Helmet Laws: Heading Off Personal Freedom

By D. Dowd Muska
  • Saturday, July 4, 1998

In June Harley-Davidson celebrated its 95th anniversary with a parade and party in Milwaukee, the company’s home town. Over 100,000 motorcycle enthusiasts turned out to pay tribute. For millions of Americans, motorcycles (of any type) are symbols of the individuality and mobility permitted in a country as vast and free as the United States. But in most states—including Nevada—riding a motorcycle isn’t quite as free as it once was. Helmet laws are currently in place in all but four states. To non-riders, helmet requirements may seem entirely reasonable. Yet helmet laws raise serious financial, constitutional and philosophical questions, all of which have the potential to affect non-riders. Herewith, an examination of the helmet law debate.

A Summary of the "Problem"

Contrary to the propaganda of some helmet law activists, America’s roads and highways are not littered with the mangled corpses of motorcycle riders. A mere 2 percent of all vehicles are motorcycles. And while their riders do represent a greater percentage of vehicular fatalities, they account for a smaller percentage of total accidents—just 1 percent. Furthermore, the nation’s motorcycle accident rate is falling, not rising. Total accidents have dropped by 60 percent since 1985. An anti-helmet activist once suggested that if safety is the most important issue in transportation, then automobile drivers should hop on a bike instead. "Your chances of having an accident in an automobile are 110 times more than on a motorcycle," wrote Bill Brish of the National Coalition of Motorcyclists, "and you are 10 times more likely to die of a head injury in an automobile." Brish went on to note that boating and even walking involve greater numbers of fatalities than riding a motorcycle.

There is little evidence to support the oft-cited critique that motorcyclists drain public and private insurance coffers. Motorcycle accidents account for less than 1 percent of all U.S. health care costs, and one analysis (by the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center) found that 49.5 percent of injured motorcyclists had insurance, whereas 50.4 percent of those injured in all other vehicles were insured. While it’s certainly the case that public funds cover the medical costs of some bikers, the tax revenue lost due to the imposition of helmet laws is seldom discussed. Many motorcyclists will not ride at all if forced to wear a helmet. Thus, states that do require helmets lose revenue that would come from sales taxes on motorcycles and related products, motor vehicle registration fees and gas taxes. In Oregon, motorcycle sales dropped 36 percent in the first year after the adoption of a helmet law. In Nebraska, the figure was 41 percent.

Safety and Choice

"Helmets save lives," said Nevada Assemblywoman Vonne Chowning in 1997, after voting against a bill which would have repealed Nevada’s helmet law. (The repeal, pushed by Assemblyman Don Gustavson, would have enabled those over the age of 21 with one year of motorcycle training to ride helmet-free.) Helmets certainly can save lives, under the right conditions. But they can also interfere with a rider’s ability to hear and see. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which lobbies for helmet requirements, published a report in 1996 revealing that over 17 percent of riders do not turn their heads in order to compensate for the interference helmets cause with their fields of vision. There is also evidence that helmets may cause physical harm. Dr. Jonathan Goldstein has concluded that helmets can reduce the risk of head injuries "at the expense of increasing the severity of neck injuries." As is the case in any public policy dispute, both sides in the helmet debate pore over the research to reach conclusions which support their arguments. But helmet opponents’ intellectual ammunition cannot be explained away—contrary to conventional wisdom, helmets are not necessary for all bikers in every type of environment. The safety issues regarding helmets will be debated for decades to come, but the larger question is one of choice: Does the government have any legitimate authority to require the wearing of helmets? For most motorcyclists, the answer is clearly no. Their sentiments are perhaps best described by the American Motorcyclists Association (AMA): "[Helmet requirements] are a manifestation of the misguided belief that citizens lack the wisdom to make personal safety decisions for themselves and must therefore be subjected to increasingly intrusive laws."

The Mild One

The average motorcyclist in America is male, 31, college-educated and earns $33,200 a year. The average Harley-Davidson rider is male, 43, college-educated and from a household with an annual income of $68,000. These individuals are hardly reckless, hell-raising teens who are not mature enough to weigh the benefits and costs of wearing a helmet. In fact, the stereotype many have of the average motorcyclist is more applicable to the average motorcycle accident victim. Blood alcohol level and speed are the most determinant factors in motorcycle fatalities, not the wearing or non-wearing of a helmet. In 1994, over 20 percent of all motorcyclists involved in fatal accidents were unlicensed—almost half of those involved in any kind of accident had no license. Viewed from a wide range of perspectives, the statistics support the argument that the enjoyment of the careful majority of riders should not be limited due to the behavior of the careless minority.

Safety School

The helmet issue is ripe for demagoguery—supporters can, and do, portray opponents as shortsighted thrill-seekers who care nothing for public safety. In fact, most motorcycle associations and organizations devote significant attention to safety issues. As the AMA puts it, "The most effective way to reduce motorcycle injuries and fatalities is to prevent accidents from occurring. Helmets and helmet laws do not prevent accidents." Since 92 percent of motorcycle accidents involve riders with no formal training, much emphasis is placed on rider education programs. In Nevada, motorcycle classes are offered by the Community College of Southern Nevada, Western Nevada Community College and Truckee Meadows Community College. The TMCC program was recently honored by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, which itself trains 100,000 riders a year. Many motorcycle activists who oppose helmet laws support greater license requirements and stiffer penalties for riding without a license or under the influence of alcohol.


Opponents of helmet laws will continue to look for data to support their positions that helmets are not foolproof, and may actually cause certain kinds of injuries. These efforts are important, and should continue. But statistics and studies should not obscure the fact that helmet laws limit a fundamental freedom: the right to make one’s own decisions regarding safety. In recent years more and more personal freedoms have been sacrificed to the Nanny State. In light of the nation’s disturbing—and growing—acceptance of social-engineering schemes, the question posed by helmet-law foe Stephen W. McDermott is a valid one: "Will anyone be left to stand with you when your pastime becomes regulated?"

D. Dowd Muska, a non-smoker, is a contributing editor for Nevada Journal, the Nevada Policy Research Institute’s monthly magazine. He can be contacted at ddm@npri.org.

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