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Unhelpful News from Michigan for Opponents of California’s Motorcycle Helmet Law

Since 1992 when the California legislature required all motorcycle riders in California to wear approved helmets, there has been a vocal outcry for repeal of the law. In California, and throughout the nation, a group called the American Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education (ABATE) has been a vital force in the fight against helmet laws. For ABATE and other people opposed to helmet laws, a recent report may hamper their efforts.

In 2012, Michigan joined 30 other states in allowing riders to choose not to wear a helmet. In order to make the choice of going without head protection, the rider must be over 21 years of age, carry additional insurance and either take more intensive training courses for safe riding or have two years of experience on a bike. The law went into effect in April of 2012 and the first reports on the year-old law have now been released.

Based upon extensive data collection and analysis of the year old law, a University of Michigan researcher argues that “there would have been 26 fewer deaths and 49 fewer serious injuries in Michigan last year if all riders had worn helmets,” as previously required under Michigan law (“Researcher: More dead, injured as result of new motorcycle helmet law”). Michigan’s Office of Highway Safety Planning also collected data showing that motorcycle fatalities were up since the helmet law changed: 109 in 2011 to 129 in 2012. 98% of people involved in motorcycle accidents in 2011 had helmets on. In 2012, the percentage of riders involved in accidents wearing helmets was down to 74%.

Advocates of helmet laws argue that when a rider crashes without a helmet, they are likely to suffer grievous injuries including traumatic brain injury. A person who suffers a traumatic brain injury may have medical costs that can exceed $1 million over their lifetime and they often need taxpayer assistance. Insurance premiums may also be passed on to other drivers in states that give the rider the choice of wearing a helmet.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that helmets save the lives of thousands of riders each year and that even more riders would have survived their crashes or suffered less serious injuries had they been wearing helmets. While it may be a personal choice, when taxpayers often have to absorb the cost of catastrophic injuries, advocating against helmet requirements seems like an unpopular stance to take. This is especially true for non-riders who may not understand the major difference between riding with a helmet or without one. But even for people who do not ride, those who see the value of personal freedom may also take a side in the debate. But will the argument for personal freedom ever win the day?

As emergency room doctors, experienced riders, and personal injury lawyers all know, even a rider who does everything right–including donning a helmet–a poor driver or dangerous road condition can still cause devastating damage. A helmet will most likely ensure that the damage is not as devastating as it otherwise would be. While arguments for personal freedom and responsibility have considerable power, arguing against the mandatory helmet law in California may appear to be increasingly quixotic especially in light of this new study from Michigan if it holds up to scrutiny.