The debate over motorcycle helmet laws has gone on for the better part of four decades, with the federal government urging — sometimes demanding — that states require helmets, and a big segment of the motorcycle world fiercely opposed. On one side, statistics on injuries and deaths; on the other, a sense of freedom.
Twenty states require all riders to wear helmets; most of the others’ laws apply only to younger motorcyclists. Just two states, Iowa and Illinois, have no requirements at all.
The American Motorcyclist Association, which represents about 250,000 riders in the country — more than 7 million bikes are registered — has long protested mandatory helmet laws, and expressed alarm earlier this year when National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David L. Strickland told a House Appropriations subcommittee that “anything the Congress does that would support the movement of riders into helmets would be efficacious of safety.”
For some older riders, that recalled the mid-1970s, when the Transportation Department required states to enact mandatory helmet laws or risk losing their federal road-construction funding. All states save three complied, but the anger from motorcyclists had an effect. Congress rescinded the requirement, which prompted many states to relax their requirements. When NHTSA in the 1990s began to encourage states to enact helmet laws voluntarily, lawmakers slapped the agency’s hand, adding language to the 1998 highway bill barring NHTSA from using federal funds to do so.
That provision is still in effect, prompting a renewed lobbying push by the motorcyclist association in response to Strickland’s recent comment. “We maintain that focusing solely on helmet use limits the administration’s ability to focus on reducing crashes from occurring in the first place,” says Ed Moreland, the association’s senior vice president for government relations.
NHTSA spokeswoman Julia Piscitelli declined to comment, but the agency’s statistics show why Strickland feels strongly: Four out of five motorcyclists are injured or killed when they crash, and motorcycle fatalities have more than doubled since the late 1990s. The agency says helmets saved the lives of nearly 2,000 motorcyclists in 2008 and would have saved at least 800 more if riders had been wearing them.