It is spring again, time when motorcycles return to our county roads and highways. So now is a good time to once again appeal for a law requiring all motorcycle operators and passengers to wear helmets. The issue comes up periodically in the Legislature, but Maine clings to its weak law that lets nearly all motorcyclists ride without helmets.
The result is a continuing series of accidents in which motorcyclists have been severely hurt or killed. Many, though not all, of the injuries would have been minimized and the deaths would have been prevented if the victims had been wearing government-approved helmets.
Maine had 437 motorcycle crashes last year including 11 fatalities. So far this year, there have been 25 crashes and no fatalities. These figures came from Lt. Brian P. Scott of the State Police Highway Safety Unit. The official figures will soon change with the death last Friday of an Orono man in a motorcycle crash on I-95. He was not wearing a helmet.
A 2005 editorial was an appeal for passage of a legislative bill, An Act Requiring Protective Headgear for All Operators and Passengers on Motorcycles, Motor-driven Cycles and Mopeds. Both houses rejected it overwhelmingly.
The chief sponsor, Rep. Walter A. Wheeler Sr., D-Kittery, since termed out of the Legislature, says he spoke with Rep. Paulette G. Beaudoin, D-Biddeford, about a much milder bill that she introduced last year. It would merely have required a motorcyclist who had held a license for less than 10 years to wear a helmet. It too failed soundly.
Current Maine law requires only those under 18, those with learners permits and first-year license holders to wear helmets. It wasn’t always that way.
In the early 1970s, most states including Maine had bowed to a federal rule that would have withheld highway construction funds if they didn’t enact universal motorcycle helmet laws. A motorcycle industry lobby won an end to that threat.
Maine relaxed its law in 1977. Now only 20 states require all motorcyclists to wear a helmet. New Hampshire, Illinois and Iowa have no motorcycle helmet law.
What’s to dislike about a universal motorcycle helmet law? Partly, it’s the love of wind in the hair. Partly, too, it’s a perceived industry loss of business if helmets were required. Beyond all that, it’s the popular idea that freedom is good and regulation is bad.
Maine’s Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, a motorcyclist herself, was a leader in the campaign to halt federal penalties for states that refused to require helmets. She said through her spokesman: “Government is interfering in what states should decide themselves.”
Against all that is the fact that motorcycles are an especially dangerous form of transportation compared to cars, in which seat belts are required by law. Statistics make the case.
The National Highway Safety Administration has found that motorcycle helmets saved 1,829 motorcyclists’ lives in 2008. It estimates that helmets reduce the risk of death in a motorcycle crash by about one-third overall and the risk of fatal head injury by 40 percent. Another finding is that piecemeal helmet laws such as Maine’s are harder to enforce than universal laws that apply to all riders.
Nationally, people generally support mandatory helmet use. The federal highway safety agency, in a 2000 motor vehicle occupant survey, found that 81 percent said they favored mandatory helmet use laws for motorcyclists. More recently, the agency found that 45 percent of motorcyclists said they favored universal helmet laws.
It is time for the Maine Legislature to enact a universal helmet law. Seat belts are mandatory and drivers buckle up by habit. Why not address a greater danger and require helmets on motorcycle riders? It’s too late for this session, so in the meantime cyclists should voluntarily put on helmets.