Helmet law overdue

Posted March 18, 2009, at 7:36 p.m.

Motorcycle groups set the wrong standard in opposing proposals to require helmet use when riding a motorcycle. The state should work to prevent accidents, not require helmets, they argued. In fact, the state should do both.

Despite lots of prevention, accidents happen and it just makes sense to protect yourself, whether that means using a seat belt when driving or wearing a helmet when motorcycling.

The Legislature’s Transportation Committee is considering three bills regarding motorcycle use.

LD 453, sponsored by Rep. Paulette Beaudoin, D-Biddeford, would require anyone on a motorcycle to wear a helmet.

LD 437, sponsored by Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, would require motorcycle operators and passengers up to age 18 to wear helmets.

The only bill the motorcycle groups supported at a public hearing last week was LD 39, which would require warning signs where rumble strips are located.

The committee should approve the bill LD 453, which offers the most protection. This would make Maine the 23rd state to enact a helmet law for all motorcyclists.

The other frequent argument against required helmet use is that it infringes upon individual freedom. The best answer to this came from a federal court in Massachusetts more than three decades ago. Judges from the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts wrote in 1972: “From the moment of the injury, society picks the person up off the highway; delivers him to a municipal hospital and municipal doctors; provides him with unemployment compensation, if after recovery, he cannot replace his lost job and, if the injury causes permanent disability, may assume responsibility for his and his family’s subsistence. We do not understand a state of mind that permits the plaintiff to think that only he himself is concerned.”

The judges’ rationale is backed up by reams of data.

In the four years after Congress amended the National Highway Safety Act to remove sanctions against states without motorcycle helmet laws, motorcycle fatalities increased 61 percent, while motorcycle registrations increased only 15 percent compared with 1975, the year before the national law change.

In states that have reenacted helmet laws, motorcycle fatalities dropped between 15 percent and 37 percent in the first year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Numerous studies have found that unhelmeted riders are nearly twice as likely to suffer fatal head injuries than those who wear helmets. Hospital costs for unhelmeted riders involved in crashes average twice as much as for those who wore helmets.

And unhelmeted riders involved in crashes are less likely to have insurance, according to NHTSA.

For these reasons, it is past time for Maine to reenact a universal helmet law.

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