Mandating The Use of Motorcycle Helmets: What Are The Issues?
The topic of motorcycle helmet laws is a hot one in the USA and different people seem to have different opinions on it. To give you an idea, currently, 19 states have universal motorcycle helmet laws under which all riders have to wear a helmet at all times during riding, regardless of age or other variables.
On the complete other end of the spectrum, three states, namely Iowa, New Hampshire, and Illinois do not have any helmet laws in place. The other 28 states have motorcycle helmet laws in place, depending on age, insurance and other factors of the rider … and most all of these allow a rider to ride a motorcycle without any helmet if they meet the exemption rules and they so choose.
So what is “driving” (put intended) this large difference in opinions in the USA when it comes to mandatory motorcycle helmet laws in the US? Some riders believe that motorcycle helmets are indispensable and save countless motorcycle rider lives every day in the United States.
Other riders believe quite the opposite, that motorcycle helmets actually cause distraction or inhibit a riders ability to see and hear what is around them, which could lead to accidents. To understand this difference in point of views, one has to know the history behind motorcycle helmets in the US. We’ll discuss all that in this article along with issues and opinions that have prevented helmet laws from becoming universal.
History of Motorcycle Helmet Laws in the US
Motorcycles have been the symbol of American culture since World War 2 after thousands of soldiers came back home riding their motorcycles after the war ended. Not only that, but motorcycles were used in the war itself alongside sidecars during the Pancho Villa hunt. Motorcycles were used during World War 1 as well, but it wasn’t until after WWII that they really came into the forefront of American culture.
Motorcycles today are all about speed and efficiency. As a result, helmets are almost a necessity. But, that was not always the case. Gottlieb Daimler is widely believed to be the inventor of the first motorcycle. Back then, the primary purpose a motorcycle served was for fun … recreational travel. They were not used for commute or adventure rides as they are today.
Naturally, back in those days, the culture and the style of riding didn’t demand helmet use. Still, Gottlieb had created a leather cap, which had questionable protection. It wasn’t until 1935 that motorcycle helmet laws had a major breakthrough when T.E Lawrence suffered fatal head injuries as the result of a motorcycle crash.
Fast forward to the 50s and 60s, there were some states that implemented universal motorcycle helmet laws. However, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 (NTMVSA) was the first federal legislation that truly took into consideration helmet safety. The act considered aspects like vehicle safety, drunk driving, and seat belt regulations.
The act didn’t compel the states to implement the helmet regulations but it offered federal money to the states that did implement them. Naturally, almost every state started following the rules. By 1975, California was the only state that didn’t have any motorcycle helmet law in place. Unfortunately, that same year, the US Congress overturned the NTMVSA act owing to pressure from lobbying organizations.
After that, the National Highway Fatality and Injury Reduction Act of 1989 was another federal act for motorcycle riders. Similar to the NTMVSA, this act too tried to reinstate the restriction of federal money if the states did not comply with the helmet laws. The act initially thought of withholding 10% of federal money upon the failure of following the helmet rules. But, motorcycle lobbying organizations reduced it down to 3%.
Fast forward to present times, almost all states have some kind of motorcycle helmet law in place other than Iowa, New Hampshire, and Illinois. For reference, see the table below to see the motorcycle helmet laws in the US.
|18 and younger|
18 and younger
|Arkansas||21 and younger|
|Colorado||18 and younger|
|Connecticut||17 and younger|
|Delaware||18 and younger|
|District of Columbia||All riders|
|Florida||20 and younger|
|Hawaii||17 and younger|
|Idaho||17 and younger|
|Indiana||17 and younger|
|Kansas||17 and younger|
|Kentucky||20 and younger|
|Maine||17 and younger|
|Michigan||20 and younger|
|Minnesota||17 and younger|
|Montana||17 and younger|
|New Hampshire||No law|
|New Jersey||All riders|
|17 and younger|
|New York||All riders|
|North Carolina||All riders|
|North Dakota||17 and younger|
|Ohio||17 and younger|
|Oklahoma||17 and younger|
|Pennsylvania||20 and younger|
|Rhode Island||20 and younger|
|South Carolina||20 and younger|
|South Dakota||17 and younger|
|Texas||20 and younger|
|Utah||17 and younger|
|West Virginia||All riders|
|Wisconsin||17 and younger|
|17 and younger|
So, Why Not Implement Universal Motorcycle Helmet Laws Across the US 50 States?
