Three more U.S. states considering less restrictive helmet laws

Published: 25 March 2009

Author's note: There are several more states besides these which are at least looking at softening helmet laws.

I took great pains not to misrepresent the positions or passions of respective parties in writing this.

And I was commended by at least one senator interviewed for my balance and neutrality (not saying I also do not have opinions besides, but I left them out of this).

In the U.S. helmet laws are a red hot topic for some groups of riders ... March 15, 2009 By Jeff Cobb Motorcycle Safety News With Missouri making definite strides toward making it legal for motorcyclists over 21 to ride without helmets, legislators in Nevada, Maryland and Nebraska are proposing to do the same. If successful, they could join the 60 percent of American states that since 1985 have modified their formerly universal mandatory helmet laws.

Nevada’s Assembly Bill 300 (AB300) – if made law – would permit riders over 21 who have been licensed at least one year, and have passed a safety course to ride without a helmet. Nebraska’s Legislative Bill 200 (LB200) is aimed at exempting riders over 21, and those 16 to 20 could ride without helmets if they passed a safety course. And Maryland’s Senate Bill 766 (SB766) also would permit riders over 21 to ride un-helmeted who have two or more years experience and who have passed a safety course. All three states would exempt passengers over 21, and still require eye protection.

The Nebraska bill, introduced Jan. 12 by freshman state Sen. Charlie Janssen (R), appears deadlocked in committee, and may not make it to a floor vote, although Janssen predicted within five years similar legislation could pass. The Maryland attempt was sponsored by Anne Arundel County Sen. John Astle (D), and other senators. It was first read Feb. 6, discussed in a hearing March 10, with no action taken, and opponents seem as outspoken as proponents for this bill. Advocates remain hopeful for the Nevada bill.

Introduced March 11, by Assemblyman Don Gustavson (R), and other sponsors, it has not yet been officially discussed in a committee hearing. But AB300 must compete for attention with 1,200 other bills in a (short) 120-day legislative session, so it also may be too soon to predict its potential. In recent years a seemingly worsening American motorcycle safety record has received much attention, and perhaps one of the biggest points of contention has centered on the helmet issue.

An informal polling by Motorcycle Safety News of non-riders – who may be less savvy to riders’ concerns – found they expressed disbelief that states would soften helmet laws. Typically people see helmets as unquestionably helpful, and ask why a state would ever choose not to mandate them. But things are much less black and white for some riders.

Whether helmets are of value or not, many riders see mandatory helmet laws as an infringement on their liberty. An outspoken representative of this sentiment is John Bland, Nevada Motorcycle Riders Foundation (MRF) representative, and president of Northern Nevada ABATE (A Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education). Bland, 55, owns and rides antique Harley Davidson, Indian, Honda and BSA motorcycles. He describes himself as “very conservative,” and a “self-made person.” In his lifetime, he’s been entrusted with overseeing a $300 million construction project and buying the small historic town in which he now lives.

He speaks of personal responsibility as an inalienable right, and as something the state need not overly concern itself with. Echoing a sentiment held by the MRF, Bland said helmet laws are not unlike gun laws in that they are a trust put in the hands of citizens. In fact, allowing Americans to make their own choices – including life or death decisions – is necessary to develop mature citizens, he said. These freedoms make America special, he said, and he would not deprive anyone of them, least of all himself. ”To me, riding a motorcycle is one of the most enjoyable ways I have found [to partake] of the American dream of freedom and taking responsibility for my own actions,” Bland said.

He said, however, government officials are not often accustomed to people who are not looking for handouts or a nanny state to be established for their own good. But to Bland, having legislators force him to wear a helmet is “like the government putting its strongholds around my head.” A mandatory helmet law exceeds Bland’s view of where government responsibility stops, and where a citizen’s ought to begin. Bland questioned the motives of safety agencies like the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHTSA), and said he suspects it may be trying to justify its own existence by skewing data to paint a worse picture of motorcycle safety.

