is no greater determining factor in helmet use than helmet laws. According to a CDC study, in states without universal helmet laws, fatally injured motorcyclists were five times more likely to not have been wearing a helmet than in states that do. Since 1994 when the federal government stopped penalized states for not having universal helmet laws, nationwide helmet use has dropped twelve percent. Sadly, it’s pretty clear that the most effective way to get people to wear helmets is to legally force them to.

While some motorcyclists advocate against mandatory helmet use laws, very few will argue against helmet use itself. There are a few who will say that while helmet use reduces head injuries, it could increase neck injuries. However, according to a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology, wearing a helmet reduces the risk of death in a crash by at least 39 percent. Also, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, motorcyclists involved in a crash while wearing a helmet are three times less likely to suffer a traumatic brain injury.

So, we’ve established that universal helmet laws have a dramatic effect on helmet use and that helmets greatly reduce the risk of death and serious injury when involved in a crash, but let’s see how the stats bear out in the real world. In 1998 the state of Kentucky repealed its universal helmet law, as did Louisiana in 1999, the following years saw an increase in motorcyclist deaths of 50 percent in Kentucky and 100 percent in Louisiana. When California instated its universal helmet use law in 1992, the rate of helmet use went from 50 percent to 99 percent and motorcyclist fatalities decreased 37 percent. These figures, with minor fluctuations, hold true across the nation.

It’s hard to argue with the numbers, and those that do generally do so with a genuine belief that lax helmet laws are better for motorcycling. No doubt in a perfect world everyone would wear helmets without being forced by law to do so and proper training and safety programs could remove the risk of accidents. Obviously, in the real world no amount of training, safety programs, or anything else can completely remove this risk. That’s why wearing a helmet shouldn’t be optional. This is one of those rare instances when the freedom just isn’t worth the body count.

Sources: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Center for Disease Control, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Governor’s Highway Safety Association

DisclaimerRoadRUNNER Motorcycle Touring & Travel always recommends wearing full riding gear at all times including: jacket, gloves, pants, over-the-ankle boots, and a well-fitting helmet.

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About the author

There’s something relentlessly romantic about riding a motorcycle. I’m blessed to know that feeling. With a background in photography and a love for motorcycles, I’m interested in the beauty and honesty of the open road. You’ll find me riding Carolina’s roads on my Suzuki SV650.