Thursday, July 23, 2015

Idaho's helmet-free motorcyclists aren't safer, but are part of a growing trend

Posted By on Thu, Jul 23, 2015 at 2:31 PM

It was pitch black on the stretch of Post Falls roadway when Jeremy Rogers and Aaron Cameron mounted their dirt bikes shortly after 1am Monday morning. The two had been drinking — IPA beers for Rogers and martinis for Cameron — and their motorcycles didn’t have headlights nor they helmets. A few moments later, neighbors heard a colossal crash and ran outside to find shoes and motorcycle parts strewn across the roadway.

The pair had crashed into one another head on as they raced up and down the hill. Both men were injured, with Cameron’s life-threatening head injury so serious he was transported to Seattle by helicopter. In his report, Post Falls Police Officer Daniel Koontz notes the safety violations: lack of headlights, driving under the influence. But the helmets that could have prevented the head injury? Not required by law in Idaho.

Cross the border into Idaho and it won't be long before you see a motorcycle rider without a helmet. Some riders even stop at the state line to remove their head protection. These fearless individuals aren't lawbreakers: Idaho is one of many states that doesn't require adult riders to wear helmets. There was a time when mandated helmets were the norm. In 1976, 47 U.S. states required helmets. By 2006 that number had shrunk to 25. Now it is a scant 19. Washington is in the helmet-mandated minority and study after study shows that our lives and brains are safer for it.

click image Some states require motorcycle riders to protect their brains with helmets, but lots don't - INSURANCE INSTITUTE FOR HIGHWAY SAFETY
  • Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
  • Some states require motorcycle riders to protect their brains with helmets, but lots don't

A CDC study found that of the 4,502 people who died in motorcycle accidents in 2010, 12 percent weren’t wearing helmets in states with universal helmet laws. The Idaho Transportation Department found that 54 percent of the 117 riders killed in motorcycle crashes between 2010 and 2014 weren’t wearing helmets.

But the reasons behind helmet laws have as much to do with personal freedom as they do with safety.

In a 2007 study, researchers Marian Moser Jones and Ronald Bayer established a link between libertarian values and motorcycle helmet laws. Motorcyclists are an organized bunch and when they saw legislation encroaching on their rights to live dangerously, they banded together and formed an impressively effective lobby.

One piece of that political powerhouse is the American Motorcyclist Association, a group that lobbies for laws sought by bikers at both the state and national levels. Nicholas Haris, who represents the western states for the AMA says his group doesn’t encourage local groups to strive for particular legislation. “We educate our members and let them decide their issues,” says Haris. “We don’t recommend riding without [a helmet], but we think as an adult you’re allowed to make a lot of choices and that adults should be allowed to choose.”

Haris says the reason behind the choice is simple for those who eschew helmets. “People say it is more enjoyable,” says Haris. “It’s up to the individual, a substantial portion feel very strongly that that’s how they want to ride.”

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