Without Solid Crash Data, Helmet Dispute Is Worthless

NewsJournal editorials are just as little likely to tighten motorcycle safety as the legislature is likely to improve education: The intentions are admirable, but the decisional brushstrokes are too coarse to be truly helpful.

Helmets may indeed save some lives; however, the increased inertia of head turning, the impaired auditory sensations, and the shrunk peripheral vision may also increase the likelihood of accidents. I have great sympathy for the view that automobile drivers cause most accidents involving motorcycles, my one and only accident having been caused by a young student-driver who thought that the red light required speeding up instead of stopping, and whose guiding Mom was too busy chatting with others in the car to admonish the driver otherwise. But such a determination of guilt is little helpful when I have to live with my own injuries afterwards. The goal here is accident avoidance, not guilt diminishment by slapping some helmets on other people’s heads or some guilt on other people’s conscience.

So, the question is how best to avoid accidents. And that question is not answered by intermittent cries of “Helmet!” and “No helmet!” We must evolve some greater sophistication here.

I could simply assert that helmetless riding is a victimless crime just as seatbelt-less driving would be a victimless crime. In other words, if I decide to ride helmetless, I am the only person affected by that decision because I am the only likely victim if the decision were to have been the wrong one. Traditionally, our society has no right to limit by law what is in my private domain. Victimless crime is decidedly in the private domain. I make decisions about my life, not everyone else.

Hospital cost, however, victimizes all others also by my exercise of faulty judgment, my opponents will be quick to argue. And yet, this reflection does generally not enter into what we think about what we eat—obesity claiming many lives, what we drink—alcohol claiming as many lives, what we smoke—tobacco having been established solidly of taking lives, and what we believe—religions and ideologies having caused many wrong-minded deaths. Also those sundry ways may be erroneous and yet we respect the privacy of decision-making here. Besides, the high cost of emergency rooms, as recently stated by another letter to the editor of the NewsJournal, derives from our society’s shirking its responsibility of providing affordable health-care to all, not from an onslaught of helmetlessly injured motorcyclists.

Given all the uncertainties about the benefit of helmets, I would conclude that only the individual rider may be able to decide what works best for him or her. What risks individuals take in his or her life is obviously not the decision of the society the individual lives in. Surely we do not want to forbid parachuting, hang-gliding, Bunji jumping, etc. merely because to some of us these activities look awfully dangerous? Risk-taking behavior for pleasure has a firmly established tradition in our culture, else roller-coasters would have gone the way of the dodo long ago. If I should indulge myself here with a slippery slope, I might argue that ultimately that kind of thinking is likely to lead to safe couches with virtual-reality hook-ups, the safest kind of environment one is likely to find anywhere.

What we can do, however, as a society is to make sure that risk-takers are fully informed. Motorcycle-safety experts Risto Kaivola of Finland and H. Ecker of Austria suggest a close analysis of each accident to determine causation and circumstances (http://www.msf-usa.org/imsc/proceedings/a-Kortesuo-FatalMotorcycleAccidentsinFinland1986-1995.pdf and http://www.msf-usa.org/imsc/proceedings/c-Ecker-CaseStudiesandWhattoLearnfromThem.pdf). And we have a pattern to follow here. With every plane crash, the folks from the National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB] get busy analyzing each detail that may have led to the crash. I suspect that aviation has such an excellent safety record precisely because such exhaustive analyses. I submit that what is right for the wealthy with planes is also right for the middle class with other vehicles.

In fact, if we were to go general with such an analysis for each crash on our roads, we might have found out much earlier about the BIC-lighter condition of the Pinto, about the Bridgestone-Firestone tire splitting, and about the rollovers of the SUV-trucks. If such thorough analyses determine that careless driving of automobiles is at fault with motorcycle accidents, then we should probably tighten the standards of vehicle licenses and of the examinations that lead to them. If such analyses point to a weakness in the design of vehicles or safety equipment, then those standards must be tweaked. But these shouting matches about helmets are silly in the extreme without such thorough analyses.