Should all motorcycle riders have to wear helmets?

Researchers have found that helmets save lives, and many motorcycle riders agree that they're more than just an accessory. Yet not all agree with motorcycle helmet laws.
In Michigan, for example, motorcycle riders and safety experts are at odds over Senate Bill 291, which would repeal the state's mandatory helmet law. Recently approved by the Senate, the bill would allow all riders over age 21 to ride without helmets if they have passed certain safety tests or a state-approved safety course.
A controversial new amendment attached to the bill, however, would require riders to get $100,000 in personal injury coverage, a type of coverage that's currently optional in the state. While this would help ensure that bikers are covered for expensive medical treatments after a crash, it also would require them to pay more in motorcycle insurance.
Most states have enacted laws that require all or some riders to wear helmets. As of June 2011:
  • Twenty states plus the District of Columbia have laws making helmets mandatory for all riders.
  • Twenty-seven states have partial motorcycle helmet laws, meaning only some riders have to wear helmets. In most of these states, helmet requirements are based on age -- Ohio, for example, requires all riders younger than 17 to wear helmets.
  • Three states (Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire) have no laws for motorcycle helmet use.
State helmet laws became the norm in the late 1960s after the federal government began to require them in exchange for federal highway funds, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). In the 1970s, some states began to repeal or amend their laws, leaving those with universal helmet laws in the minority.
A matter of life and death
Many safety advocacy groups recommend motorcycle helmet laws for controlling health care costs. When they crash, motorcycle riders often sustain serious and expensive injuries, costing the health care system $12 billion in 2008, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Although well over half of all motorcycle riders across the United States wear helmets, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), those who don't often pay a steep price -- motorcycle riders are 37 times as likely as car drivers to be involved in a fatal accident and nine times as likely to be injured.
Why is motorcycle riding so risky? According to IIHS, a variety of factors combined make the roads particularly dangerous for bikers:
  • Performance: Motorcycles are built to accelerate rapidly and have high top speeds.
  • Stability: These two-wheeled vehicles don't have built-in stability that cars have.
  • Uneven Roads: With just two wheels in contact with the road surface, even small obstacles can crash a motorcycle.
  • Weather: Motorcycle riders are more vulnerable to the elements, like winter driving conditions and wet roads.
  • Visibility: Motorcycle riders are vulnerable to mistakes by other drivers who may not see them on the road.
  • Skill: A motorcycle requires special operational and risk-avoidance skills.
Do helmets help? Many safety experts say they do. According to CDC, helmets saved 1,800 lives in 2008 and reduce the risk of head injuries by 69 percent. States where more riders wear helmets, according to IIHS, have seen fatality rates drop.
Yet, according to IIHS, without laws, many riders won't simply opt to wear helmets on their own. In states that have universal helmet laws, the percentage of riders who wear them approaches 100 percent. In states that don't have such laws, helmet wearing hovers under 50 percent.
A matter of choice
With motorcycle riders exposed to high risks, many lawmakers see legislation as the answer. Yet, helmet laws have received their fair share of criticism. For example, according to IIHS, some riders argue that helmets obstruct vision and hearing, making it difficult for riders to gauge the risks around them.
The Alliance of Bikers Aimed Toward Education (ABATE) convinced Pennsylvania to modify its helmet law in 2003 to permit riders over age 21 to ride without helmets. Its website states, "If you like riding without a helmet, thank A.B.A.T.E. of PA."
Education, the organization argues, is the answer to keeping bikers safe -- not helmet mandates. Moreover, according to a recent ABATE news release, recent Pennsylvania legislation aimed at a universal helmet law is based on cherry-picked data that paint a misleading picture about the effectiveness of helmets at reducing mortality rates.

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