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Motorcycle Helmets

Before adjourning for the summer on Friday, the Missouri House and the Senate approved legislation that would require only motorcycle riders under the age of 18 to wear protective headgear. 

(AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

If Gov. Mike Parson signs a bill to remove Missouri’s motorcycle helmet requirement, it will cost lives. That’s virtually undebatable. Missouri currently requires all riders and passengers on motorcycles to wear helmets. The Legislature passed a bill this session to make the rule apply only to riders under age 18, allowing adults to ride with the wind in their hair — and, in some cases, inevitably, their brains on the asphalt.

While America has steadily moved toward near-universal seat belt laws for years, trends in motorcycle helmet laws have been all over the road. Helmets-for-all laws like Missouri’s are currently in force in 19 states. Almost 30 others require them only for minors, leaving the vast majority of riders unprotected.

With states variously loosening and tightening their helmet laws over the years, it’s possible to track trends in helmet effectiveness that essentially confirm common sense. As the Post-Dispatch’s Kurt Erickson reported Wednesday, Texas alone has been a case study in the difference helmets make.

The Lone Star State saw a 35 percent jump in motorcycle fatalities after it did what Missouri is contemplating. In 1977, the state changed its universal-helmet law to cover only minors. When Texas reinstated its universal helmet law in 1989, deaths dropped by 11 percent. When it again changed the law in 1997 to cover only riders younger than 21, deaths again jumped, by 31 percent.

Helmet-law opponents argue numbers like that merely reflect fewer riders riding where there are helmet laws, and that helmets can cause accidents by impeding riders’ vision. Neither claim has much validity, studies have found.

But the primary argument made against helmet laws isn’t about data, anyway. It’s about the philosophical premise that people have the right to increase their risk of death if they want to. As one Missouri anti-helmet lobbyist told the Post-Dispatch: “It’s about freedom.”

However, the implication that going helmetless affects only the rider is a myth. A study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the societal costs of motorcycle accidents — costs like immediate and long-term medical expenses that often get passed onto the taxpayers, lost productivity for the economy and higher insurance rates for everyone — are demonstrably higher in motorcycle accidents with unhelmeted riders.

The reason is simple: With unhelmeted riders, head trauma is more often part of the equation. “For victims of serious head injury,” the report says, “acute hospital care might be only the first stage of a long and costly treatment program. For many crash victims, lost wages from missed work days will outweigh medical costs.”

As Parson decides what to do with this legislation, he should imagine how he would come down on a bill seeking to give Missourians a specific legal right to publicly engage in games of Russian roulette. Because that’s effectively what this bill does.