“We call it the organ donor enhancement act,” said Dr. Bob, a physician at a large suburban Detroit hospital. “We’ve always had a shortage of donors but expect to see the numbers go way up,” said the emergency room veteran asking not to be quoted by his full name speaking so callously.
But it appears he was right to fear the impact of the recent decision by Michigan lawmakers to repeal the state’s mandatory helmet law. A new report by the independent investigative website FairWarning.org finds that the trend towards giving riders the freedom to go helmet-less is resulting in a significant increase in motorcycle fatalities.
That’s precisely the opposite direction from the overall highway death trend. Despite the surge in motorcycle fatalities, overall traffic deaths last year fell to their lowest level since 1949 and on a deaths-per-100-million-miles-driven basis the figure was the lowest since records started being kept in the 1920s.
Put another way, noted FairWarning, in 1997, total motorcycle fatalities came to 2,116, one of every 20 U.S. traffic death. By 2010 that surged to one in seven, with total motorcycle fatalities increasing to 4,502.
The potential to save lives has led virtually every state in the union not only to pass mandatory seatbelt laws but, in a growing number, to increase enforcement efforts. That includes Michigan which is in the midst of a “Click-it-or-Ticket” campaign. Yet, earlier the Midwest state became the latest to repeal its mandatory helmet law, instead requiring that bikers who want to feel the wind in the air to increase their medical insurance coverage and meet one of several additional requirements.
In the 1970s, notes FairWarning, 47 states required motorcyclists to wear helmets. With the move in Michigan that is down to just 19 – though a number of other states still require helmets for the very youngest riders and passengers.
Author Rick Schmitt notes that in a long-running and well-organized campaign backers of repeal have carefully built their case even while gagging opponents. That includes the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which was hit by a 1998 rule that now blocks it from advocating safety measures at the state and local level. Biker lobbyists also “derailed a measure (federal) lawmakers envisioned to reinstate financial penalties for states lacking helmet laws,” noted Schmitt.
Advocates of helmet law repeal have been urging the federal government to shift money from enforcement to biker training. Yet a 2007 Indiana study found that drivers who completed a basic course were actually 44% more likely to be involved in an accident than those who didn’t get training – perhaps because they felt encouraged to take more risks.
“You cannot be in this battle and not be frustrated by this senselessness,” Michael Dabbs, president of the Brain Injury Association of Michigan, told FairWarning.
What particularly frustrates those who want to keep helmet laws is the fact that the data overwhelmingly support their case. The survival rate of those involved in accidents who wore helmets is markedly higher than for those who didn’t, leading some to compare the simple safety devices to a medical “vaccine.”
They point to facts that show helmeted riders in moderate to severe crashes often walk away while those not wearing helmets often suffer severe head trauma – or death in otherwise insignificant incidents.
According to data NHTSA itself is now barred from presenting at the state and local level helmets saved 1,483 lives in 2009 and would have saved another 732 had everyone been wearing them.
The counter-cry is “freedom,” advocacy groups contending that bikers should have the freedom to choose.
Backed by significant amounts of cash and the restrictions on federal regulators the anti-helmet lobby has continued gaining momentum and is stepping up its campaigns in those few states, like New York, that continue to mandate helmets.