Who are Helmets Really Protecting? The debate over whether or not to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle has been hot topic since the helmet law went into effect in California in 1992. It seems obvious that wearing a helmet would help protect you in a motorcycle accident. Many legislatures agree. In fact, nineteen states have a mandatory helmet law for all motorcycle riders.
Twenty-seven states have a law for those under a set age, three of which require additional insurance for those of age who choose not to wear a helmet. That leaves only four states with absolutely no helmet laws. Despite these facts, helmets are a superficial means of safety at realistic speeds. Yet because this is a public policy issue that is not just about health but also about freedom of behavior, the process of law making is complicated. Who supports the helmet law? If you were to guess a motorcycle rider, you would probably be wrong. The majority of the helmet law supporters consist of manufacturers, government agencies, and insurance companies.
Many states passed mandatory helmet laws in order to receive federal funds for highway repair and improvements. Most important, is the fact that helmet manufacturing is a large and profitable industry. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 1999, there were four million motorcycles registered in the United States (DOT, 1999). States gain to profit from the tax revenue generated by the sale of helmets. The mere fact that the state has a financial stake in the sale of motorcycle helmets is reason enough to support the law. Insurance companies are in the business of making money.
It's the opinion of the insurance companies that if a rider wears a helmet, he or she is safer and less likely to suffer serious injuries in an accident. Fewer injuries equal fewer claims and more profit for the company. It's not very hard to see why insurance companies are supportive of the helmet law. My own opinion in regards to support of the helmet law is this: very little is presented by major medical research that would indicate that one is safer on a motorcycle wearing a helmet during an accident.
Most research states that a helmet is only successful from preventing serious injury while driving less than 15 mph (DOT Helmet test, 1999). Most accidents on a motorcycle occur at a higher rate of speed making the helmet useless. In fact, accidents involving helmeted riders often result in serious neck trauma even when the helmet doesn't come in contact with any foreign objects. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) web site lists that there were a total of 323 motorcycle fatalities in California in the year 2002 (DOT California, 2002. Of those 323, 274 were wearing a helmet, 45 riders were not.
Not the type of numbers that would make you strap on a helmet. Wearing a helmet often times provides a false sense of security. The risk of injury and even death is very high while riding a motorcycle. The NHTSA also points out that the majority of motorcycle involved traffic accidents are caused by the drivers of automobiles (DOT Injuries, 1999). With these facts in mind, most riders are aware that if an accident were to occur, very little could be done to minimize the extent of the injuries.
Motorcycle riders have long been viewed as rough, tough and rebellious. You certainly didn't see any helmets being worn in the movie "Easy Rider." It's only recently that riding has become more main stream. Nobody cared whether or not a biker was involved in a serious accident that resulted in paralysis or death ten years ago. It was viewed as just another biker getting what he deserved. Today, people from all walks of life and economic backgrounds are riding motorcycles. It's because of the sudden popularity that states want to have a say in how riding should take place.
Motorcycle riders enjoy the feeling of freedom that is associated with riding the open highway. Mandating that riders wear helmets takes away from that feeling. Many motorcycle riders want to make the decision of whether or not to wear a helmet on their own. As I mentioned earlier, very little information is available to prove that a helmet will keep you safe in an accident. I personally chose to wear a helmet because I believe that they add an element of protection from various road conditions. Having a bug or rock bounce off of your head at 70 mph does not feel good, it hurts.
I don't wear a helmet to protect me in an accident. I wear it to prevent accidents. I believe that a rider should have the right to chose even though I wear a helmet. Both sides of the debate have strong beliefs and facts that would make you support their stance. However, it is important to recognize that that the helmet requirement is law and should be respected.
Until the law is changed, there is very little that can be done. Just as one is required to obey all traffic laws and rules in an automobile, so is the same for motorcycles.