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Commentary

When they don't wear helmets, we pay

Jack Lessenberry

When news came yesterday morning that State Representative Peter Pettalia had died in a motorcycle crash, the first question everybody I knew asked was: Was he wearing a helmet?

Pettalia was a key player in the successful drive four years ago to repeal the law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets. Turns out that he was wearing a helmet at the time of the tragedy, which evidently was not his fault. The brutal fact is that if you are going to collide with a heavy, vast-moving vehicle, a motorcycle, unlike a car, offers almost no protection.

... it is an indisputable fact that repealing the helmet law has caused more deaths.

But though a helmet wasn’t a factor in Pettalia’s death, it is an indisputable fact that repealing the helmet law has caused more deaths. Five years ago, 109 motorcyclists were killed on Michigan roads; only five weren’t wearing helmets. Last year, the total number killed was 138. And 56 of those weren’t wearing helmets. The insurance industry predicted this.

They knew what would happen from data in other states. But the politicians did not care. As Pettalia himself said at the time, they saw it as a matter of freedom.

But, as they used to say, the freedom to swing your fist stops where the other fellow’s nose begins. This isn’t just a matter of irresponsible drivers crashing and leaving families behind.

Not every helmetless driver dies when they crash. Some suffer crippling head injuries.

Just last week, the University of Michigan released a new study it conducted with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

They looked only at the last year before the helmet law was repealed and the first year after repeal. They found that the fatality rate among drivers who didn’t wear helmets was about twice as high as among those who did.

But they also found a significant 14% spike in the number of trauma patients with head injuries in the year after repeal. The number of motorcycle drivers with skull fractures was up 38%. And the cost of treating the injured also skyrockets.

... the cost of care given to unhelmeted riders averaged about $28,000.

Earlier this year, the Journal of Surgery published a study of a single Michigan trauma center, and found the cost of care given to unhelmeted riders averaged about $28,000, one-third more than the cost of caring for riders who did wear helmets.

The law does require those who ride without helmets to have at least $20,000 in extra insurance coverage.

But when you are looking at severe head trauma, how far will $20,000 go?

Some, we don’t know how many, will have brain injuries that will leave them significantly incapacitated for life. If you are wondering who will bear the cost of their care, the answer is you.

You and me and all of us who have insurance.

That’s the way it works.

Naturally, there are those who claim the increase in motorcycle deaths has nothing to do with the repeal of the helmet law, that people are just riding more.

I used to hear similar arguments about smoking from tobacco lobbyists.

The fact is that some motorcycle riders have died and others been brain-damaged who would not have been if they’d been made to wear a helmet, and we’re all paying for it.

You might ask yourself if that’s all right with you.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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