Other motorcycle rights advocates have expressed similar distrust for NHTSA’s consistent push for all to wear helmets. Bland said he has done his own digging through NHTSA’s data, however, and has formed different opinions. For example, nationwide, motorcyclists account for 6 percent of traumatic brain injuries, whereas bicyclists account for 7 percent, pedestrians 13 percent, and occupants of enclosed motor vehicles, 62 percent.

But if others do worse, Bland asked, why are motorcycle riders being singled out? “NHTSA never talks about putting a helmet in a car,” Bland said. Why? Only because it would be “socially unacceptable.” Others have said the same of skiers, snowboarders, rock climbers, and others who for whatever reason escape scrutiny. Bland went on to say several states without mandatory universal helmet laws experience fewer deaths than his state. “I would like NHTSA to explain to me why all those states have fewer fatalities per 100,000 registrations, than Nevada with a helmet law,” Bland said.

Bland said helmets could interfere with peripheral vision, hearing, and can fatigue the neck or even break it through whiplash in an accident. “It’s very possible that these helmets are killing people,” Bland said, “They are not the safety device they are billed for.” Nor is Bland alone. Nevadans raised similar concerns in a 2005 senate committee meeting to discuss similar (and unsuccessful) proposed helmet legislation. And lawmakers like Nevada’s Gustavson have been listening.

“I read testimony by somebody who was hit by an unaware motorist and was able to prove that no impact was sustained by the helmet,” Gustavson wrote in response to questions by Motorcycle Safety News, “yet the force of the helmet caused damage to the spine which caused permanent paralysis,” As is the case in other states, attempts to modify helmet laws in Nevada have come and gone over the years. “I first introduced this type of legislation back in 1997 on behalf of some constituents,” Gustavson wrote, “I myself am not a rider although I have always objected to this law due to the freedom of choice issue.” Likewise, Sen. Janssen of Nebraska – also not a rider – said his vote is for freedom, and disagreed with bureaucrats who wish to force helmets back on American riders.

He, like others, sees universal mandatory laws as a quick fix for a problem that is not so simple or cut and dry. “These types of organizations will say anything they can to put the fear in people when they are debating these issues,” Janssen said of NHTSA and others. While Janssen said he would wear a helmet if he did ride, he denied helmets were equivalent to seatbelts in automobiles. And in the mean time, he said other important variables relevant to motorcyclist safety are not being addressed. “I think it has a lot to do with motorists,” Janssen said, “The motorcycle riders really have to be defensive drivers.” Policy makers would be better served to do more to change the way distracted motorists drive, he said.

And aside from philosophical and scientific debates, the push for less restrictive helmet laws is being billed as a major economy booster. “I do believe this would be a revenue enhancement for the state of Nevada,” Gustavson wrote, “It is no secret that motorcyclists spend substantial amounts of money … California, our neighbor to the west, used to account for a large portion of motorcycle sales. That is not the case anymore. Obviously that equates to fewer sales and less jobs which equates to less sales taxes and payroll taxes.”

Likewise, Bland said, he could foresee increased tourism, particularly by riders from California – which in 1992 reinstated its universal helmet law. Bland said sales, ownership and ridership sharply increase when states soften their helmet laws. Amending Nevada’s law could generate millions, he said – without raising taxes – through increased motorcycle sales and tourism. He pointed to Florida as a case example. In 2000, Florida modified its mandatory helmet law, and Bland estimated $3 billion has so far been raised.

And while deaths have increased, he said, it is because so many more riders are now on Florida’s roads. “Fatalities have gone down in Florida if you look at the increased registrations, Bland said. The belief is that most riders appreciate not being forced to wear a helmet, and in many cases, this would appear true. But not in all cases. Several motorcyclists interviewed – including an ABATE newsletter editor in Brevard County, Fla. – said they are not as keyed up about helmets, nor are they convinced it is not always better to wear one.

