Scholarship: Michaelyn M. On Motorcycle Helmets

Michaelyn Mankel’s essay was another well-written essay submitted in this year’s Carpey Law scholarship competition. She attends Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan.

Jacob Casey Cooper loved black coffee and dogs and company who could make him laugh. Coop was the kind of person who enjoyed life so much it was infectious, so that even in the worst of times you could count on him to show you the silver lining and give you hope for all the great things to come. Coop was a good man. Coop was the kind of friend I never expected to talk about in the past tense.

Jacob Casey Cooper lost his life in July, 2013. While riding his motorcycle home from work on an early Wednesday morning he was hit by a driver in a pickup truck. Jacob was wearing a helmet, just as he always did when he rode. Jacob was taking every safety precaution necessary for motorcyclists-he was doing everything right, yet he still died at the young age of 20. I loved Jacob Casey Cooper, and he is a man that will never be forgotten by his friends and family.

I am tremendously passionate about the safety of motorcyclists, which is why I find the topic of motorcycle helmet laws so important. This issue is surrounded by complicated history, complex politics, and heated debate. For this reason, my essay begins with a brief overview of state helmet laws across the country. Next, I take a thorough look at different arguments that are made for and against state laws. I conclude with using this research in an attempt to answer how these laws are affecting riders like Jacob and how they impact communities like mine.

Motorcycle helmet laws garnered national attention for the first time in 1967. According to information published by Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the federal government tried pressuring states into advancing helmet laws by creating transportation infrastructure benefits that were contingent upon states passing those laws. Eight years later 47 states had helmet regulations on the books. However, in 1976 states lobbied against congress to remove the sanctions on their funds and were successful. A similar occurrence took place in the 1990s, but the states proved determined to reject federal supremacy, even when it involves the saftey of their citizens.

Under state control, there are three categories of helmet laws. Universal laws are those that mandate every motorcyclist wear a helmet. Partial laws require the use of a helmet unless certain criteria is met. A state can also choose to have no laws on motorcycle helmets. As of this year, 19 states enforce universal laws, 28 states have adopted partial laws, and only three states have no laws whatsoever. While universal laws and the absence of laws are the same across the board, partial laws tend to vary a bit from state to state. For instance, in the state of Michigan, where I live, the partial law specifies that motorcyclists must be at least 21 years of age and have a minimum of $20,000 in first party medical benefits to ride without a helmet. Additionally, riders must also have held their motorcycle endorsement for two years or passed an approved motorcycle safety course if they are choosing to travel helmetless. Pennsylvania is another state with a partial law. While they include the same stipulations on age, experience, and education, Pennsylvania does not put constraints on the choice to wear a helmet based on a rider’s medical coverage.

States amending universal motorcycle helmet laws into partial laws has been a sight of excessive controversy. Debates across the country have taken place involving everyone from politicians to medical experts, from non-profit organizations to big business corporations, from reporters to the motorcycle riders themselves. Over time both sides have developed key arguments which characterize why members feel the way they do, as well as refutes commonly used to answer each other’s challenges. This dialogue is significant in understanding some of the facts surrounding helmets and motorcycle safety, as well as the deep rooted biases that keep politics trending the way they do.

Advocates of universal motorcycle helmet laws found most of their arguments in the idea that helmet laws increase the number of riders wearing helmets. According to a study done by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), eighty-nine percent of riders in states with universal laws wore helmets as compared to forty-nine percent of riders in states with partial or no laws. Other state specific studies can be used to support this claim, such as the report released by the Michigan State Police Data in 2014 which cited that one in four riders chose to begin riding without helmets following the amendment of the universal helmet law in 2012.

Supporters of universal laws then use the arguments that wearing helmets saves lives, lesson the severity of injuries, and lower medical bills. As cited in Stuart Carpey’s informational book The Good, The Bad, and The Law, the NHTSA conducted a study which confirmed that wearing a helmet is sixty-seven percent effective in preventing brain injuries and riders without a helmet are three times more likely to experience brain trauma than those with proper protection. As previously mentioned, only one fourth of riders in Michigan have chosen to ride without helmets after 2012, yet they made of up nearly half of 2013 fatalities, according the Michigan State Police Data. The University of Michigan also conducted a study on reduced helmet use, concluding that as a result of the 2012 change to helmet laws there were twenty four more deaths and seventy two more injuries annually for motorcycle riders. Additionally, the risk of fatalities for riders in Michigan was 2.8 times higher than in 2012. The federal Centers for Disease Control reported in 2010 that $3 billion had been saved as a result of helmet use, and $1.4 billion more could have been saved if all motorcyclists had used helmets. Of course the studies cited by pro-helmet law advocates are endless, but have been generally consistent nationally in giving warrants to their claims that the safety benefits of wearing helmets for motorcycle riders are real.

Those who argue in defense of partial laws believe in a rider’s right to choose. Perhaps the strongest and most consistent argument used by this group is bodily autonomy and personal freedoms. Governments do not enforce a ban on smoking cigarettes, even though it leads to cancer. They do not abolish the consumption fast food and junk food, although it causes massive health problems. Why, then, should they have the right enforce laws on wearing helmets while riding a motorcycle? The American Motorcycle Association is a leading advocate of partial motorcycle helmet laws. This group believes that education, not legislation, on motorcycle safety is what governments should focus on to solve problems rider’s face. The American Bikers Aiming Toward Education echo this same idea on their website, saying that riding without a helmet is an adult choice every citizen has the right to make for themselves.

When it comes to the debate on motorcycle helmet laws, it is important to contextualize the arguments in the real world. As we do this, it becomes clear that both sides are right to some extent. On the specific issue of helmet laws, the data is overwhelmingly in support of states upholding universal laws. Personal freedoms are important, of course, but do not hold up as much of an argument in this case. Wearing a seatbelt is mandatory in every state except New Hampshire, and motorcyclists are thirty times more likely to die than car occupants in the event of a crash, according to a study cited by the National Conference of State Legislatures in 2014.

Clearly, though, anti-helmet law advocates are right in their claims that helmet laws are not enough to prevent accidents. Increasing education and awareness needs to be emphasized to answer for safety concerns rider’s face that can not be solved by increasing legislation. Both motorcyclists and automobile drivers should participate in mandatory classes on motorcycle safety. Perhaps if this approach was taken more seriously in Michigan, Jacob would still be alive. Helmet laws are not the only issue that impacts riders and their communities. I believe that if the opposing sides of this issue came together to make a difference in current safety problems motorcyclists face, they could make a great difference in our country.