Facts Refute False Claims about Motorcycle Helmets
Even though most opponents of mandatory helmet laws say their objection is to the enactment and enforcement of a helmet law as opposed to helmet use, many false claims are made about the safety and efficacy of helmets to justify taking a position against helmet laws. Anti-helmet-law advocates also frequently intentionally use flawed logic in their arguments to mislead and confuse, and they make open-ended statements that are apt to be more effective because listeners leap to their own erroneous conclusion.
Claims of "it's no one's business but my own" and "freedom of choice" are ones that on their face seem to ring true, but fall flat when exercising that choice is to the detriment of others, loved ones in particular or society as a whole.
For a comprehensive look at to what extent concerns about individual liberties have shaped the public health debate, read "Paternalism and its discontents: motorcycle helmet laws, libertarian values, and public health," an article published in the Feb. 2007 American Journal of Public Health that studies the history of motorcycle-helmet legislation in the United States, a history that authors Jones and Bayer say "raises questions about the possibilities for articulating an ethics of public health that would call upon government to protect citizens from their own choices that result in needless morbidity and suffering."
Personal Choice Isn't Personal When It Affects Others
Anti-helmet-law advocates claim that if they were to suffer a debilitating injury or were killed because they had chosen not to wear a helmet it would be solely their problem and that no one else would be affected. If someone who is significant to you (a daughter, spouse, brother, or parent) is killed or suffers a traumatic brain injury, do you think you would just shrug it off as “his/her choice”?
The following comments by surviving loved ones of motorcyclists who died in two separate crashes were made in response to remarks posted online by others who had read the news item. They serve as poignant examples that the tragic loss of life deeply affects so many more than just the riders involved.
This was my friend/brother who died. I agree, he should of been wearing protection. I stood where he died, a slight bend to the left, tracks to the shoulder to left of sign. No one knows why, he was experienced and the sign was a curve sign on a road he lived on. Was 100 yards from entrance to home. Did someone run him off??? Something fly in his face??? No word if tire blew yet??? Deer? Too fast??? Been drinking??? We know he had a beer with his pizza and that is it. Was taking bike home to pick up car to pick up his wife at work. She found him 3 hours later in the ditch dead. True story, great friend, loved to hunt, fish, and be with family. We are crushed. Wish he had helmet on just so we know if it would of saved him. But he knew the risk and choose it, now we get to grieve through it. (MLive full story of 05.22.12 crash)
Jimmy was more than a biker who did not wear a helmet. He was a Dad, Son, Brother, Uncle, Cousin and Friend! He was LOVED and will be MISSED by many people. Please remember this when you write your comments. If this was your relative, what would you want others to write. It is a tragedy for our family. Your opinion on the helmet law does not need to be posted on here. It would not have mattered if he was wearing a helmet or not, he would have still died and we would still be SAD! (UpNorthLive full story 05.19.12 crash)
The helmet issue is NOT a simple “it only affects me” issue. It is part of a much more complicated citizen safety effort, and our best effort must include a mandatory helmet law covering all riders.
The following is an excerpt from “Michigan Helmet Law,” by George Hick, PE, as published on page 12 of the July 2005 issue of Reference Points: The Journal of the Michigan Association of Traffic Accident Investigators:
B.R.A.G. and other lobbyists, view the use of helmets by motorcyclists as a “freedom of choice” issue based on the American ideals of Truth and Liberty. Perhaps they are referring to the often quoted sentence from the Declaration of Independence that states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." But, the “freedom of choice” argument stops short. The very next sentence states “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The preamble of the Constitution of the United States indicates why a government must establish laws, to “insure domestic tranquility”, and to “promote the general welfare and secure the Blessing of Liberty to ourselves”. Further, the “Bill of Rights” the first ten Amendments to the Constitution, does not give individuals the ‘right’ to do as they please. Rather the state has a positive role in assuring that all citizens will have equal protection and justice under law and equal opportunities to exercise the privileges of citizenship. The privileges of citizenship come with a price, whether paying taxes or buckling up, but is often viewed by some as unfair…. Wearing a motorcycle helmet while riding, like driving a car with a seat belt on, is a cost to have the privileges, not an individual right to do as one pleases at the consequence of the other citizens. [Emphasis added.]
Mr. Hick is a registered professional engineer and an ACTAR (Accreditation Commission for Traffic Accident Reconstruction) accredited traffic accident reconstructionist with a degree in mechanical engineering. His experience since 1976 has been in the automotive and mechanical engineering fields, with an emphasis on safety, product liability, accident investigation, and product defect analysis.
No Research Has Found Helmets Are Dangerous
There is no research to support the claim that helmets increase the incidence of accidents due to limited vision or hearing. The federal DOT standard requires that helmets provide 210 degrees of horizontal peripheral vision; normal peripheral vision is between 180 and 200 degrees; and the license standard in, for example, the state of Michigan is 140 degrees, with exceptions made for individuals who have sight in only one eye.
Anti-helmet-law advocates who claim on the one hand that wearing a helmet impairs hearing are often, on the other hand, among those who claim "loud pipes save lives," saying excessive motorcycle noise alerts motorists to their presence on the roadway and helps to keep them safe. At the same time, of course, those after-market pipes would mask their own ability to hear! So how can it be asserted that hearing impairment because of wearing a helmet is a factor in accident causation?
For a layperson's myth-busting analytical look at this controversial topic, read "Loud Pipes Save Lives" or The Madness Behind the Myth, by Jeffry L’H. Tank, wherein he concluded that this is yet another myth being perpetuated by one segment of the motorcycling community under the guise of its being a matter of safety.
Furthermore, nonhearing persons can obtain a driver license, presumably based on the lack of any data that hearing is a significant factor in the ability to detect hazards.
