Debate continues over repeal of Michigan's motorcycle helmet law

The Michigan State Senate has just passed legislation repealing the existing law requiring motorcycle helmets for all riders. Under the proposed new law, which is similar to one pending in the State House, motorcyclists 21 and older would be allowed to ride without a helmet. This has led to some significant discord among Michigan residents about the possible change in the law.

In Tennessee, both drivers and passengers of motorcycles are required to wear protective helmets that comply with federal motor vehicle safety standards. However, there has been a trend in recent years toward states limiting or repealing motorcycle helmet requirements, as Kentucky did in 1996.

Many motorcycle riders feel that the choice to wear a helmet should be up to the individual, and support limiting or even fully repealing the current law. On the other side of the debate are many doctors, insurance company representatives and others who point out that helmets have been proven to save lives in motorcycle accidents.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), repealing helmet laws does appear to increase the lethality of motorcycle accidents. NHTSA studies show that motorcycle fatalities rose in Texas, Arizona, Florida, Kentucky and Louisiana after they repealed their helmet laws in the late 1990s.

AAA Michigan opposes repealing the helmet law because it is likely to cause insurance costs to go up for all motorists, not only motorcyclists. An emergency room physician with years of experience treating motorcycle accident victims opposes the repeal of the helmet law because, in his experience, wearing a helmet can mean the difference between life and death.

Motorcyclists argue that a helmet law is not the way to save lives. They question whether a helmet will really save a life when many helmets are designed to protect from injuries at 14 mph or less.

A better solution, they argue, would to increase the civil or criminal penalties for drivers who strike motorcyclists, which could be crafted in a manner similar to the enhanced penalties for motorists who strike road construction workers in work zones.

Biker groups point out that the best way -- and perhaps the only way -- to prevent brain injuries, other catastrophic trauma and deaths from motorcycle accidents is to prevent those accidents. Since so many motorcycle wrecks are caused by other drivers not "seeing" motorcyclists, it might make more sense to work on changing the behavior of people who drive cars.

Many riders are not trying to get out of wearing safety helmets. Many say they would wear them without the requirement of a law. They simply believe wearing a helmet should be a choice. If the proposal passes the State House and Governor Snyder does not veto the measure, bikers could soon have that choice.

Source: Lansing State Journal, "Michigan motorcycle helmet measure pits riders against insurers," Scott Davis, July 7, 2011

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