On Monday, we posted the results of a bike helmet safety survey we ran through May is National Bike Month. According to the survey, although nearly 70 percent of cyclists in California say they wear bike helmets most of the time, few think that state law should require them to do so. This holds true for media anecdotes about bike helmets. Last year, for example, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was booed at a bike conference when he announced his support for a statewide law requiring helmets for all cyclists. California’s motorcycle community faces a similar helmet debate that pits safety advocates against riders who demand the right to ride without a helmet, regardless of the risks.

Currently, California law requires motorcycle helmets for all riders, as do 19 other states nationwide. 27 states require helmet use for riders under a certain age (usually minors), and only three states don’t have any helmet law on the books. Below is a quick rundown of each sides of the motorcycle helmet debate.

Pro Motorcycle Helmet Law

Proponents of motorcycle helmet laws generally point to the fact that they have been proven to save lives and reduce the extent of head injuries. Here are some of the statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration related to motorcycle helmets and head injuries:

  • Motorcycle helmets saved an estimated 1,829 lives in 2008.
  • Helmets would have saved an additional 822 lives if all riders were required to wear helmets.
  • Helmet use led to nearly $3 billion in cost savings nationwide in 2008 alone.
  • If all motorcyclists wore helmets that year, they could have saved an extra $1.3 billion.
  • Traffic fatalities have decreased for other types of vehicles since 2000. But motorcycle fatalities have nearly doubled during that time.
  • Motorcycle deaths now comprise about 14 percent of all traffic fatalities, a disproportionate figure considering that motorcycles make up only 3 percent of registered vehicles in the US.

Anti Motorcycle Helmet Law

Opponents of motorcycle helmets laws say the NHTSA information is suspect, due to the fact that the agency supports a nationwide helmet law. So motorcycle advocates would prefer a third-party group to conduct similar studies on whether helmets truly save lives in serious motorcycle accidents. In absence of such a report, below are some additional reasons that many motorcycle riders oppose helmet laws:

  • Helmet laws reduce the number of motorcycle riders. The California DMV predicts, for example, that there are 40% fewer riders today than 1992, when the helmet law was passed.
  • Since the helmet law went into effect, the fatality rate has not dropped in California. In 1992, the rate was 3.22 per 100,000 riders; now it’s 3.84 with far fewer riders.
  • Motorcycle deaths cannot be considered a public health issue, since they only impact the driver who chooses to ride without a helmet.
  • If a motorcycle rider is involved in a high-speed collision, the chances are that even a helmet would not be able to prevent death or serious injury.
  • Motorcyclists are more likely to be protective of individual freedoms. “If riders don’t feel they need one, they shouldn’t be told they have to wear one,” said Austin motorcyclist Tim Hardy. “I mean, we are in the U.S. I served 20 years in the military for our rights.”

As the writer of a traffic safety blog, I’m clearly more inclined to think that the evidence points to the fact that motorcycle helmets save lives, so the government should require their use in the interest of public safety. But I’m interested in your thoughts. Let us know what you think in the comments section or on our Facebook page.

And while you’re here, check out our interactive calendar of California summer motorcycle events.

Photo credit: | El Caganer