In April, Michigan repealed its law requiring motorcycle riders aged 21 and over to wear helmets. In several states, the issue of legislating motorcycle helmet use has become controversial, with some arguing that helmet laws infringe on rider freedom.
Thomas Esposito, M.D., chief of the Division of Trauma, Surgical Critical Care and Burns in the Department of Surgery at Loyola University Medical Center, isn't buying that argument. In fact, he points out that the rights of non-riders may be compromised when helmet laws are not in effect.
"Repealing helmet laws infringes on the general public's right to expect government to control health care costs and protect the public's safety," Esposito said. He added that the "freedom issues" associated with smoking in public places are similar to those used in discussion about motorcycle helmet laws. He also cited the evolution of increasingly strict seat belt laws as another example of personal versus public freedom debates.
Others claim that motorcycle helmets actually may create a safety risk by impairing riders' hearing and peripheral vision. According to Esposito, however, these arguments are ungrounded and erroneous. Accidents involving non-helmeted motorcyclists can be deadly – and a drain on health care costs, too.
"Numerous studies have shown the costs to the health care system of unhelmeted motorcyclists are astronomical," Esposito said. "One overview of states with and without helmet use laws estimates that more than 120 million dollars in medical care and rehabilitation expenses per year were due directly to non-helmet use."
The fatality rates per 1,000 for non-helmeted riders is 6.2 percent. For riders who wear helmets, the rate is 1.6 percent.
"Without mandatory legislation, helmet user rate drops from 99 to 50 percent and non-helmeted motorcyclists are three times more likely to suffer a traumatic brain injury in a crash than those wearing a helmet," Esposito said, quoting National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics.
Esposito added that since 2004, Loyola University Medical Center, located in the Chicago area, has treated 541 motorcycle injuries – of which only 25 percent of patients had been wearing helmets. Illinois currently does not have a helmet law.
Beyond the Helmet
Of course, motorcyclists need to do more than wear helmets to be safe. Esposito offered the following safety tips for motorcyclists:
- Wear leather chaps and the proper jacket, boots and gloves. "Burns from the exhaust pipe and also road rash – skin abrasion from falling – are fairly common in our Loyola trauma center," he said.
- Keep your license and insurance up to date. "Motorcyclists must carry $20,000 in medical insurance, at a minimum," he explained.
- Don't drink and drive. "Riding a motorcycle at 65 mph on a busy highway is intoxicating enough," Esposito said. "Leave the alcohol for the engine fuel."
- Obey speed laws and follow the rules of the road. "The higher the speed, the greater the trauma during a crash. Abide by the rules of the road, and wear your protective gear," he said.
"Unfortunately, without the influence of state laws, many motorcyclists may become as familiar with the workings of a hospital as they are with the workings of their motorcycle," Esposito concluded.