Andrew Traub

Motorcycle helmets save lives

In 1966, Congress passed the first federal motor-vehicle safety bill, requiring that all new cars come with seatbelts — and that any state wanting its full ration of federal highway construction money had to pass a law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets. Which 47 states promptly did.

But then in the 1970s, encouraged by motorcycle industry lobbyists, bikers began staging big demonstrations — such as the one in Hartford in 1975 at which, according to a UPI news story, “motorcycle enthusiasts, among them members of groups like the ‘Hell’s Angels,’ burned a helmet in the State Capitol parking lot.” The protests worked. In 1976 Congress repealed the federal pro-helmet law, prompting state after state to change their laws to apply only to children, or repeal them altogether. By 1980 just 19 states still had no-exception “universal” helmet laws.

As a result, during the last 40 years tens of thousands additional people have unnecessarily died. Of course, motorcycles are dangerous no matter what: mile for mile, compared to riding in a car, you’re 27 times as likely to die, and every year about one out of a hundred American motorcyclists is injured or killed in an accident. However, wearing a helmet dramatically improves your odds: it’s estimated that a helmet reduces the chance of injury by almost 70% and of death by at least 40% —every year, 1,700 riders survive accidents because they were helmeted.

Only three other southerly states — Florida, Texas and Missouri — face up to the downside of their live-free-and-die statutes and legally require helmetless riders to carry medical insurance.

One social upside to all those unnecessary deaths - according to the amusingly titled 2009 study by Michigan State University economists, “Donorcycles: Motorcycle Helmet Laws and the Supply of Organ Donors,” every three deaths of helmetless riders prevent one person on an organ transplant waiting list from dying. It’s the circle of life, American-style.

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