The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

February 26, 2011

RALPH COUEY | Motorcycle helmet law debate rages anew

RALPH COUEY
For The Tribune-Democrat

— All it took was three days of delightful weather, and the motorcycle part of my brain went from dormancy to full throttle.

Without a doubt the most controversial topic in the motorcycle community is the eternal debate over helmet laws. The two schools of thought are sharply divided. On one side is what I call the Freebirds.  

Freebirds prize personal freedom above all, reasoning that if the individual is willing to undertake the risk and accept the responsibilities for that decision, then they should be allowed to go bare-headed.  

On the other side are the Pragmatists. While this bunch embraces the freedom of the ride, they respect mortality. They understand that the road is not within their control, so they choose to wear the “Brain Bucket.”

 Freebirds say that helmets restrict peripheral vision and add dangerous weight to the head, increasing the danger of cervical spinal injury.

(Actually, a study published last week now demonstrates that modern helmets actually help prevent cervical spinal injury.)  

Pragmatists say that even a slow fall to the asphalt can bounce the head hard enough to do serious damage, and that road debris thrown up by cars and trucks towards the rider’s head is a real danger.

For the record, I’m a Pragmatist.

But for the motorcycle community as a whole, part of the frustration rises out of vacuous opinions put forward by talking heads who otherwise wouldn’t know a swing arm from a steering head bearing. They, and those who listen to them, remain convinced that all bikers are outlaws who traffic drugs, cause riots, and (gasp!) go weeks without bathing.

Over the last decade, many states relaxed helmet laws. In that time, there has been an increase in motorcycle fatalities with head injuries being the most common cause of death.

But the number of riders has also jumped. Some say that the large increase of rookie riders on bikes too big or fast for their skill level contributes to those numbers, as does the increase in the median age of riders. Older people have weaker eyesight and slower reaction times.

And, rightly or wrongly, others point to the increase in fatalities as a natural consequence of statistical density; more riders on the road equal more accidents.

Whatever the reason, the numbers have grown enough to grab the attention of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

NHTSA, for all its altruism, in the minds of many motorcyclists has apparently dedicated itself to running motorcycles off the road altogether.

NHTSA’s motivation comes from statistics.

In the years from 1994 through 2009, of all vehicle categories, motorcycles were the only group to show an increase in fatalities, even with an almost 18 percent drop from 2008 to 2009.

NHTSA held a news conference on Nov. 19, calling for all states to pass laws requiring the use of helmets.

Vice Chairman Christopher Hart declared, “People have to get outraged about this safety issue that is causing so many deaths needlessly.”

Well, gee.

Where has NHTSA been lo, these many years while riders were dying by the scores, victims of motorists who failed to yield the right of way?

Where was their advocacy when these careless drivers were taken to court and charged with simple moving violations instead of vehicular manslaughter? How can someone take a human life out of carelessness and walk away with a $100 fine?

(Taking a breath here.)

In my view, the Feds are taking the path of least resistance. They can’t find a way to force drivers to look more carefully before pulling out, turning left, or changing lanes, so they’re going after the easier target.

And by shifting the responsibility to riders, they’re contributing even more to the “us vs. them” mentality of the road.

However, to be fair and honest, there are riders in the community who aren’t aiding our public reputation. Speeding and weaving, pulling stunts in traffic, and riding impaired increases the risk to you and the danger to the rest of us. Riding safely and intelligently protects our lives on the road, and in court gives us a better chance for a fair shake from a jury.

The Constitution protects our right to the pursuit of happiness. But our riding community needs to be more proactive and responsible through our riding habits and attitudes to protect our right to ride from the bureaucrats.

Otherwise, the only pursuit will be them pulling us over, and eventually, off the road completely.



Ralph Couey is a freelance writer living in Somerset.