It was unnerving and tragic happenstance that two Waterford Township motorcyclists lost their lives in road accidents just days before the Spinal Column Newsweekly published its April 13 edition. Our News Department staff had planned to include an article in that edition about bills introduced in Lansing to revise the state’s mandatory helmet law for motorcyclists, well before Matthew Bryan Ortega and Larry Dwayne Sears were fatally injured in separate accidents along M-59 last weekend. Likewise, in completing our new “We’re Asking … ” weekly feature for that edition, SCN photographer Amy Lockard and staff writer Angela Neimi ventured into the community to ask people what they think about making helmet use optional for most riders, a task they performed before Ortega and Sears died only a handful of miles and a day apart from each other. We offer our condolences to Ortega and Sears’ families and friends.
Repealing or overhauling Michigan’s helmet law has become a perennial issue in Lansing, one of those that get raised at the start of every new legislative session for as long as one can remember. Such proposals typically generate a lot of debate, but little action from legislators. Then, in 2006 and 2008, both chambers approved reform bills — only to be thwarted by Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s veto pen.
Not many folks are going to argue that wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle provides some level of protection in the event of an accident — but it’s not a silver bullet that can ward off injury and death, as both Ortega and Sears, for example, were wearing helmets when they died. It’s a good bet that a lot of the bikers who passionately rail against the helmet law would concede that a helmet offers some protection; but, for them, the issue should be a matter of personal choice.
They’re right. After all, you suffer no harm and your safety isn’t the least bit jeopardized if I ride without a helmet. So it’s no one’s business but mine whether I wear a helmet.
Now, the common response to that and the chief argument for maintaining the status quo is that lifting the helmet requirement will surely result in more injuries and deaths, which in turn would force all motorists to pay more for insurance. Those are reasonable expectations, but I question whether the latter really needs to be the case.
I’m not a biker — never have been and probably never will be. I’ve had a few experiences on motorcycles, and I can appreciate the machines as functional pieces of art. They can take you bye-bye with a pretty hefty measure of “cool” and, when done right, they have undeniable aesthetic value.
It’s rare that I get the opportunity to climb on a bike for a ride, either as driver or passenger. When the chance arises, you can bet your sweet bippy I’m wearing a helmet. I want to protect my head as much as possible. Riding bare-headed seems far too risky to me. I want to increase the odds that I’ll dismount with all my mental faculties and physical capabilities, not lower my odds of living a “normal” life.
But hey, that’s me. That’s my choice. Well, no one really has a choice in this state, but they should. And that’s the whole point.
I’ve asked family members and friends who do ride motorcycles why they would want to risk their lives and health by riding without a helmet. They say riding bare-headed is an exhilarating experience — the wind in your hair, unobscured panoramic vistas, blah-blah-blah. They say riding with a helmet doesn’t come close to comparing to the sensations that come with riding without a helmet.
Fine. I don’t get it, but I don’t need to get it. It’s none of my business — and it shouldn’t be the state’s — whether one rides with or without a helmet because it has no direct impact on me or you. A biker riding without a helmet doesn’t threaten our safety or welfare.
It’s at this point in the debate that the nay-sayers point to dramatically higher injury and fatality rates, and insurance premiums to match for one and all that will follow if the state allows riders to make a choice.
So why not make additional changes in state law, if need be, so that scenario doesn’t become a reality? Empower individual insurance companies to determine whether they provide coverage to a helmetless rider. Better yet, if they can’t already, allow insurance companies to put a cap on what they’ll pay out if a bare-headed rider is maimed or killed in an accident; or let the insurance provider charge higher premiums for coverage than those who choose to wear a helmet. Make it clear to riders that there’s going to be a financial cost to making the decision to ride without a helmet, so each rider can consider that as they make their choice. Creating an environment where all that can happen eliminates the argument that we’ll all pay so motorcyclists can exercise a choice.
It will be interesting to see how the new, GOP-controlled Michigan Legislature handles the issue this time around. On the one hand, Republicans have an opportunity to live up to their own hype as being champions of personal liberty by making helmet use optional for most riders. Then again, the GOP in this state has a fairly consistent track record of kissing up to the insurance industry, which strongly opposes any change in the helmet law.
Here’s an out for Republicans who may feel caught in a pickle: Tap into that laissez faire jazz you so often like to trumpet. Let the market dictate what kind of insurance coverage helmetless riders can get and what that will cost.
I’ll admit I’m a little uneasy about Lansing puckering up again and giving the insurance racket — er, industry — free reign on anything, let alone things as basic as whether one will be insured and at what cost. But, the older I get, the more irritated I become over the nanny-state mentality embraced by so many of our brothers and sisters serving in the state and federal capitols. The government doesn’t always know what’s best for me and mine. Believe it or not, we’re able to make our own decisions in matters that don’t affect our neighbors.
Let me know if you’re with me … or where I’m wrong.