Biker groups press an anti-helmet fight

Motorcyclists without helmets converged in Harrisburg during an earlier fight against mandatory headgear. (Associated Press, File)
Motorcyclists without helmets converged in Harrisburg during an earlier fight against mandatory headgear. (Associated Press, File)
Posted: June 11, 2012

WASHINGTON - In a highly touted safety achievement, deaths on the nation's roads and highways have fallen sharply in recent years, to the lowest total in more than half a century. But motorcyclists have missed out on that dramatic improvement, and the news for them has been increasingly grim.

So it might be no surprise that biker groups are upset with Washington. The twist is what they are asking lawmakers and regulators to do: Back away from promoting or enforcing requirements for safe helmets, the most effective way known to save bikers' lives.

Fatalities from motorcycle crashes have more than doubled since the mid-1990s. The latest figures show these accidents taking about 4,500 lives a year, or one in seven U.S. traffic deaths.

Yet if the biker groups' lobbyists and congressional allies have their way, the nation's chief traffic cop - the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA - will be thwarted in its efforts to reduce the body count. The agency would be blocked from providing any more grants to states to conduct highway stops of motorcyclists to check for safety violations such as wearing helmets that don't meet federal standards.

Beyond that, the rider groups are seeking to preserve what is essentially a gag rule that since 1998 has prevented NHTSA from advocating safety measures at the state and local levels, including promoting lifesaving helmet laws. And the bikers' lobbyists, backed by grassroots activists and an organization whose members include a "Who's Who" of motorcycle manufacturers, already have derailed a measure lawmakers envisioned to reinstate financial penalties for states lacking helmet laws.

Those moves by bikers' groups are partly intended to maintain their clout in state legislatures, which have kept rolling back motorcycle helmet regulations for three decades. With Michigan's repeal in April of its nearly 50-year-old helmet requirement, only 19 states, including New Jersey, have helmet laws covering all riders, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. (Pennsylvania's law covers riders 20 and younger.) In the late 1970s, by contrast, 47 states had such requirements.

"This is . . . an interesting and dangerous road they are going down," said Jackie Gillan, president of the Washington-based nonprofit Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "They are so emboldened now, not only do they try to repeal laws and stop them from being enacted, they try to stop the hands of law enforcement, saying you cannot use grant money to have motorcycle checkpoints. Can you imagine if they said the same thing about sobriety checkpoints?"

Biker groups, contending that helmet laws curtail personal freedom, say the federal government should instead emphasize rider training to prevent crashes from happening in the first place.

But it is far from clear that training does anything to reduce crashes or deaths. A 2007 Indiana study, for instance, found that riders who completed a basic training course were 44 percent more likely to be involved in an accident than untrained riders. Researchers speculated that the courses gave riders unwarranted confidence, and that they ended up taking more risks.

Even if training pays off, public health advocates argue that relying on it exclusively would be equivalent to, in the automotive world, exempting people who take a driver's education course from requirements to use seat belts or to put children in car seats.

Mandatory helmet laws are widely considered the closest thing to a silver bullet that regulators have to thwart deadly accidents. NHTSA estimates that helmets saved 1,483 lives in 2009, and that an additional 732 deaths could have been avoided if all riders had worn them. The social costs of the carnage are also huge: A 2008 agency estimate concluded that $1.3 billion in medical bills and lost productivity would have been saved if all bikers had worn helmets.

The paradox between what biker groups are lobbying for vs. what most safety experts say really works riles regulators and other public health advocates.

"You cannot be in this battle and not be frustrated by this senselessness," said Michael Dabbs, president of the Brain Injury Association of Michigan.

That motorcyclists have evaded the kind of regulation that has made seat belts and car seats standard equipment in other motor vehicles shows the influence of a vocal minority of riders whose libertarian message seems to resonate more than ever with lawmakers inside and outside the Beltway. And their efforts receive support from the leading motorcycle manufacturers. Manufacturers generally endorse the use of helmets, but, loath to offend their customers, they are also an important dues-paying membership bloc in the American Motorcyclist Association, which is an ardent opponent of helmet laws.

