The Helmet Law Debate

Certainly the most hotly contested issue surrounding motorcycle safety is the Helmet Debate.  This debate revolves around whether federal law should require motorcyclists to wear helmets at all times when riding, or whether the decision of whether or not to wear a helmet should be left up to the individual rider.

Opponents of helmet laws argue that the regulations are paternalistic; that by requiring helmet laws, the federal government is attempting to regulate an area that should be left to the states to decide.  On the other hand, proponents of helmet laws argue that those laws save lives, reduce the risk of injury, and may even deter motorcycle thieves.

Below, InjuryBoard presents information on both sides of the debate to help you learn the facts, hear the arguments, and make an informed decision for yourself about whether to support or oppose the legal requirement to wear a motorcycle helmet when you ride.

The History and Current Legal Landscape of Helmet Laws

Beginning in 1967, the federal government began encouraging states to pass motorcycle helmet laws by making a federal safety program and state highway construction funds contingent on states enacting those laws.  Eight years later, forty-seven states had passed motorcycle helmet regulations.

Responding to pressure from the states, in 1976 Congress revoked federal authority to assess penalties on states for refusing to enact helmet laws.  Afterwards, several states relaxed their helmet laws.  Again, in 1991 Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which created incentives for states to pass helmet use laws.  Four years later, Congress again reversed itself by lifting federal sanctions against states without helmet laws.  This action allowed state legislatures to repeal helmet laws without punishment. 

This forty year long tug-of-war between states’ rights and federal supremacy has resulted in the current position of helmet laws.  As of 2007, twenty states and the District of Columbia have helmet laws that apply to all riders, and twenty-seven states have laws that apply to some riders (usually minors).  Three states (Illinois, New Hampshire, and Iowa) have no helmet laws at all.

  • CLICK HERE - for more frequently asked questions about helmet laws

Supporters of Helmet Laws

Those who support helmet laws argue that, first and foremost, helmets save lives.  They cite statistics that helmet use increases dramatically when states enact helmet laws.  For example, when California passed its helmet law in 1992, helmet use jumped from 50% to 99%.  During this same period of time, motorcycle accident fatalities in California decreased 37%.    

Studies also support the notion that motorcycle helmets save lives.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that helmets reduce the likelihood of an accident fatality by 29%.  The Hurt Study corroborates this statistic, finding that riders wearing helmets showed significantly lower risk for all types of neck and head injury.

Advocates for stricter helmet laws maintain that the laws benefit the public in other ways as well.  They reason that many motorcycle thieves will fail to bring a helmet with them when they steal a motorcycle.  If a helmet law is in effect, the thief’s lack of helmet will draw police attention and possibly lead to an arrest.  According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, motorcycle thefts in nineteen Texas cities decreased 44% in the two years after Texas legislature enacted a mandatory helmet law.

Some people also argue that the greater number of motorcycle injuries in states without helmet laws burden taxpayers.  When an uninsured or under-insured motorcyclist is injured in an accident, public funds often pay for the rider’s emergency care.  A 2002 NHTSA study revealed that only slightly more than half of all injured motorcyclists carry private health insurance coverage.  Some studies have found that public funds paid as much as 82% of medical bills for orthopedic injuries resulting from motorcycle accidents. 

Finally, helmet law proponents argue that aside from the United States, most developed countries have mandatory motorcycle helmet laws in place.  This supports the argument that if most other countries deem it necessary to have helmet laws to protect their citizens, the United States should follow suit. 

  • CLICK HERE - for more information in support of helmet laws

Opponents of Helmet Laws

Opponents of helmet laws are just as passionate about their opinions.  The primary argument of many helmet law opponents is that if the federal government enacted a mandatory helmet law, the regulation would encroach on states’ rights.  As you read in the above paragraphs, even Congress seems unsure of its proper role in deciding whether helmets should be mandatory.

ABATE is a popular national biker safety, education, and charitable organization that opposes proposed federal helmet laws.  They argue that education, not legislation is the key factor in creating a safe environment for motorcyclists. 

A similar organization, the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA), has advocated for motorcyclists since 1924.   This organization supports helmet laws aimed at minors who ride motorcycles.  They agree that younger riders may lack the needed maturity to make an proper decision about helmet use.  Interestingly, the group also encourages the use of helmets for all motorcyclists, but drastically opposes legislation requiring helmets on the theory that the decision of when to wear a helmet should be left to each individual biker.

Many opponents assert that merely wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle is an unnecessary and insufficient method of guarding oneself against injury.  Instead, they claim, riders should educate themselves on safe riding practices and avoid dangerous situations entirely.  Their view is that helmet laws do nothing to prevent accidents; only education and safe riding can prevent accidents.

Further, opponents counter the argument that motorcyclists place an undue burden on taxpayers by noting that when the costs of injuries to motorcycle riders are examined in the context of the large scale health care picture, the sum of money paid on behalf of motorcyclists is not astounding.  A Harborview Medical Center study discovered that the percentage of motorcyclists who relied on public funding for medical treatment (63.4%) was actually lower than that of the general population (67%).  Similarly, the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center found that 49.5% of injured motorcyclists had insurance to cover their medical costs, were nearly identical compared with 50.4% of other road trauma victims.

  • CLICK HERE - for information opposing helmet laws

Visit American Motorcycle Association for more information about the Helmet Debate and other important motorcycle facts.

Read the next article:  At the Scene of an Accident 


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