Distracted driving has made traffic safety a prominent national issue with those driving commercial trucks and buses. With new regulations focused on the largest and most dangerous vehicles on the road, the emphasis now shifts to protecting the most vulnerable drivers: motorcyclists. Last November, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) proposed a new regulation mandating that everyone riding a motorcycle in the United States wear a helmet.
Historically, helmet law proposals have always been controversial. Proponents commonly refer to accident statistics showing that riders are much more likely to survive an accident while wearing a helmet than those who do not. In its proposal, NTSB officials indicated that motorcycle deaths have increased in the past decade despite an overall drop in traffic accidents. While motorcycle fatalities dropped 16 percent overall in 2009, deadly motorcycle accidents increased in Oklahoma.
Those opposing helmet laws raise concerns about freedom and personal choice. They argue that they assume the risk of danger when riding without a helmet, and that the government oversteps its bounds in regulating their choices. They also believe that individual states should decide whether to enact helmet laws, not the federal government.
This debate is no different in Oklahoma. A universal helmet law applied from 1967 to 1969, when it was amended to cover riders under age 21. The universal law returned in 1975 as part of the Highway Safety Act (a Congressional act tying federal funds to helmet law compliance), but it was again changed in 1976 to only include riders under 18. Current law requires riders under the age of 18 to wear helmets.
Further clouding the debate is the question of whether helmet laws actually reduce fatalities. According to the Oklahoman, motorcycle enthusiast and advocate John Pierce, states with mandatory helmet laws have “no better or worse fatality records” compared to states that do not. Pierce, who was not wearing a helmet when he was involved in an accident in August 2010, refers to a 2002 report by the National Center for Statistics and Analysis. The report indicated that Colorado (a state with no helmet law at the time) had 4.31 fatalities per 100,000 registered motorcycles, compared to Nebraska (a state with a helmet law) which had 5.2 fatalities per registered motorcycles.
If another universal helmet law is enacted, it is likely that motorcycle insurance rates would drop. While insurance rates are primarily based on the rider’s traffic record and the type of motorcycle to be insured, fewer potential claims could have a positive effect on costs. It is unknown whether Congress will act on the NTSB’s proposal this year. If it does, a strong lobby from motorcycle advocacy groups can be expected.