The rider lobby's powerful friends include Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.), whose state is home to Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson Inc. He has led efforts in the House to block NHTSA from promoting state and local safety measures and using federal funds for motorcycle checkpoints.

Motorcycle groups have become better organized and funded, roaring to life with Washington lobbyists and thousands of grassroots volunteers to fight helmet requirements on the federal and state levels.

The American Motorcyclist Association - whose corporate members include Harley-Davidson and North American divisions of Yamaha, Kawasaki, Honda, and Suzuki - has spent $3.8 million lobbying Congress on helmet laws and other issues over the last decade, while doling out more than $200,000 in campaign contributions to members, according to OpenSecrets.org, a database run by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. The Motorcycle Riders Foundation spent $2.1 million in lobbying during the same period.

As more riders have gotten on the road and the number of states with mandatory helmet laws has declined, biker deaths have soared. The death toll climbed from 2,116 in 1997 to 4,502 in 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available.

The victims last year included Caroline Found, 17, of Iowa City, Iowa, who died after she lost control of her moped and struck a tree. They also included Philip Contos, 55, who was killed while participating in a rally to protest the state's mandatory helmet law. Police say Contos, who resided near Syracuse, N.Y., would have survived had he been obeying the law.

Contos' death attracted widespread media attention, although friends say he would have been repulsed by the idea that he had become a poster boy for helmet laws.

Four teenage friends of Found, motivated by her death, launched a campaign to persuade the Iowa legislature to enact a helmet law. (Along with Illinois and New Hampshire, Iowa allows riders of all ages to shun helmets.) Their bid fell short.

"It is getting to the point where we're going to have to bubble-wrap everyone just to protect them from everything," a state legislator told the young activists, explaining his opposition to a ban. "I think there's got to be some common sense here."

Helmet advocates say the public ends up getting ripped off when it has to pick up the tab for health costs associated with catastrophic accidents.

"If you don't wear a helmet, and you sustain a moderate to severe injury that doesn't kill you, you are going to be a drain on society for the rest of your life," said Thomas J. Esposito, chief of the Division of Trauma, Surgical Critical Care and Burns at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago.

NHTSA now faces opposition to motorcycle checkpoints. The agency in 2010 earmarked $350,000 to help state police set up stops to check motorcyclists for safety violations. One intent is to crack down on so-called novelty helmets, which do not meet federal standards but account for an estimated one in five of the helmets riders wear. The helmets have become popular because they are lightweight and come in various styles - and because they can keep police away in states that mandate helmet use.

Motorcycle activists again found a sympathetic ear in Sensenbrenner, who introduced legislation to end federal funding of motorcycle-only roadside checkpoints. The anti-checkpoint measure may be considered by a House-Senate conference committee currently working on a long-term surface transportation bill.

"These checkpoints are not an effective use of taxpayer money," Sensenbrenner said, in a prepared statement in response to questions. "Motorcycle-only checkpoints force law enforcement officials to play 'nanny state' to all riders rather than focusing on those who are endangering themselves and others on the road, and do not address the factors that contribute to motorcycle crashes."

Biker groups raise similar points.

"The federal government says all day long: 'You guys are a huge problem. You are killing yourselves out there. You need to start wearing helmets.' But then they do not want to put resources" toward training and accident prevention, said Jeff Hennie, a Washington-based lobbyist for the Motorcycle Riders Foundation.

Doctors such as Esposito who provide care for the people hurt in those crashes, though, are sometimes mystified about why riders don't take it upon themselves to wear safe helmets for their own protection.

Asked whether he often thinks about how a patient with a head injury could have avoided his plight simply by wearing a helmet, Esposito replied: "All the time."


Rick Schmitt wrote this article

for FairWarning ( www.fairwarning.org), a nonprofit, online investigative news organization focused on safety and health issues.

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