Included among riders who believe in helmets is NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson, who found it surprising Florida is seen as a positive example. He said NHTSA did a post-2000 study that found revenues gained came at the cost of healthcare payouts and lost lives. “The analysis we did in Florida was one of the most carefully researched pieces of research we have done,” Tyson said, “Florida has paid a steep price for the repeal of their helmet laws.” NHTSA also studied Texas, Louisiana and Pennsylvania which each softened their helmet laws. “Every state that has repealed its helmet laws has seen an increase in the rate of fatalities,” Tyson said.

He added that studies have shown helmets give on average a 37 percent better chance of surviving a crash, and disputed an assertion one critic made that registrations and deaths typically parallel. “He needs to go back and look at the study because we adjusted for the rate of registrations. And if he does not like the way we did the analysis, he needs to go back and look at the independent analysis they did in Pittsburgh,” Tyson said of a 2008 University of Pittsburgh study that corroborated NHTSA findings in Pennsylvania. “We have nothing to gain by presenting a false picture of what happened,” Tyson said. “We are a scientifically honest agency.” Further, Tyson said, NHTSA has no authority to implement helmet laws. Legislation is under the purview of individual states.

Even so, after NHTSA’s study, he said, Louisiana chose to reinstate its universal mandatory helmet law. Tyson said people really know helmets are preferable, as evidenced by the fact that the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) – the largest motorcycle race sanctioning organization in the world – requires them for all competition. And he said he is weary of hearing NHTSA is pushing an agenda. “Yeah, we do have an agenda. We definitely have an agenda,” Tyson said, “Our agenda is to improve highway safety in the United States. That’s our agenda. And it is counter intuitive to make the situation look any worse than it is.” And Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) – another group questioned by critics – offered equally strong statements.

“What it is is an alternate reality,” Rader said of an ideological divide between safety agencies and some Americans, “There is nothing we can show them even though it’s based on sound science that they will agree with.” Rader said the IIHS did its own study of deaths in Florida that confirmed NHTSA findings. “The change in motorcycle ridership or change in registrations has nothing whatever to do with our study,” Rader said, “We factored out any changes in ridership or registrations.” The IIHS examined deaths per 1000 registrations before and after the repeal.

“What we found is that when Florida weakened its law, the death rate per 1000 crashes grew 25 percent.” Rader said however, that “confounding problems” happen when one starts comparing deaths per number of registrations from state to state. It is not a fair comparison, he said. For example a Sun Belt state may have more deaths because it has more months of the year for riding. Rader also said the IIHS and NHTSA employ professional statisticians who scientifically assess data using strict methodology without trying to prove preconceived notions.

He said facts are objectively weighed, and the IIHS has come to strongly endorse universal mandatory helmet laws. Rader’s perspective seemed to contrast philosophical differences held by some American libertarians, and those with a different worldview. “There are obviously groups who disagree with government requiring helmets. But it obviously makes sense from a traffic safety perspective to have a universal helmet law,” Rader said, “We are the only country I know of in the industrialized world where this is even up for debate.

Everybody else in the industrialized world accepts the fact that this makes a big difference in reducing the risk in riding a motorcycle.” Rader said other countries equate traffic safety with public health, but the U.S. lags behind in implementing a comprehensive policy. “The issue of whether or not to wear a helmet often is discussed as simply a personal choice that doesn’t affect anyone but the rider. In fact, the decision affects all of us, because we all end up paying for the higher insurance costs, emergency services, and treatment for bikers who are injured in crashes,” Rader said. “From a public health perspective, it just makes sense to lower the risk to the extent that you can.”

Motorcyclist rights advocates have disputed these alleged costs, just as they have portrayed a different picture of every other point of disagreement between them and those who want stricter helmet laws. And in any case, the U.S. – founded with a cry of liberty – remains a country of the people, by the people, for the people. And to date, 30 out of 50 states – with four more considering issues – have for better or worse voted to liberalize helmet requirements.

Meanwhile, the concern remains that for what ever reason, more motorcycle riders than ever are dying or being injured. It would seem, therefore, the debate is anything but over.

Jeff Cobb is the editor and publisher of Motorcycle Safety News. Comments, and questions can be directed to jeff@motorcyclesafetynews.com

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