Congratulations to the winner of this year’s Carpey Law Scholarship, Rachel Alexanian! Rachel lives in Olympia, Washington, and graduated earlier this month as co-valedictorian from Washington Virtual Academy – Omak. She plans to attend George Fox University in the fall and double major in Political Science and Christian Ministries, and then go on to Law school to become a human rights attorney.
Rachel’s winning essay is below. We will also be publishing several runner-up essays on our blog in the coming weeks.
Regulating motorcycle helmet laws is what is called a reserved power – this power belongs to each state. A reserved power is any power not explicitly granted to the federal government by the Constitution, nor prohibited from the states, as expressed by the Tenth Amendment. For this reason, there is no nation-wide law regarding the use of motorcycle helmets; each state decides what kind of helmet law it will adopt. Consequently, motorcycle helmet laws vary from state to state.
I said above that each state decides what kind of motorcycle helmet law it will adopt. But, while the power belongs to the states, the laws have to be constitutional to begin with. The laws cannot infringe on the rights of Americans. People have argued against motorcycle helmet laws for decades, and one argument made it all the way to the Supreme Court. This argument contended that helmet laws deprived motorcyclists of their constitutional rights, and focused on two main aspects:
- Motorcycle helmet laws violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
- Motorcycle helmet laws infringed on the individual motorcyclist’s liberty. Motorcyclists also argued that such laws provide for excessive use of police power.
But in November, 1972, the United States Supreme Court rejected such challenges to the constitutionality of state motorcycle helmet laws. The supreme law of the land said that the idea of these laws does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, and does not infringe on the liberty of motorcyclists.
Now that we know why motorcycle helmet laws vary by state, and that state helmet laws have, in fact, been proven constitutional, let’s look at the motorcycle helmet laws in my state of residence. In Washington State, motorcyclists are required by law to wear a helmet. And they can’t choose just any helmet; they have to wear a motorcycle helmet that meets the United States Department of Transportation’s standards. According to the Washington State Patrol,
“Legal helmets are designed to save lives while others are sold as novelty items only and never intended to be used on the road. In a collision, these “novelty” helmets provide almost no protection for the rider. Unfortunately, some people are confused about what helmets are legal and safe to wear.”
There are three arguments regarding motorcycle helmet laws: Some people argue the state should stay out of regulating how one protects oneself on a motorcycle. Others don’t mind a law requiring basic protection (but nothing more), and still others fully support the law that requires motorcyclists to wear a helmet. We will refer to these arguments as the lenient, neutral, and strict views, respectively.
The lenient view says that people should have the right to choose how they protect themselves because it’s their lives. Why should the state have a say in how the public protect themselves? Washingtonians may look at Pennsylvania, for example, and argue that they’ve got it right. In Pennsylvania, anyone 21 years of age and older can decide whether or not they want to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle (assuming they’ve completed the state’s motorcycle safety course.) Why can’t Washingtonians 21 years old and older choose how they keep themselves safe?
Anyone 21 years of age and older can legally decide if they want to drink, own a gun, apply to adopt a child, and even supervise a learner driver (as long as they’ve had their license for the state’s required time.) Why is it that they can’t choose how they protect their own bodies? That doesn’t seem right… People are free to over-eat, smoke, and drink too much – all of which have been proven to be harmful, but that’s their choice. What’s the difference when it comes to motorcycle helmets?
In the middle of the spectrum is the neutral view – people who would be okay with being required to wear minimum protection, but anything after that should be up to the motorcyclist. One could, again, look at Pennsylvania, and say that its law to wear eye protection while operating a motorcycle is just right – not too lenient, and not too strict. Just as cars have a windshield to protect the drivers, motorcyclists should wear eye protection to protect their eyes from debris in the air.
On the other end of the spectrum is the strict view – people who support the state regulating how a person should protect his/herself while operating a motorcycle. The state would argue that its job is to protect the people within the state. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, states with a universal helmet law save 36 lives, per 100,000 registered motorcycles. Washington could also argue that requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets saves the state money. The CDC reports that states with a universal helmet law save $73 million dollars per 100,000 registered motorcycles.
Is it really that much extra work to wear a helmet? Granted, you have to buy a helmet, but that’s going to cost much less than the many medical bills you’ll receive if you get seriously injured in an accident. The risk of getting into an accident is the same for everyone, helmet or no helmet. In light of this, wearing a helmet will only help protect you from potential accidents. A helmet may very well provide the cushion your head needs to prevent a blow to the head from seriously injuring you.
The three main arguments concerning motorcycle helmet laws have obvious pros and cons. There is no clear-cut solution, which is why this issue is so controversial.
In summary, motorcycle helmet laws vary by state because the power to regulate these laws belongs to each state. As ruled by the United States Supreme Court in 1972, these laws are constitutional and do not infringe on the rights of motorcyclists. Washington, my state of residence, is stricter than Pennsylvania when it comes to motorcycle helmet laws. Wearing a helmet in Pennsylvania is a safety precaution and the decision of the individual motorcyclist, while motorcyclists in Washington are required to wear a helmet – no exceptions. There are arguments for and against this Washingtonian law; regardless of these arguments, the law remains as it is: wear a helmet or face a fine. For motorcyclists in Washington, wearing a helmet isn’t a choice – it’s the law.
Stuart A. Carpey, who has been practicing as an attorney since 1987, focuses his practice on complex civil litigation which includes representing injured individuals in a vast array of personal injury cases.