Why Helmet Laws Shouldn't Matter

July 6, 2011


Fourth of July weekend should be all about celebrating the freedom we Americans enjoy as a people. For me, that meant riding my motorcycle at a brisk pace through coastal Marin and Sonoma counties in Northern California, and then floating for many hours in the cool Russian River. For Philip Contos, a member of the Onondaga, NY ABATE chapter, that meant riding his Harley helmetless to an anti-helmet protest rally. What was probably a mellow group ride turned into a nightmare when Contos had to stop suddenly, apparently over-braking, fishtailing and then getting thrown over the handlebars. He suffered a fractured skull and was dead at the scene. The state patrol said he would have survived had he been wearing a helmet. That his death was sadly ironic is indisputable. That he was a warrior for bikers’ rights isn’t.

I am not writing this to advocate for helmet laws. I’m asking, rhetorically, why we even need them in the first place. I understand that Americans cherish their freedom and don’t like being told by government what to do, but there are lots of dangerous activities that aren’t outlawed in 20 states the way riding helmetless is. As far as I know, you can run with scissors, juggle scorpions, ride laps in your closed garage or barbeque indoors in California or New York. But why would you want to?

We all know, except for those with a high capacity for self-delusion, that helmets greatly reduce the incidence of head injury. We also know that most helmets are impacted on the chin bar or temple in crashes. We also know that the alleged disadvantages of helmet use—discomfort, reduced hearing and visibility and risk of neck injury are either nonexistent or exaggerated. And yet, riders in states without helmet laws use their helmets less than 50 percent of the time. Why? Nobody will say why they don’t want to wear a helmet, although my suspicion is that it has to do with the orthodoxy of the Harley-Davidson-oriented cruiser culture; my grandpa didn’t wear a helmet, my friends don’t wear helmets, so I don’t need one either. Sportbikers aren’t immune to the siren song of riding helmetless, but I think they just like to show off how fearless they are.

Why they prefer riding helmetless is seldom vocalized. Instead, the helmetless biker will quickly elevate the conversation to a philosophical (and interesting) one about the rights of man, the role of government, the fate of free men in a Nanny State. But I have yet to hear a cogent argument as to why it’s a good idea to ride bare-headed. Just making a short trip? Many crashes happen a short distance from home (when I found that out I moved, yet I keep crashing). Maybe you won’t be going that fast or you’re staying off the Interstate? That’s another absurdity—most crashes happen on city streets, at speeds under 30 mph. “I’ll just be taking it easy today.” Silliness. If we could pick what day we were going to crash, we’d just stay at home and ride on the day we know we’re not crashing on (if you’re scheduling a crash, mid-week is great, as the emergency rooms have shorter lines). Anti-helmet-law advocates rightly point out that helmets don’t prevent crashes. True enough, but they sure do lessen the consequences. Face it—you can’t tell anybody it’s logical to ride without a helmet (and other safety gear) every time you ride.

So I can say, confidently, that helmet laws don’t affect me. Why? Because no matter where I am, from Cozumel to Cuyahoga, I am going to be wearing a full-face lid. I could care less if I have the “right” to ride without. I could jab a golf tee into my eye as well, but I won’t be heading to an AGOTE (Association to jab GOlf Tees in my Eye) meeting anytime soon. I’ll be riding my motorcycle.

How do we keep “The Man” off our backs and get helmet laws repealed in 50 states? By getting helmet usage up to 80 percent or better so that the benefits of a law would disappear. If the general public—81 percent of whom think helmet use should be mandatory—saw us wearing helmets, they would leave us alone (so long as we also had acceptably quiet exhausts, but that’s a discussion for another day). Believe it.

So please just wear your freakin’ (and full-face) helmet. There are many more motorcycle-related issues, like insurance discrimination, lane-sharing and use of public land that could productively harness your energy.

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