June 5, 2013 in Opinion

Editorial: Motorcycle helmet law should be kept in place


The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

There’s no free lunch, and recent motorcycle helmet figures show there’s no free ride either.

Last year, Michigan scaled back its universal helmet law, making it optional for riders over the age of 21, and the insurance industry reported a sharp rise in the cost of medical claims. A year before the change, the average payout for a motorcycle injury was $5,410; a year after, the average rose to $7,257, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute study.

Michigan is the latest state to loosen its helmet law after the feds stopped linking federal dollars to universal compliance. In Idaho, a helmet is optional for riders over 18. In Washington, helmets are mandatory for all riders, but there is an annual effort to weaken the law.

The Michigan data should give pause to these proponents.

The libertarian argument of free choice collides with the fact that these private decisions lead to public costs. Emergency responders and trauma teams respond to accidents. Victims may end up permanently disabled and on public assistance. Plus, the rise in insurance payouts can mean a rise in premiums for everyone.

The Michigan statistics were controlled for many factors to provide apples-to-apples comparisons. The study found that insurance payouts were 22 percent higher than in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin. The severity of injuries is the difference. Furthermore, a University of Michigan study showed that in the first eight months after the law was relaxed, 74 percent of riders involved in crashes wore helmets, compared with 98 percent over the same stretch in the previous four years.

In 1967, Congress tied some federal safety and construction funding to compliance, and nearly every state adopted an all-ages motorcycle helmet law, according to the Associated Press. But the penalties were discontinued in 1976, restarted in 1991 and ended again in 1995. As a result, states have been easing helmet regulations. Now, only 19 states and the District of Columbia have an all-ages law.

In January, helmet opponents pleaded their case in Olympia for a law that would limit regulation to riders 18 years and younger. They say helmet use should be treated as a choice, such as smoking and drinking, but government puts a price on those decisions.

Helmet haters long for the wind in their hair on a good day, but can’t untangle the costs to the rest of us on a bad day.

The trend among the states is to make helmets optional for most riders. But last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 97 percent of motorcyclists wore helmets in states with universal laws, while 58 percent wore them in states that eased regulations. Clearly, the law is the only reason many riders wear helmets, even though they limit injuries and public costs.

Washington lawmakers should continue to man the barricades against those born to be wild.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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