Helmet laws are among the most controversial topics in the riding world; we know they make you safer, but the question is about whether or not it’s the government’s place to make you wear one. But it’s not just about personal freedoms – states without helmet laws have much higher fatality and injury rates among riders, and those costs get passed on to taxpayers. Check out the story, and weigh in below!
One of the most politically charged and emotional debates in the motorcycle community is that over universal helmet laws. We at BikeBandit always support riding with a helmet because it’s just unsafe not to, and riding helmetless is a poor decision, regardless of what the laws are. But discussing whether or not wearing a motorcycle helmet should be required by law always stirs things up, and the debate is about a lot more than just helmet safety.
It isn’t really about whether or not helmets are more safe or not; there is a mountain of evidence supporting that they are. Instead, the real core of the debate is this: whether or not it is the government’s business to force riders to use them. Motorcycling is an activity strongly associated with freedom, and riders tend to be big fans of individual liberty; not wearing a helmet may be an unsafe option, but it’s an option they want to have, choosing for themselves whether to do it or not.
It’s the classic “liberty vs. tyranny” debate that so often occurs in American society, and it has a lot more to do with the principles of individual freedom than about safety statistics. Our country is, notionally anyway, built upon the idea that you have the right to make your own choices about what’s best for you – even if it’s a bad choice – as long as you don’t infringe upon another’s right to do the same.
But it’s not necessarily that simple; there’s another way to look at the helmet law debate than just whether or not it’s someone’s “right” to put themselves in harms way. It is also an economic issue, and the core of it is this: that not only do many more riders get injured or killed in states where helmets are not mandatory, but that those riders cost a lot more money to treat – a bill that society ends up footing. In other words, people who ride without helmets end up costing everyone else money. On one side, you have people who say they have the “right” to not wear a helmet, but on the other are people saying they have the “right” not to have to pay for the consequences of those people’s actions. In a way, both are right.
The evidence that using a motorcycle helmet decreases the risk of serious injury and fatality in motorcycle accidents is pretty much irrefutable. According to the NHTSA, motorcycle helmets reduce the risk of fatality in a by 37%, and unhelmeted riders are also three times more likely to sustain traumatic brain injury in a crash. Based on their statistics, they estimate that over 800 motorcycle riders who died in motorcycle accidents would have lived if they were wearing helmets in one year alone. On the whole, the NHTSA finds that helmeted riders are also less likely to need special medical treatments like intubation, ventilation, and reconstructive surgery, and also have shorter hospital stays, recovery times and a lower risk of permanent disability. For the individual rider, wearing a helmet is just a smart thing to do.
But if it is a matter of personal choice, there will still be people that refuse to do it – and in theory, it should be their right not to. The problem is that many motorcycle victims are, in fact, unable to cover the high costs of their treatment, and the remainder mostly ends up being absorbed by the government. Riders that don’t wear helmets costs significantly more to treat, and they end up costing the government more money too. That’s where it get’s complicated; ultimately, the cost of treating rider’s who choose to go helmetless ends up being covered by taxpayers (in other words, you and me.)
And these costs are not insignificant. An article on the topic that appeared in The Economist said that the extensive treatment and rehabilitation costs for helmetless riders injured in accidents typically runs up to a staggering $1.3 million, and that fewer than a third of them ever work again. At one large metropolitan hospital, taxpayers footed the bill for fully 63% of the care for these riders. An NHTSA case study in Florida showed that the state saw an 81% in fatalities and a 40% increase in hospital admissions among motorcycle riders after repealing it’s helmet law in 2000, and the average cost for head injury treatment jumped by over $10,000 per incident. Case studies in Texas and Arkansas, who also repealed their helmet laws, showed similar results there.
On the other hand, cost savings are huge in the 19 states where universal helmet laws are implemented. California, with more registered riders than any other state, is estimated to have saved in the neighborhood of $394 million by making helmets mandatory there, in terms of medical, productivity and other related costs.
The bottom line is that the discussion of “rights” is not exclusively the domain of rider advocacy groups, who claim the government is overstepping it’s boundaries telling people what to wear; taxpayer advocacy groups also claim that taxpayers should have the “right” to not have to pay for the irresponsibility of others. It’s a tough call; the debate on where one person’s freedom ends and another begins always becomes more complicated when that “freedom” starts costing money.
We’re not taking a position on the controversial matter (though we do want to hear yours.) But we will say this: no matter what the outcome of that debate, the evidence that helmet laws save lives is so uniformly clear, whether or not the government tell you to do it shouldn’t even really matter – it just seems like something you would want to do on your own!
So what do you think is more unfair: to force riders to wear helmets, or to expect taxpayers to cover the additional medical costs incurred by riders who get injured by not wearing one?