December 27, 2008


To Helmet or Not to Helmet?



The recent story that AAA Carolinas has come out in favor of the local MB ordinance requiring helmets tickled my curiosity.  Is there a real case for or against it on the merits?  When you start to research it, you quickly get mired in a morass of competing studies, statistics, conjecture, and opinion.  On first blush, it seems like a slam dunk in favor of helmet laws.  The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration holds forth the results of various studies that, taken together, lead one to conclude that current generation helmets reduce the rate of fatality (when an accident occurs) by between 37% and 41%.  Various other studies that have compared motorcycle fatality rates before and after helmet laws are either enacted or repealed seem likewise to indicate that the number of fatalities goes up when such laws are repealed, and goes down when such laws are enacted.  Case close?  Not so fast.


The picture becomes a bit less clear when you dig a bit deeper.  There are a few other questions that need to be examined.  There are many studies around the world that indicate that the rate of ridership goes down when helmet laws are enacted and that this trend contributes in large part to the ensuing decline in numbers of fatalities.  Moreover, there is some indication that the rate of accidents goes up when helmet laws are enacted, with the suggestion that reduced situational awareness on the part of the rider is a significant contributing factor.  In addition to these factors, there are conflicting studies on non-fatal injuries, several of which indicate that while fatalities are reduced the incidence and severity of non-fatal injury may actually be made worse by the helmets.  Finally, there are studies that indicate that above a certain impact speed, helmets don’t do any good at all.  Unless you are able to compare an identical situation both with and without a helmet, there is no real way to judge in a completely objective way.


At the end of the day, there does not appear to be a simple answer to the question, and it seems like the answer you get depends on who you ask and what axe they have to grind.  Returning to where we started, however, none of this matters.  We all know that the motivation of the mayor and the city council was not to enhance rider safety.  They have said explicitly that their goal is to eliminate the rallies, and the new ordinances are a means to that end.  The AAA, in their endorsement of the new helmet law paid homage to this when they said that the reason they supported the ordinance is that it is “an attempt to put a damper on the two huge motorcycle rallies held annually, for about 70 years, in the city, often resulting in fatalities.”   Article VIII, section 14 of the state constitution requires "statewide uniformity" regarding the criminal law of this State, and therefore, “local governments may not criminalize conduct that is legal under a statewide criminal law." Martin v. Condon, 324 S.C. 183, 478 S.E.2d 272, 274 (1996).  MB has attempted to circumvent the state constitution by making these ordinances administrative infractions instead of criminal violations.  Maybe that will fly in the court cases as they are adjudicated, maybe it won’t.   Either way it is disingenuous to pretend that the mayor and council are motivated by some purity of spirit.  They want the rallies gone and they intend to harass bikers out of town if they can.


I don’t have a basis to really have an opinion here.  I don’t ride.  I know I used to think that people who didn’t wear a helmet didn’t have anything to protect in the first place.  I have a less certain view of the question these days, in part because of what I have been told by riders, in part because of the conflicting evidence, and in part because of personal experience.  About a year ago, a very dear friend of our family was killed one morning while riding his bike to work.  It was wintertime, early morning, very dark and very cold.  The state police reconstruction of the accident indicated that he hit a patch of black ice and laid down his bike.  He was wearing a helmet, but it did him no good.  The reason it did him no good is not because he sustained serious injuries in the initial accident.  The reason the helmet did him no good is because an inattentive truck driver came barreling along as he lay prone on the road and ran him over, in spite of the fact that several other motorists had already stopped and were trying like hell to flag this guy down.  And this is the real crux of the issue according to a lot of bikers I have spoken to.  The biggest threat they face daily is not from the potential damage caused by not wearing a helmet, but from motorists who fail to pay attention, and no helmet law addresses that issue.


But, maybe that’s just me.