Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Manchin Considers Helmet Law Relaxation

Governor Joe Manchin, a Harley rider himself, is publicly toying with the idea of proposing a relation of West Virginia's motorcycle helmet law to boost motorcycle tourism in our state. On this, I'm on his side but note the uphill fight he faces.

In the late 1990s, after Congress repealed the last federal motorcycle helmet law mandate tied to federal highway funds, legislation to repeal the helmet law for adults passed the House of Delegates but suffered continual defeats in the state Senate. This was a nonpartisan issue, with both parties divided on the issue and no clear ideological or geographic division. Today, the issue has greater importance than it did in 1997 & 98, as Kentucky and Pennsylvania have joined Ohio in letting those who ride decide. More significantly, only 20 states and DC still require all adults to wear helmets when riding a motorcycle.

Because the whole debate centers on what the law should require of adults and would leave the motorcycle helmet law intact for minors, the real question is a philosophical issue over the role of government in personal safety decisions where no person other than the person making the decision would stand to suffer as a result.

The statistics available on this issue provide, at best, mixed results on the efficacy of motorcycle helmet laws on safety. In fact, the states without all-rider helmet laws actually tend to have lower per accident fatality rates than states with all-rider laws. Helmets themselves add weight to the head, resulting in more momentum and a higher neck injury risk. In addition, helmets do little to protect a rider from the many other hazards that exist when thrown at highway speeds.

In fact, one warning label found on motorcycle helmets begins:

"No helmet can protect the wearer against all foreseeable impacts. Riding motorcycles, bicycles, mopeds, or off road vehicles can be extremely dangerous. Some foreseeable impacts may exceed this helmetÂ’s capability to protect against injury. The helmet affords no protection against facial, neck, or spinal injury. Severe head or brain injuries, including paralysis or death, may occur despite using this helmet."

The information above is not intended to discourage someone from voluntarily wearing a helmet in the absence of a legal mandate, just to demonstrate conflicting safety considerations that do not support a universal mandate on this issue.

So what about the social cost considerations? The data available from similar-size states like Arkansas and Kentucky that have relaxed their helmet laws in recent years suggests that the change in the law will result in likely costs to society that are very minimal and not nearly significant enough, together with the lack of conclusive and overwhelming evidence of the efficacy of helmets and the lack of a negative safety impact in many situations, to override the justifications for letting those who ride decide.