With the informal arrival of summer this weekend, you’re bound to see more and more people out on our streets and highways on motorcycles, revving up their engines and blasting off with the strains of the Steppenwolf oldie “Born to be Wild” ricocheting through their heads.
Too many of those heads, unfortunately, will be unprotected.
It never ceases to flabbergast us that so many motorcycle enthusiasts are willing to pilot their bikes down our woefully uneven roads, at speeds that often exceed those of the cars and trucks they share those roads with, without the slightest protection for their craniums. In Pennsylvania, they get no official discouragement for embarking on such foolhardy behavior – the commonwealth repealed its universal helmet law in 2003, after years of agitating by biker groups, who proclaimed that it was all about “freedom.” When the law was repealed, Erie-area state Rep. Linda Bebko-Jones, who died in 2011, said it sent the message that Pennsylvania residents who decide to leave the helmet at home should “think about signing an organ-donor card at the same time.” She was being prescient. The number of motorcycle fatalities in Pennsylvania and in other states soared skyward over the last decade.
To be sure, some of that has been driven by increased numbers of cyclists, led by baby boomers who decided to rekindle their youthful enthusiasm for motorcycles in their retirement years. But the death toll was surely not helped by laissez-faire helmet laws. Only 19 states and the District of Columbia require that motorcyclists wear helmets. It wasn’t always this way: Congress once mandated that states have universal helmet laws on the books if they wanted to qualify for federal highway funds. But those restrictions were lifted in 1995, and states started repealing the laws that had played a part in keeping some of their residents alive.
In the decade after the repeal of Pennsylvania’s universal helmet law, deaths in motorcycle accidents increased by 35 percent. And how’s this for a grim statistic: According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, deaths in motorcycle mishaps rocketed by 122 percent between 1997 and 2013, when states were busy repealing their helmet laws. In the same period, deaths in cars and trucks plummeted by 66 percent.
Motorcyclists who crash and are not wearing a helmet are three times more likely to suffer a traumatic brain injury, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The Office of Highway Safety Planning in Washington, D.C. reports that, if you ride a motorcycle without a helmet, you are 40 percent more likely to die if you are in a crash.
And deciding against wearing a helmet, rather than being a matter of personal choice, has broader consequences. Aside from the impact a debilitating injury or death would have on family and friends, an increase in the number of severe injuries resulting from motorcycle accidents raises insurance and hospital rates for everyone. And what about the folks who are lucky enough to stay alive after suffering a severe head injury after getting in a crash, but are unable to ever work again? Chances are, they’ll be receiving Medicaid and disability benefits courtesy of you and me, with our tax dollars. Feeling the wind through your hair may feel romantic and rebellious, but it could carry an awfully steep price for someone who takes a curve in a road a little too fast or swerves to avoid an obstruction. Besides, who wants all those bugs in your hair?