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The Debate About Motorcycle Helmets

There is no doubt that the federal government wants all states to pass mandatory motorcycle helmet laws. As a recent article reminds us, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently put mandatory helmet use on its Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements. Those who have been around since the 60s may be scratching their heads on this one. Wasn't there a time when everyone was required to wear a helmet? Didn't riding a motorcycle without a helmet get outlawed in the 50s after the heyday of James Dean?

Helmet Law History

In 1966, the Highway Safety Act mandated helmet use for motorcyclists. Nine years later, 47 out of 50 states had mandatory helmet laws on the books. What happened? The 1977 Highway Safety Act took the heat off the states, and within three years, 27 of them repealed their helmet laws.

The arguments for helmet use are compelling. According to a 1992 study in the Journal of Trauma, motorcycle helmets reduce serious brain injuries by 32 percent. They reduce the risk of death by 39 percent. What plausible argument can there be against wearing a helmet?

Arguments Against Helmet Laws

A study by the University of Southern California revealed that young riders ages 16 to 24 years old are heavily over-represented in motorcycle accidents. More than half of the riders in the sample had less than five months experience on the accident motorcycle and less than three years experience riding motorcycles overall. And therein lies the complaint of many motorcyclists, who are traditionally depicted as a rather independent, freedom-loving lot in the media. Why should older, experienced riders be forced to wear helmets because younger, less-experienced, and more impulsive riders are riding unsafely?

Middle Ground?

Several states have heard this argument and acted upon it. While not requiring helmets for all riders, 27 states have "partial" helmet laws that require minors and passengers to wear helmets. These states have staked out the middle ground of the debate and, as a reward, will likely incur the wrath of both sides. Unhappy safety advocates complain that adult riders remain unprotected, while younger riders and passengers complain their freedoms have been infringed upon.

The debate over mandatory helmet laws shows no sign of ending soon.  While states decide, any increase in motorcycle fatalities will make the debate even more heated.