Motorcycle Helmet Laws May Save Lives, but Bikers Would Love to Repeal Them

The law says motorcyclists in Delaware have to have a helmet. But the helmet does not need to be on anyone's head. A motorcyclist is obeying the law even if the helmet is strapped to the handlebars or stuffed in a saddlebag.

For a lot of people in Delaware, especially bikers, the law does not make sense. Many motorcyclists would like to get rid of the law and leave the state with no helmet requirement at all. They almost succeeded this year, when a bill to repeal the law passed both chambers of the legislature. But Governor Jack Markell vetoed the repeal, and now, much to the displeasure of the bikers, Markell wants to go in the other direction — enact a new law that requires them to actually wear the helmet.

"A helmet lashed to a seat or handlebars does little, if anything, to improve the situation of a rider in an accident," the governor admitted in his veto message. "However, because Delaware's helmet law requires riders to have a helmet in their possession, riders must buy a safety helmet that they might not otherwise purchase … Many riders sensibly recognize that the helmet does more good on their head than it does as an ornament on their bicycle." Markell hopes the law can be toughened up by the legislature next year.

But for now, the state motorcycle law remains just as it has been since it was enacted in 1978. And it reflects a stalemate that exists on the subject in much of the country. Even with enormous upheaval in state capitols over the last year, neither bikers' rights groups nor safety advocates have gained much traction for change. Only Michigan seems to have a chance to revise its law this year, and the prospects there are iffy.

Just three states — Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire — do not require any motorcycle riders to wear helmets. Twenty states require all motorcyclists to wear them, while the rest target certain groups of cyclists, usually younger drivers. 

Tough law to follow

But Delaware's quirky law is a special headache for motorcyclists. Even those who try to follow the law may have a hard time doing so, because it is difficult to determine whether a helmet meets the state standards. "Our biggest problem is now you're putting it on the consumer to figure out if this helmet meets standards or not," says Donald Hannum, a spokesman for the Delaware chapter of ABATE, a national bikers' rights organization. 

ABATE casts the issue as a matter of personal liberty: Its members believe motorcyclists should be making their own decisions about whether to wear a helmet. "Take (helmets) off the bike," Hannum says. "The people who are going to wear them are going to wear them. The ones that aren't going to wear them, aren't going to wear them."

But the federal government, insurance companies and safety advocates insist that mandatory helmet laws do change behavior, and save both money and lives. To underscore that point, medical authorities in New York State say that a motorcyclist who died in a crash earlier this month during an ABATE rally protesting the state's helmet law would have survived if he had been wearing a helmet.

Last November, the National Transportation Safety Board called on states to enact universal mandatory helmet laws, citing a surge in motorcycle deaths at a time when traffic fatalities overall had declined. This spring, the agency weighed in against a proposal to remove Michigan's mandatory helmet law.

The Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning claimed that repealing the state's law would likely lead to a drop in helmet use from nearly 100 percent now to 58 percent. Motorcycle deaths and serious injuries, the office projected, would increase by 60 percent.

The agency based its assumptions on the experiences of other states that have lifted their universal helmet laws. When Louisiana repealed its helmet law in 1999, motorcycle fatalities doubled. In 2004 the law was reinstated, and the number of deaths dropped. Other states — including Arkansas, Texas, Kentucky and Florida — also saw motorcycle deaths increase when they scaled back their helmet requirements.

Mandatory in Michigan?

In Michigan, a new governor is giving ABATE and its allies hope that they may finally be able to roll back the state's universal helmet law. In 2006 and 2008, lawmakers sent legislation repealing the mandate to the previous governor, Democrat Jennifer Granholm, but she vetoed both attempts. Now that Republican Rick Snyder is governor, the legislation is advancing again. A proposal passed the state Senate that would tie repeal to mandatory insurance requirements for riders without helmets. Snyder himself has not staked out a public position on the bill, but he has discussed tying it to other insurance reforms, according to The Detroit News .

Nancy Cain, a spokesperson for Michigan AAA, says Michigan residents have special reason to keep their mandatory helmet law. Unlike many states, Michigan has a fund for catastrophic damages, which all auto insurance policyholders pay into with a surcharge on their coverage. If the helmet law were to be repealed, this surcharge would likely go up.

Even with a helmet law, Cain notes, motorcyclists account for a disproportionately large share of the claims filed with the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association. While motorcyclists make up 1.7 percent of the fund's contributors, they account for 6.7 percent of the claims.

"From an economic standpoint, from a traffic safety standpoint," she says, "we really believe the law should remain as is." 


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