Common sense on the helmet law Messages to Annapolis

Stan Modjesky

January 16, 1991|By Stan Modjesky

THE FIRST SHOTS in the perennial battle over motorcycle helmet laws have already been fired in Annapolis. This year, the assortment of paramedics, emergency care physicians and politicians arguing for mandatory helmets will be joined by a new ally: the Maryland Head Injury Foundation.

And again this year, they face the opposition of the usual crowd of bikers claiming to represent "the" motorcyclist viewpoint. While arguments pro and con have merit, both sides are so caught up in the heat of the debate that one wonders if either recalls what the original disagreement was about.

The pro-helmet argument tends to be condescending. These people would have the public believe that cyclists are so stupid they don't realize that a person can get hurt on the highway. Surely, no biker mounts his cycle thinking, "I guess I'll go have a nice bloody crash today." Yet these advocates harp endlessly on the obvious. They go so far as to break eggs on the floor to demonstrate the fragility of the human head.

This insult is not lost on the bikers; it makes them distrustful. Meanwhile, they argue unceasingly that helmet laws deny their freedom of expression. Their rhetorical tactics are usually limited to intimidation and goofiness.

The reaction of the cyclists is understandable. Most reasonable people would agree that wearing a helmet can prevent head injury in the event of crash. Some of the opposition to the law centers on the right of government to compel us to do anything "for our own good." There's also the cyclists' fear of persecution. In our culture, people have a strong visceral reaction to motorcycles. Madison Avenue exploits this reaction to sell bikes to aficionados, while Hollywood exploits it to sell movies with bikers depicted as leather-jacketed hoods.

As a result, the average person is fearful of motorcyclists. It's easy to see how a cyclist could interpret what may be genuine concern as something that masks an entirely different agenda. But most bikers are less opposed to the wearing of helmets than they are afraid of the side effects of the legislation.

As has been demonstrated with gun control, lawmakers are less inclined to focus on people who are irresponsible than on the physical objects they use when misbehaving. So from the cyclists' viewpoint, passing a mandatory helmet law could start us down the slippery slope toward outlawing motorcycles.

And while the pro-helmet faction expresses concern for the safety of bikers, its logic is questionable. Parts of the body besides the head also get injured in collisions. Some of these injuries are just as debilitating as head injuries. So why single out of the human head as the one body part needing protection? We've all seen cyclists wearing a helmet but scarely clothed otherwise. That's one result of equating safely solely with the use of a helmet.

The best way to prevent head injuries, as well as all other injuries, would be to prevent crashes. Reams of data have been collected about head injuries in motorcycle crashes, but it appears that nobody has bothered to analyze accident reports to find the root causes of collisions. Crashes have many contributing factors -- alcohol, speed, inattention, operator error, faulty equipment, misjudgment, poor weather, poor visibility, poor road surface, bad highway design and deliberate acts of aggression. Government concern about traffic safety has been confined to the two areas that are easily quantified: speed and blood alcohol content. The contributions of poor highway design and improper vehicle maintenance are scarcely conceded.

Those who favor mandatory helmets claim to do so out of concern for the safety of cyclists. Yet they have been totally uninterested in discussing motorcycle safety in a larger context. zTC A reasonable response to the helmet law opposition would be, "OK, Mr. Cyclist. If you don't think helmet laws will prevent injuries, what do you think will work?"

Several years ago, three of us -- stodgy, middle-aged, political conservatives all -- arranged a meeting with one of the primary players in the pro-helmet movement. With many years and miles of riding experience, we attempted to share our observations about how the dangers associated with motorcycling could be mitigated. After several hours of talk, the delegate concluded the meeting by reminding us that none of us lived in his district. He said he would go his own merry way. Given this attitude, is it any wonder an angry group shows up at the State House to oppose helmet legislation?

It's time for both sides in this controversy to stop shouting long enough to recollect what they wanted in the first place. Those who refuse to wear helmets will probably continue to do so, law or not. We have wasted too much precious energy on this issue that could be brought to bear on highway safety problems that affect a larger, albeit less visible, segment of the public.

Stan Modjesky writes from Baltimore.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.