As you can see from the table above, presently, there are two types of motorcycle helmet laws in the United States: a universal helmet law, which demands all riders to wear a helmet as well as partial motorcycle helmet laws that have age requirements (some states add health insurance and/or driver safety course requirements).
Only three states have no kind of motorcycle helmet law in place. So, what are the issues leading to the diverse opinions when it comes to US motorcycle helmet laws?
When trying to understand the arguments of organizations that are against motorcycle helmet laws, you have to know that they are largely against any law that mandates wearing helmets and not necessarily against the equipment itself.
Sure, there is a certain percentage in the population that are completely against motorcycle helmets as well but the large number of the opposing population are against motorcycle helmet laws or any similar law that tends to “take away personal rights and freedoms”.
They believe that the federal government should not have the authority to decide whether or not someone should wear a helmet. It should be up to every individual rider. America is seen as the land of freedom; a place where people aspire to make a life without any restrictions. And, any law that threatens such liberty is automatically viewed with contempt.
Moreover, the entire idea behind riding a motorcycle is that of liberty and freedom. A helmet restricts that and acts as a barrier to the fun that one might have on a ride.
Rather than using a motorcycle helmet, opponents of helmet laws think that motorcyclists should focus on their riding skills. If they improve upon their skills, they will be less likely to run into dangerous situations. According to people who are against motorcycle helmets, such safety equipment is not of much use during actual accidents.
Thus, opponents push more for education than mandatory laws. They believe that both motorcyclists and car drivers should be educated on how to safely drive on the road since the majority of accidents involve both vehicles. Opponents think that there will be fewer accidents if drivers are more informed.
Furthermore, there are some anti-helmet believers who think that motorcycle helmets are actually the cause behind fatal accidents. Motorcycle helmets can feel claustrophobic for certain riders, not allowing them to see properly on the road, thus leading to accidents.
Helmets can restrict the rider’s peripheral view and cause blurry vision. Additionally, helmets also prevent motorcyclists from hearing approaching danger, which can cause them to run right into it. There are also arguments that claim that motorcycle helmets can cause spine and neck injuries.
Lastly, another major reason why certain people are opposed to motorcycle helmets is because they see such equipment promoting a dangerous image of motorcycles. According to them, motorcycles are not as dangerous as they are painted as and helmets only contribute to the false image.
Moreover, helmets provide a false sense of security. Riders take more risks when wearing them which they otherwise wouldn’t. And, this leads to more dangerous accidents.
Ultimately, there is not much evidence to validate most of the opposing claims. It comes down to the fact that opponents are largely against the government dictating personal choices. They contend that wearing a motorcycle helmet should be an individual decision rather than something that the government should compel because the decision ultimately only impacts the individual and no one else.
Motorcycle Helmets Save Lives
There are even certain opponents of mandatory helmet laws that believe helmets are actually useful and that they, in fact, save lives. After all, the data suggesting the same cannot be disputed because there are many. While it might seem like an easy argument, it isn’t since opponents do not want the government to dictate any choice.
Setting all that aside, there is no doubt that motorcycle helmets save lives. There is an overwhelming amount of data that suggests that motorcycle helmets, when properly sized and fitted, are capable of being the difference between a few bruises and cuts and death.
According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), motorcycle helmets can reduce the chances of suffering from head injuries by more than 70%. Moreover, statistically speaking, states with mandatory motorcycle helmet laws have less number of motorcycle fatalities than states with no such laws.
Motorcycle helmets may not be able to guarantee your safety always but they nearly always will reduce the extent of your bodily damages in the event of an accident.
According to public opinion and federal regulations, numerous states have relaxed their helmet laws over recent years while some others have strengthened their laws over the previous 20 years. The basic conclusion is that states frequently pass legislation based on federal government incentives in addition to when the financial strain and public safety concerns warrant a modification to the law. The bottom line is: motorcycle helmets save lives and there’s substantial evidence to support that.
No matter what the law of your state says, if you want to ride with more confidence knowing that you are not taking unnecessary risk and taking prudent precautions to add some extra protections in the event of an accident, then wear a helmet at all times.