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Jane Ahlin, Published June 23 2012

Ahlin: Cost of weak helmet laws counted in money and pain

The physician with the beat-up motorcycle helmet in his hand was a pathology resident at the university, a doctor who moonlighted in a hospital emergency room to make extra money while completing his training. At the time, I happened to be in the Medical Technology program at the same university, rotating through the labs overseen by the Pathology Department. The helmet – so dented and distorted that its shape was cartoon-like – belonged to a university student who had ended up in the ER the night before after his motorcycle collided with a car.

“Without a helmet, this would have been his head,” the physician said, insisting we each take the helmet in our hands and look it over. Instead, the student had a few broken bones but would be fine.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the physician – a man who rode a motorcycle to work every day – was an advocate for mandatory helmet laws. But maybe not – at least not in today’s political climate. Back then, plain old common sense ruled the day when it came to the roads and public safety.

It’s amazing to look back and realize that in the 1970s, 47 states had mandatory helmet laws, including North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. Today, that number is 19. North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota require helmets only for those 17 years of age or younger.

Such statistics and more were reported last week in the online publication “FairWarning.” The writer of the article, Rick Schmitt, also was interviewed by Judy Woodruff for the PBS NewsHour, primarily about why helmet laws have been so weakened over time.

Here’s another of the statistics Schmitt reported: In 1997, there were 2,116 motorcycle fatalities among 42,013 total traffic deaths in America; in 2010, there were 4,502 motorcycle fatalities among 32,885 deaths. (Motorcycle fatalities went from 1 in 20 traffic deaths to 1 in 7 deaths in 13 years.) Note that although motorcycle deaths more than doubled, overall traffic deaths decreased in that period by almost 10,000.

Motorcycle enthusiasts who don’t want to be forced to wear helmets and their political allies point to the increased popularity of motorcycles in recent years as the reason for the rise in fatalities: More riders equal more accidents and more fatalities. However, as Schmitt pointed out, the number of cars on the road is five or six times greater than the number on the road in the 1940s, and yet the number of traffic deaths has returned to 1940 levels: Mandatory seat belts and airbags equal fewer accidents and fatalities.

Strangely, American contempt for mandating motorcycle helmets has increased greatly at the same time that our collective attitude toward auto safety has become more sensible.

The anti-helmet group claims personal liberty (down with the “nanny state”!), more specifically that adults who don’t wear helmets know the possible consequences and, by golly, if they get themselves killed, it’s nobody’s business but their own. (Some folks on the other side, who see that argument as phenomenally stupid, refer to no-helmet cyclists as a reliable source for organ donation.)

The truth is, motorcyclists hurt society when they can’t pay medical bills, when catastrophic brain injury prevents return to the workforce, or when children have to grow up without a parent.

Locally last week, a young father died of injuries from a motorcycle accident – a tragedy – and our hearts go out to his family and friends. He wasn’t wearing a helmet; however, his 10-year-old son riding with him, who came away with minor injuries, was. Nothing can bring back that young father, but we should learn from his tragedy. Like seat belts and air bags, helmets save lives.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.