As safety advocates grapple with motorcycle deaths, Michigan repeals helmet mandate

Gina Roberts-Grey and John Egan
A May 2012 report from the Governors Highway Safety Association found that no progress was made in reducing deaths among motorcycle drivers and passengers in 2011. The group estimates 4,500 people died in motorcycle crashes in 2011, the same level as the year before.
"Motorcycle deaths remain one of the few areas in highway safety where progress is not being made," the association says.
In trying to decrease deaths involving motorcyclists, the Governors Highway Safety Association stresses the importance of wearing a helmet. Helmet use saved the lives of more than 1,800 motorcyclists in 2008, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Nonetheless, 31 states let adult motorcycle riders decide whether to wear helmets. In a major about-face, Michigan became the 31st state after repealing a state law requiring all motorcycle operators to wear helmets; now, adults 21 and older can go without helmets. Gov. Rick Snyder signed the helmet bill in April 2012.
“While many motorcyclists will continue to wear helmets, those who choose not to deserve the latitude to make their own informed judgment,” Snyder said in a statement when he signed the bill.
To ride helmet-free, a Michigan motorcyclist must:
• Carry at least $20,000 in additional medical insurance. • Have at least two years of riding experience or undergo special safety training.
Revved up about helmets
Snyder and other supporters of Michigan's new helmet law say it gives motorcyclists the freedom to decide whether to wear helmets. Furthermore, they say, the new law will attract more freedom-loving, motorcycle-riding tourists to the state.
On the other end of the spectrum, opponents of the law say repeal of the helmet mandate will lead to more traffic injuries and deaths.
A study from the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning says lifting the helmet mandate will cause the five-year average of motorcycle deaths to surge from 773 to 1,457. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Florida, Kentucky and Louisiana saw motorcycle deaths jump by at least 50 percent after their helmet laws were repealed.
“Wearing a helmet is the most important thing a motorcyclist can do to reduce the risk of head injury in a crash,” says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Vince Consiglio, president of ABATE of Michigan, firmly disagrees with Rader and other traffic safety advocates. Consiglio says helmet mandates "have done nothing to improve safety or reduce fatalities or the cost of insurance."
“Motorcycle accidents are a very small percentage of accidents overall. Data from other states demonstrate that states that remove mandatory helmet laws do not see an increase in insurance premiums, and states that institute helmet laws do not see a corresponding decrease in insurance rates. It’s never happened," Consiglio says in a news release.
ABATE of Michigan says the keys to reducing motorcycle crashes and injuries include educating motorcycle riders and car drivers.
Safety advocates agree that education is important, but maintain that helmet mandates are necessary.
Dr. Thomas Esposito, medical director of the trauma department at Illinois' Loyola University Health System, says that between 2004 and 2012, his trauma center treated 541 patients who had been riding motorcycles. Of those 541 patients, only 135 had been wearing helmets, he says.
“Because of the speed that most motorcycles are going when a crash occurs, helmets are absolutely crucial to prevent trauma to areas of the head, including the brain,” Esposito says.
Insurance concerns
Whether you wear a helmet or not, crashing on your motorcycle can be costly. After an accident, your motorcycle insurance premium could climb by 20 percent to 40 percent, according to Brian Rauber, a Farmers Insurance agent in Missouri.
Those accidents could wind up affecting all motorists, not just motorcyclists.
Personal injury attorney Steven Gursten of Michigan Auto Law points out that “a helmetless motorcycle rider can still sue and insurance company for pain and suffering in the event of a motorcycle-versus-motor vehicle crash.” In turn, insurers may boost their rates to account for expenses related to defending such cases.
No-helmet punishment
In states that do impose helmet mandates, the penalties for going helmetless can be stiff. According to Michigan law firm Buckfire & Buckfire PC, which specializes in motorcycle accident cases, Georgia is toughest on helmet violators, with a $1,000 fine and up to 12 months in jail; Nevada comes in second, with a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.
Other states with steep no-helmet fines are:
• Up to $750 -- Utah. • Up to $500 -- Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota.
Other states with steep no-helmet jail sentences are New Mexico and Utah (up to three months).
Three states don't have any laws regarding use of motorcycle helmets: Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire.

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