The Case Against Motorcycle Helmet Laws

This is not a public health issue.


If you have a strong disregard for your own health and safety, you are free to express it in all sorts of ways. You can smoke cigarettes. You can gorge on fast food five times a day. You can go live among bears in Alaska.

You can stagger through the worst part of town at 2 a.m. You can become a trapeze artist. You can join the Marine Corps. But if federal regulators get their way, you will not be able to ride a motorcycle without a helmet.

That's already the law for all riders in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Other states require head protection only for minors or passengers. And in three states—Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire—all riders are free to feel the sun on their scalps and the wind in their hair.

This small zone of personal autonomy causes great annoyance at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), a federal agency. Last week, it urged that "everyone aboard a motorcycle be required to wear a helmet." Polls indicate most Americans agree.

The reasons are obvious enough. From 1997 to 2008, the number of motorcycle fatalities more than doubled, while total traffic deaths were falling. Two out of every three bikers killed were not wearing a helmet. Said NTSB Vice Chairman Christopher Hart, "It's a public health issue."

Oh, no, it's not. A public health issue arises when masses of people are exposed to illness or injury by dangers beyond their control—contaminated water, sooty air, natural disaster, marauding bands of hyenas—or when I get a serious disease that I may pass on to you against your will.

In these cases, government action is necessary. It's perfectly legitimate for governments to regulate pollution, build levees, and require people to get vaccinations.

But riding a motorcycle without a cranial cushion poses no danger to anyone except the rider. Skull fractures are not contagious. The public is not at risk if I decide to mount a Harley with nothing but a pinwheel hat on my head.

The mandatory helmet crowd, however, insists there is a threat to the public: the threat of being forced to cover the medical costs of bikers who are injured or disabled. Notes the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, "Only slightly more than half of motorcycle crash victims have private health insurance coverage. For patients without private insurance, a majority of medical costs are paid by the government."

Under the new health care law, of course, everyone will have to obtain coverage. But even then, the premiums of healthy people will have to cover the costs of motorcyclists' injuries.

The complaint has a point, but it considers only the costs of motorcycle accidents, not the—yes—benefits. At the risk of sounding macabre, let me note that a 50-year-old biker who dies in a wreck saves us money, since he won't be around to collect Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid in his old age. A 20-year-old fatality may yield a harvest of excellent organs for patients awaiting transplants.

Besides, the argument on safety and medical costs is one that proves too much. Brain buckets reduce the chance of being killed in a wreck, but federal data indicate that most of those who die in motorcycle accidents would be killed even with a helmet. So it's safe to assume that most of those seriously injured would be laid up in the hospital either way.

The real danger is not from riding a motorcycle without a helmet, but from riding, period. If you crash a hog at 70 mph, your head is only one of the body parts that will come out much worse for wear. If we're justified in requiring helmets to save medical expenses, why not simply outlaw motorcycles entirely? That would prevent a lot more death and injury.

It's also hard to see why we single out motorcyclists for the sin of saddling everyone with higher health care costs. Plenty of patients suffer from self-inflicted ailments—lung cancer from smoking, liver damage from drinking, diabetes from eating unhealthy foods, AIDS from unprotected sex. Yet we don't ban these activities.

Why not? Because we retain a respect for individual freedom and choice—even in matters of life and death, even when individual choices have collective costs. Motorcycle helmet laws are an unwarranted exception to our normal, sound approach, which can be summarized: It's your life, and it's your funeral.