Mandatory Helmet Laws

Yesterday I mentioned that anti-helmet law arguments were “so bad and so stupid” they’re actually pushing me to oppose them. This may not be a very fun post for non-motorcyclists to read and for that I apologize, but any time a lobbying group’s talking points are so terrible they turn a would-be supporter against them I think it’s worth examining. Biker’s Rights Online, I’m talking to you.

It’s worth noting that I’m already an ATGATT guy- All The Gear, All The Time. The more I ride, the less I understand the cruiser crowd in bandannas, sunglasses and nary a bit of CE-rated armor to be found in their leathers. But I still bristled when I moved to Las Vegas in 2011 and discovered Nevada had a mandatory helmet law. I wear my gear by choice, and it just rubbed my rebellious nature the wrong way to be ordered to wear it. I should be the perfect spokesman for a group like Biker’s Rights. It’s been living in flyover country with the helmetless masses, reading anti-helmet law arguments, and maybe even getting married (worrying about someone else’s noggin beside my own) that’s changed my views. I still don’t know if I’m actually in favor of helmet laws, but I just can’t work up the give-a-damn enough to oppose them anymore.

So let’s tear apart the opposition talking points.

Myth #1. Helmets impede vision and hearing. I’ve ridden with helmets and I’ve ridden without and this is complete and utter bull****.

  • Tackling hearing first, the wind roar over a bare ear is FAR more deafening and impedes hearing other traffic and road hazards (to say nothing of long-term hearing damage from sustained exposure). A proper helmet dulls the roar of the wind so you can actually hear what’s happening through it: like road noise  from neighboring vehicles tires, engines and exhausts, or even an unexpected noise that could be an early indicator of a mechanical problem. I’ve got a convertible, and it’s the exact same thing when the top is up vs. top down; open air is fun and great, but it impedes hearing. Helmets help you hear better, and anti-helmet folks are either lying or so woefully ignorant they should just quit talking.
  • Saying helmets impede vision is just as silly. Anti-helmet buffoons claim they obscure peripheral vision. DOT, Snell, and ECE require a minimum of 105° visibility. The average human can only use 90° of that sideways vision. So again, anti-helmet folks are lying or ignorant. And even a high school level understanding of physics (“nature abhors a vacuum”, venturi effect, etc.) should make it clear that sunglasses are poor eye protection. Goggles also obstruct peripheral vision. So really, the least intrusive and best vision protection is inarguably a full face helmet.
An old Buell ad. You know, the company Harley killed? Click to embiggen.

An old Buell ad. You know, the company Harley killed? Click to embiggen.

Myth #2. The added weight of a helmet contributes to neck injury. This is the one I think I find most reaching, ridiculous, desperate, and shows anti-helmet folks to be idiots devoid of critical thinking skills. Too harsh? Not really. While the anti-helmet crowd will say things like “there’s not enough data” or “we need more/better studies” the fact is there are LOTS of plainly evident incidents in MotoGP, World Superbike, and any other racing series. These guys wipe out all the time, and they tend to not die instantly of a broken neck. When I wrecked my Ducati, a full face helmet saved my face and teeth. Did it hurt my neck? I don’t know, because I’d just crashed a motorcycle and I hurt everywhere. But I didn’t sustain any lasting neck injuries and I did keep my pretty mouth intact (evidenced by deep gouges in the helmet from sliding down the road). Claims of neck injury are a desperate and pathetic “what if?” that completely ignore the very real certainty of smacking one’s head or face into the ground.

Myth #3. Helmets don’t reduce crashes, only ridership (and therefore crashes). The thing is, while the rebuttals of Myth #1 make it at least possible that helmets could reduce crashes, I’ve never heard a mandatory helmet law advocate make that claim. The pro-helmet law claim is that helmets reduce fatalities, which is demonstrably and unquestionably true. Anti-helmet folks are intentionally interchanging “crash” for “fatality”, obscuring the argument, and it’s just plain dishonest. (It should also be added that mandatory helmet laws could potentially deter theft. Most theft is a crime of opportunity, so unless a thief just happened to be walking around with a helmet he’d be picked up by cops whilst trying to ride away. This doesn’t stop the pickup truck method.)

Myth #4. Helmets don’t protect at speed. Again, let’s just reference motorcycle racing, shall we? Bikers Rights Online advises people to quote Snell, saying they can’t protect from an impact over 23 miles per hour. Who knew that MotoGP was so slow?!?! The problem with this very, very stupid argument is that they ignore even the most rudimentary physics yet again. Drop one baseball straight down, fire another one 90° from an equal height at 100 mph, and they impact at the ground same time. Therefore, the actual impact speed of a helmet to the ground is calculated only from the height at which it begins its descent. And even at six feet above the ground, say on a big and tall adventure bike, that impact speed is less than 15 mph. (I used WolframAlpha and Splat Calculator. Falling acceleration in Earth’s gravity is about 32 feet per second per second, for those that don’t remember.)

Again, I’m not yet actively in favor of mandatory helmet laws. It simply strikes me a common sense thing. In a world where we all wear our seatbelts, why wouldn’t we all wear helmets?! Of course, I also fail to understand wearing leather without CE armor. I bet anti-helmet riders would find a “lid” less hot and stuffy if they’d try some textile riding gear instead of poorly ventilated leather, but I digress.

