Numerous states across the nation have mandatory helmet laws for motorcycle riders, yet others have none. While the argument continues between safety advocates on one side and those who hold individual rights in high esteem on the other, one thing is certain: the debate will likely continue for some time to come.
As Maryland personal injury attorneys, I and my colleagues have first-hand experience in representing individuals hurt as a result of highway traffic wrecks. Since a percentage of motor vehicle collisions involve people on motorcycles, there are numerous news stories every year illustrating the dangers of being hit by a car or commercial truck while operating a Harley, Honda, Yamaha or Kawasaki.
Whatever one’s personal feelings about the using a motorcycle helmet, riders in Baltimore, Annapolis, Gaithersburg and even in Washington, D.C., are required by law to wear an approved helmet at all times while on public roads. It’s a fair bet that most of the driving public believes that a helmet can help protect a biker from serious head injury — such as closed-head trauma — in the event of a bad motorcycle crash.
Those who prefer to let a rider choose, we can understand somewhat those arguments that focus on personal freedoms, but the question arises: If the mandatory wearing of a motorcycle helmet is an infringement on an individuals freedom of choice, then how about mandatory seatbelt laws, or child safety seat legislation? Are personal freedoms that important when the safety of a child or an adult are at stake?
Although many states already have helmet laws, some — like South Carolina, which offers its residents the option of wearing a helmet after age 21 — are strengthening their statutes by requiring all riders be protected. The state of Tennessee is looking to repeal its helmet law. Could this be a trend? If so, there are many people on either side of the argument who would not be happy about these changes.
Some bikers — typically those who are against mandatory helmet laws — feel that every individual must accept the consequences of his or her decisions. And apparently they have no qualms about the downside of that argument; namely that by choosing not to wear a helmet, some riders may find that they reap unanticipated consequences for their actions. The American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) itself supports limited government regulation on these kinds of issues; this backs up many in the biking community who believe that a rider should assume the risk of not wearing a helmet if he or she so decides.
However, while some may try to compare legislation requiring mandatory seatbelt, helmet and child safety seat laws to that of the recent recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board to ban all cell phone use on public highways, the question sometimes reflects the cost to society as a whole and less on the rights of the individual.
Whether practical or not, banning cell phone use by drivers in order to reduce accidents has its merits when it comes to protecting others on the road. But mandatory safety belt use in most cases doesn’t necessarily protect other drivers from the actions of an unbelted driver, yet seatbelt laws are recognized by most as a good idea, if only when considering the physics of a car or trucking-related accident.
According to a recent news article, some medical professionals say that Tennessee’s proposed repeal of its current helmet law is not a very good idea. That particular law would allow riders 21 and over to decide for themselves if they will or will not wear a helmet.
Now, doctors are certainly a group that can speak knowledgeably on the efficacy of helmet use by motorcyclists. And according to news reports, physicians and staff of Vanderbilt University Medical Center have voiced strong opposition to the repeal of the state’s current law, maintaining that motorcycle helmets do save lives and also reduce health care costs for everyone.
Based on traffic accident data and medical reports, some experts point to the fact that the repealing of longstanding motorcycle helmet laws resulted in a jump in serious injuries as well as an increase in treatment costs for those motorcycle accident victims. This, according to news articles, includes predictions in a rise of both acute health care as well as long-term rehab and/or permanent disability costs.
Again, this can be looked at from the standpoint of mandatory safety belt use. Like seat belts, say some experts, helmets reduce the chances of serious injury. For bikers, these injuries can include deep brain injuries, which typically result in long-term disability for the patient. Furthermore, experts say that data shows a motorcyclist suffering from a traumatic brain injury faces reduced possibility of a return to a productive life.
Is personal freedom worth the risk? Does individual freedom trump the financial risks to society as a whole? These questions are simple, but the answers are far more complicated. Voters, legislators and the courts will likely be wrestling with these and other divisive issues for many years to come. Meanwhile, we should all do our best to drive safely and protect the lives of ourselves and our families.
Balancing rights, social order; MauiNews.com, December 23, 2011
Mandatory Helmet Bill Prefiled in South Carolina Senate, WSPA.com, December 9, 2011