May 28, 2018
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Mandatory motorcycle helmets — again

Erik Steele
By Dr. Erik Steele

A lobster in a boiling pot has more of a chance than a mandatory helmet proposal in Maine, so I was going to keep my mouth shut in the debate in the Maine Legislature about whether to require motorcyclists here to wear helmets. What’s the point? Then I read some of the reasons that opponents suggested this legislative session’s mandatory helmet bill for adults ought not to pass, and here I am, a cursed trout rising out of the water after the anti-helmet bait.

What really hooked me on the idea of responding to those objections was the thought that some 18-year-old out there might not wear a helmet and get his head stove in as a result of some of the absurd arguments against mandatory helmets. I could just not sit by and take the chance that would happen without saying anything. So here’s, for you, kid, the straight poop on motorcycle helmets. If you decide not to helmet up, so be it, but don’t make that decision because someone BS’d you about helmets.

The idea they don’t really work? It’s a crock. Almost every study ever done says they reduce the risk of severe head injury by at least 30 percent. Of the about 100,000 Americans who will crash a motorcycle in 2013, 80 percent will be injured and more than 4,500 will die. If your girlfriend on the back of the bike is worth helmeting against these risks, so are you.

You’ll hear that helmets should not be mandatory because not all are adequately tested for effectiveness. Forgetting for the moment that if you wear a jack-o-lantern on your head it would offer more protection than nothing, just remember that helmets reduce the risk of severe head injury in a crash — that’s the only test that really counts.

If you want to prove this to yourself, try my unscientific helmet test. Put on any old helmet you can find — German army style, full face, whatever — lie down on the sidewalk, and bang your helmeted forehead against the curb. How did that feel? Not bad, eh?

Now (and don’t tell your mother I suggested this when she asks how you got that bruise), take the helmet off and GENTLY bang your unhelmeted forehead against the curb. I’m guessing that hurt a bit more than when you banged your helmeted head. So, no matter what other kind of testing was or was not done on helmets, your testing (and every other) proves that helmeted heads get hurt a lot less when banged against the curb. Go figure.

Here’s another argument against mandatory helmets I want you to roll your eyes at; that it’s unfair to make motorcyclists wear helmets if car drivers don’t have to wear them too, because car crashes can also cause head injuries. But wait — don’t people in cars have an entire car around them to protect them, which is why they are 30 times less likely to die in a car crash than a motorcyclist is in a motorcycle crash? Here’s the compromise I propose: when motorcyclists reduce their risk of a fatal crash to the low rate of car drivers, you and I should be willing to wear helmets while driving. Or, if motorcyclists are willing to ride their bikes with an entire car around them for protection, they can forgo the helmet.

In testimony, some opponents argued that making riders wear helmets in Maine would convince motorcyclists from other states not to visit Maine and spend tourism dollars here. Interesting, maybe right. But that argument restated is that a little more tourism cash is worth the helmet-preventable deaths and injuries. You should not buy that argument either.

When the day comes for you to ride a motorcycle in Maine and you’re over 18, whether to helmet up will probably still be your decision, because the Maine Legislature is unlikely to stand up to arguments against mandatory helmets. We should not make the wrong choice — in the Legislature or on our motorcycles — because someone filled our precious heads full of crap against mandatory helmets.

Erik Steele, a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.

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