My Turn: Helmet law repeal worth another look

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Wind-whipped hair on Michigan highways and byways became commonplace in 2012, despite proof positive that it is indeed hazardous to your health.

Seven years ago the Michigan Legislature voted to allow motorcyclists age 21 or older to legally ride without wearing a helmet if they passed a motorcycle safety course or have held the motorcycle endorsement on their driver’s license for at least two years.

The legislation was in response to a movement championed by cycling groups that claimed that helmets restrict vision, impair hearing, break necks, and aggravate head injuries.

Their arguments have carried force over the past two decades as a number of states have swept away helmet laws. Safety experts are blaming the rising tide on a little known act of Congress in 1976, which forbid the Department of Transportation from withholding highway funds from states that have no law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets.

Once the laws are stricken, research shows that helmet usage among cyclists falls sharply. Studies in one state found that less than a 10th of the motorcyclists continued to wear helmets after the state repealed its law.

In a 2016 University of Michigan study, researchers found that the state’s trauma centers saw a 14 percent increase in head injuries among motorcyclists.

“Emergency physicians and trauma surgeons also saw a shift in the types of head injuries resulting from motorcycle crashes during that period,” a U-M press release said of the study.

“The overall spike in head injuries was also associated with an increased need for costly hospital services, including invasive neurosurgical procedures necessary to treat serious head injuries,” it was noted in the press release.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the U-M researchers added, estimates that motorcyclists without helmets are 40 percent more likely to suffer fatal head injuries and 15 percent more likely to suffer nonfatal head injuries than helmeted cyclists involved in a crash.

While motorcycle lobbying groups continue to insist that the evidence is inconclusive, their primary argument for pushing repeals laws rests on individual rights. If a person is killed because he didn’t wear a helmet, no one is being harmed but himself, they contend.

Although true in simple terms, the line of thought once magnified is riddled with misconceptions. The U.S. Supreme Court saw to the heart of the matter when it upheld a federal judge who ruled a Massachusetts helmet law constitutional. In the lower court decision, the judge noted:

“From the moment of injury, society picks the person up off the highway; delivers him to a municipal hospital and municipal doctors; provides him with unemployment compensation if, after recovery, he cannot replace his lost job, and, if the injury causes permanent disability, may assume the responsibility for his and his family’s continued subsistence. We do not understand the state of mind that permits plaintiff to think that only he himself is concerned.”

Logic, of course, has not always been well received by legislators, who should have weighed the cost to society of any repeal proposal.

“Head injuries can have a devastating impact on the long-term health of motorcyclists and their families after a crash,” said Dr. Patrick Carter, the lead author of the U-M study.

“The 14 percent increase in head injuries observed in our study is consistent with the negative public health impact we have witnessed following similar repeals in other states.”

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