Helmets do not contribute to any significant injuries, including those to the cervical spine. In fact, research findings released September 2010 found just the opposite, that "Helmeted motorcyclists are less likely to suffer a cervical spine injury after a motorcycle collision," which directly contradicts this longstanding claim as a reason to object to mandatory helmet laws.
- Motorcycle Helmets Associated with Lower Risk of Cervical Spine Injury: Debunking the Myth - the study
- Motorcycle helmets reduce spine injuries after collisions - the news release wherein study leader Adil H. Haider, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.S., stated:
We are debunking a popular myth that wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle can be detrimental during a motorcycle crash. Using this new evidence, legislators should revisit the need for mandatory helmet laws.
Statements Out of Context Skew Helmet Drop-Test Results
- Crash Science: The Myths and Realities of Motorcycle Helmets - this article by Dr. Voyko Banjac, reprinted from the June 2006 issue of Friction Zone, a monthly motorcycle travel and information magazine, explains the facts about the 13-MPH claim and eight other common myths about helmets
- Myth: A Helmet Is Designed to Protect Only Up to a 13-MPH Impact Speed - a SMARTER resource about the DOT drop test and how the deceptive claim is made that helmets are not effective at speeds above 13 MPH
Helmet-Law Opponents use Flawed Logic for Desired Result
Two related claims by advocates for helmet-law repeal are addressed in the document Motorcyclist Fatality Numbers and Fatality Rates Related to Helmet Laws: Responding to Claims by Advocates for Helmet-Law Repeal. The first claim goes something like this: Surrounding states do not have all-rider helmet laws and have fewer motorcyclist deaths than Michigan (or choose an appropriate state), which has an all-rider helmet law; therefore this proves that helmet laws are not effective.
The second claim is similar, but instead of using the raw number of deaths, the statement is made in terms of fatality rate. This claim asserts something like this: There is no significant difference in fatality rates between states with all-rider helmet laws and those that leave helmets optional for adult riders; therefore helmet laws are not effective.
"Helmet Laws and Motorcycle Rider Death Rates," by Charles C. Branas & M. Margaret Knudson, published in Accident Analysis and Prevention in 2001, provides an excellent research look at this issue.
One of the arguments often used by advocates for helmet-law repeal is that helmet laws inhibit riders from vacationing in states with all-rider laws. The claim that helmet laws cost tourist dollars simply lacks evidence.
This claim seems to have originated from a March 2004 document entitled "Economic Impacts of Modification to Michigan Mandatory Helmet Law" that Michigan ABATE paid Michigan Consultants to write. As stated in the document, the argument used repeatedly in repeal attempts since the mid-1970s focused on the “rights” or “freedom of choice” of motorcycle operators, which failed every single time to outweigh the safety benefits of the helmet law. Michigan ABATE recognized a new argument was needed.
A clever way to get legislators to consider weakening or repealing a lifesaving helmet law was to convince them that it costs the state money. So Michigan ABATE contracted to have a report written that supported this claim and appeared scholarly. On the surface, it appears to be research. It is not. It was written with one end in mind: to convince legislators that Michigan’s helmet law costs the state tourist dollars.
Subsequent to Michigan ABATE’s paying to have this document created, similar documents have surfaced in other states. No government or independent, private research organization has completed research that supports the ABATE-perpetuated claim that helmet laws cause states to lose tourist revenue. The Michigan ABATE paid-for document is filled with made-up assumptions, the data and analysis methods are biased, the conclusions are based on faulty logic, resources are primarily from special-interest groups, and the document was not peer reviewed or published in any scholarly magazine. It is the kind of report that would not pass muster as a fourth-grader’s research project, let alone something upon which educated legislators should use to base their decisions.
In addition, there is practical evidence to indicate helmet laws do not impede the success of major motorcycling events. The largest touring event in the world, Americade, is held in the Lake George region of New York, and New York has an all-rider helmet law.
Also, what has been dubbed as “America’s fastest growing bike event” is hosted in Muskegon, Michigan. If the helmet law had prevented riders from coming to Michigan, how was it possible for this event to continue to grow for five straight years when the helmet law was in effect?
An excellent article entitled "Evaluating Research Quality – Guidelines for Scholarship" can help individuals evaluate for themselves the Michigan ABATE paid‑for document "Economic Impacts of Modification to Michigan Mandatory Helmet Law" and similar documents that have been created by ABATE groups in other states.
Some Nonmotorcyclists Want Brain-Dead Organ Donors
There is anecdotal belief among some members of the general public that mandatory helmet laws decrease the number of organ donors and that the availability of viable organs increases when there is not a helmet law in place. The paper "Donorcycles: Do Motorcycle Helmet Laws Reduce Organ Donations?" investigates the potentiality of a possible offsetting societal benefit to lifting mandatory helmet laws.
This 2009 research from Michigan State University concluded:
Although our estimates point to a sizeable effect of helmet laws on motor vehicle accident-based organ donations, the repeal of all helmet laws as a measure to reduce the severe shortage of organs in the U.S. would be ineffective in isolation, primarily because over 80 percent of organ donors die due to circumstances unrelated to motor vehicle accidents. Our preferred estimates imply that nationwide elimination of helmet laws would increase annual organ donations by less than one percent.
So, are "donorcycles" a hit or yet another myth? Yes and no. Yes, it would appear to be good practice for motorcyclists who choose to ride without a helmet to execute an organ donation card. But no, as far as policymaking decisions go, the negligible increase in available viable organs—an unintended consequence of helmet-law repeal that could benefit society—would not offset the deleterious societal effects of increased costs should a brain-injured motorcyclist instead require a lifetime of care.