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Status Report, Vol. 37, No. 1 | SPECIAL ISSUE: MOTORCYCLE DEATHS | January 12, 2002 Subscribe

Helmet laws covering all motorcyclists draw opposition

Mandatory helmet use laws, or "lid laws" as some bikers call them, reduce motorcyclist head injuries and deaths. But such laws are continually being challenged by some motorcyclists who claim infringement of personal freedom.

In Europe and Australia, helmet laws have been in place and unchallenged for decades. In contrast, U.S. laws have been in a constant state of flux. States began adopting helmet laws after 1967 when the National Highway Safety Bureau (the federal agency that preceded the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) started requiring the laws for states to qualify for certain federal highway funds.

By 1975, a total of 47 states (all except California, Illinois, and Utah) had adopted universal helmet laws covering all riders. Then Congress revoked the authority to impose the sanctions in 1976, and helmet law repeals followed. Within a few years more than half of the states had either entirely eliminated their universal helmet use laws or limited them to apply only to younger riders.

In 1991 federal incentive funds for states with helmet laws were introduced, leading a few states to reinstate their laws. But in 1995 the federal incentives were dropped (see "Without a motorcycle helmet there's no easy ride ," April 4, 1998) and, since then, five states (Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Texas) have weakened their helmet laws.

Now just 20 states and the District of Columbia have mandatory helmet use laws covering all riders. Colorado, Illinois, and Iowa have no helmet laws at all, and the other 27 states have limited laws applying to some riders, usually those younger than 18.

Legislators have been reluctant to take helmet laws completely off the books. More typically, they've changed the laws to cover only young riders or new riders. But unlike universal helmet laws, the limited laws aren't effective.

The Institute's chief scientist, Allan Williams, says "helmet laws based on age are hard to enforce, and because of that they're not effective in reducing deaths and injuries, not even among the groups still required to wear helmets." States that require only riders younger than 18 to wear helmets have the same proportion of motorcycle deaths in that age group as states with no helmet laws.

Another problem with limited laws is their assumption that older and more experienced riders don't need as much protection as younger people. "This is obviously wrong," Williams points out, "because adults, particularly people 40 and older, are the group contributing the most to the rising motorcyclist death trend." Another approach taken by some states is to create exceptions for adult riders who have a specified amount of medical insurance (typically $10,000) or motorcycle safety training. But these exceptions complicate enforcement because there's no way for an officer to know when a rider is exempt.

Even though limited laws don't work, state motorcycle rights organizations are pressuring state legislators to invoke the limitations. No fewer than 26 helmet law bills were introduced in 20 states last year, and most aimed to repeal or otherwise weaken existing helmet laws.

None of the challenges succeeded, but a few came close, getting as far as committee approval in Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oregon, Virginia, and West Virginia. In Georgia, a bill to remove the points penalty assessed against a helmet law violator's license passed the legislature but was vetoed by the governor.

A handful of attempts in 2001 to adopt or strengthen helmet laws also failed. Two Illinois bills would have reinstated a helmet law. Louisiana considered extending its law from limited (it covers only riders younger than 18) to universal coverage.

U.S. lags behind:
Helmet laws covering all riders are the norm worldwide,
except in the United States

Most European countries enacted helmet laws in the 1970s. Other countries around the world have done so, too. Laws in the following countries generally cover all riders, although in some countries there are exceptions for moped riders: Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada (all provinces), Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, United Kingdom, Venezuela, and Yugoslavia. The United States lags far behind. Only 20 states and the District of Columbia have mandatory helmet laws that cover all motorcyclists. Colorado, Illinois, and Iowa have no helmet laws at all, and the other 27 states have limited laws that apply to some riders, usually those younger than 18.

Helmet use laws map

Note about laws with limited coverage: Some states with limited laws require helmet wearing by riders of any age who have instructional or learners' permits (Alaska, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin). In three states (Florida, Kentucky, and Louisiana), the laws apply to all riders with exceptions for older cyclists who can present proof of a minimum level of medical insurance. In one state (Texas), the law applies to all riders with exceptions for those 21 and older who can present proof of a minimum level of medical insurance or proof of having taken a motorcycle safety training course. Penalties for helmet law violations range from as little as $10 in Kansas to a maximum of $1,000 in Georgia, Hawaii, Nevada, and New Hampshire. Some of these states also provide for an optional jail sentence. In most states, a helmet law violation carries no driver's license penalty points.

Deaths go up with helmet law repeals

Research shows that when helmet laws are weakened, fewer riders wear helmets, and fatalities and medical costs go up.

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