Contrarian: A No-Brainer

If we’re going to make motorcyclists wear helmets again, why not everyone else, too?

They had barely finished scraping the stray bits of Ben Roethlisberger’s teeth from the windshield of that Chrysler New Yorker when the tsk-tsking and legislating got started. Here was the Steelers’ quarterback, a guy who wears a helmet at work each day, smashing his Suzuki and his face while tooling along bareheaded through a Pittsburgh intersection. How foolish to be riding without a helmet. There oughta be a law.

Editorial writers led the tongue-clucking chorus. The Inquirer demanded that Pennsylvania reinstate the state’s helmet law, which was repealed in 2003. The York Dispatch agreed, and chimed in with a melodramatic plea from the state’s emergency physicians’ group: “It’s time to stop the body count.” Now a new bill mandating helmets for motorcyclists is on the docket in the Pennsylvania State House, thanks to the grandfatherly co-sponsorship of 74-year-old State Rep Tony Melio of Bucks County. Melio wrote his own op-ed piece for the Inquirer, with a scolding headline that began, “Let’s use our heads.”

Yes, by all means, use your head, but try not to use it too much on the subject of motorcycle helmets. You just might realize how silly it is to make the cops chase down and ticket every biker without one. Bikers just aren’t worth the bother. The combined number of motorcycle deaths and injuries each year ranks way below that of pedestrians or car passengers. And unlike bleary-eyed truckers and pie-eyed motorists, motorcyclists hurt only themselves when they crash. Why would we want the highway patrol hunting for helmetless joyriders when cops have so many better things to do?

It’s a good question, even if most people don’t think so. When the public was last polled about it, 80 percent said they want bikers to strap on their brain buckets under penalty of law. That’s a pretty good measure of what an insane society of busybody hypocrites we’ve become. Just 20 percent of poll respondents evidently retain any sentimental regard for that constitutional right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” If you choose to pursue that happiness at the risk of leaving skid marks made of gray matter on I-95, who am I to say you can’t?

I won’t deny that motorcycling is awfully dangerous. Helmet or no helmet, thrill-­seeking bikers get literally thrilled to death at a rate about 32 times greater than other motorists. During 2004 and 2005, the first two full years following the helmet law repeal, Pennsylvania motorcycle fatalities went up by about 30 percent. On the other hand, motorcycle registrations climbed by almost 20 percent during the same period, which suggests that being liberated from a legal requirement to put on a hot, heavy helmet has made motorcycling more appealing. If you have a problem with that, and you can still name just one serious risk you freely take with your own health — whether it’s named Sam Adams, Sara Lee or Salem Ultra Lights — you just may be a hypocrite.

In private life, hypocrites require tolerance, because as bothersome as they are to be around, the poor creatures face the cruel fate of living with their own impossible selves. When hypocrites go pro, however, they start agitating for new laws that satisfy their neurotic need to push around the weak and the few. No one is truly safe once they start organizing, and I’m afraid motorcycle helmets are just a minor symptom of a larger disease. As descendants of immigrants in Hazleton and Riverside race to the forefront of a New Nativist movement, and as retirees with half-million-dollar homes demand property tax relief at the expense of minimum-wage-earners, the professional hypocrite class threatens to make social depravity the new behavioral norm.

For Tony Melio and the other safety hypocrites in Harrisburg, the high moral ground in this debate is seized by invoking the almighty dollar. Melio asserted in the Inquirer that “the cost to care for someone who is seriously injured in a motorcycle accident falls on us all.” He quoted the federal government’s claim that motorcycle helmets saved the health-care system $19.5 billion between 1984 and 2002, and that an additional $14.8 billion would have been saved if all motorcyclists had been forced to wear them. Emergency physicians bludgeon the helmet opposition with the same logic — that since everyone’s insurance rates are nudged upward because of these damned reckless bikers, we’re entitled to outlaw biking bareheaded.

Now let’s really start using our heads. Two hundred and four bikers died last year in Pennsylvania; 87 of them were riding helmetless. Safety studies estimate that about 29 percent of them would have survived those crashes if they’d been wearing helmets. A year earlier, 398 Pennsylvania car occupants died without their seat belts buckled, and PennDOT estimates that 362 would have survived if they’d strapped themselves in. Pennsylvania’s seat-belt law, however, is lame. The cops can’t pull you over for traveling unbelted — they can only cite you if they catch you making another moving violation. So Pennsylvania’s seat-belt compliance rate lags behind those of states where the laws allow police enforcement for “primary” violations. The estimated health-care savings with 100 percent seat-belt compliance would dwarf the savings from the motorcycle helmet law.

Let’s use our heads some more. Hundreds of Pennsylvania car occupants are killed each year even though they were belted in and their airbags deployed. What to do? Obviously, we need mandatory helmets for all vehicle occupants! This is no joke. In 1998, a prominent traffic safety institute in Australia studied the head injuries of a large sample of crash victims and determined that one out of five head-injury-related deaths would have been avoided if all car occupants wore the same soft-shell helmets donned by bicyclists. Wearing a helmet in a car offers added protection on a par with airbags. So why not a helmet law for everyone?

There’s really no telling where to stop once you claim the right to legislate everyone’s personal safety. Older people like Tony Melio are more prone to injury and death from slip-and-falls than they are from driving. To save society the “precious financial and medical resources” Melio claims we need to worry about with motorcyclists, maybe he and all his septuagenarian friends should be prevented from leaving the house without helmets and some padded body armor.

Those Capitol steps sure are steep, Representative Melio. The next time you go rushing downstairs to a committee hearing on motorcycle safety, I hope your chin-strap is snug and your body armor secure. If not, well, geez, why should my health-care dollars chip in for your busted hip?