The more I read Bikers Rights Online (whom I won’t do the courtesy of linking to), the more tin-foil hat conspiracy garbage I see. Phrases like “follow the money” and “they won’t tell us about neck injury” and claims of disinformation just make anti-helmet folks look like nutcases and their arguments are moronic. They claim they’re “seen as anti-social, public burdens, scofflaws, ‘scary’, etc.” but I would argue they’re seen that way not as an unfair characterisation but because of the way they behave. Loud pipes are another contributing factor to this negative image, and while rude levels of exhaust noise is a topic for another essay, it is an example of behavior being the problem in the way some motorcyclists are viewed. It’s not the helmets, no matter how Bikers Rights wants to portray themselves as victims. It’s the image they cultivate, manufacture, and bring onto themselves.

Clearly, from the strength of their arguments the anti-helmet advocates don’t have much gray matter worth protecting anyway. Maybe that’s why they take the stance they do. All I know is I’d gladly take a nationwide mandatory helmet law in exchange for lane splitting and filtering. If anybody fighting helmet laws really cared about safety, they’d put their efforts into lobbying for motorcyclist’s right to actively avoid getting hit by inattentive drivers.

10 thoughts on “Mandatory Helmet Laws

  1. Eric, I’ll have to agree with you in part and disagree with you in part. Yes, some of the arguments from the anti-helmet law groups just make me roll my eyes a bit. But that doesn’t change my opinion that it shouldn’t be government mandated what safety equipment I wear.

    Maybe it’s a little but hypocritical of me – I would never, ever, ever ride in shorts, and I strongly encourage riders to wear long pants, its just stupid to ride a motorcycle in shorts. BUT, I wear a novelty “beanie” style helmet that is just enough to keep me from getting pulled over for no helmet (I’m in CA), and when I rode to AZ, as soon as I crossed the border my helmet came off. But I’m not foolish enough to claim its safer to wear no helmet or to wear a beanie helmet. It’s purely a matter of comfort (and honestly a bit of rebellion – since the govt is telling me I have to wear a helmet I don’t want to). On the other hand, when my kids ride with me, they are absolutely wearing a full-faced, DOT approved, helmet.

    Yes, it only makes sense to wear a helmet when cruising at 70 MPH surrounded by cars paying more attention to their phones than they are to their surroundings, with nothing but the asphalt to break my fall. But, I don’t want the nanny state government to tell me what I should do for my own well-being. Period. If I want to be more comfortable by wearing no helmet or a minimalist helmet, and pose no risk to anyone but myself, and knowingly accept the risk that I might turn the contents of my head into a smoothie, that’s no business of your’s or the state of California.
    Notably, I was fortunately wearing a full-face helmet when I crashed as a teenager and used my protected face to break my fall at 70 MPH. Don’t think I’d be typing this right now if I hadn’t been wearing adequate head protection. If I lived in a state that gave me a choice, I’d admittedly still ride sometimes without a “lid” but I’d likely invest in a quality helmet and at least wear it on the highway. We all have to decide what risks we’re willing to accept in life. In the summer, I ride in jeans, a light shirt, and a leather vest, with fingerless gloves and my beanie helmet. I’ve weighed the risks and balanced them against my desire to be comfortable when riding an average of 30k miles a year, and decided what risks I’m willing to accept.
    My point is, and I’m surprised that you are equivocal about it, that it’s my choice, and it’s not the state’s duty to determine what’s good for me, and what safety equipment I should use.
    – Bill R.

    • Bill, I don’t disagree with you, other than having the sneaking suspicion you ride a cruiser by choice. 😉

      There’s no good argument for infringing upon the right of an individual. Like I said, despite being an ATGATT guy, I bristled at helmet laws in NV. My last deployment in Afghanistan was with a guy that actually lobbied against helmets, believed they were more dangerous, etc. All this essay is supposed to reflect is how ridiculous their arguments are.

      Quite literally, the ONLY argument that can be made is the issue of personal freedom. I like personal freedom. I wish we had more of it so I didn’t have to bite my tongue when somebody calls America “the land of the free”. I just don’t know if that can be a winning argument in today’s culture. Sad, but true. We live in a day and age where people take a debate about banning sodas that are “too large” like a serious topic. When the gov’t is reaching that level of interference in our lives…? At least helmets have a demonstrable benefit.

      I’m still not in favor of forcing people to wear helmets by law. I think I’m mostly just flabbergasted that people make the choice to go without.

  2. Reblogged this on Motorbike Writer and commented:
    It’s about time we had a mature debate in Australia about lane-splitting and filtering. It’s legal in places like California and encouraged in England to free up traffic. Why are Australian authorities so much against it? Are they just jealous that motorcyclists don’t have to be caught in traffic jams?

  3. I have a rather bald head so a helmet is just a very safe Sun Umbrella. Its funny because when I rode a Harley for some reason I rarely wore my helmet. Now I ride an FJR and for some reason, I always wear a 3/4 DOT Approved Helmet. Now that I am older, I may not be smarter but have gained some wisdom along the journey of life. This wisdom has given me the insight that Helmets are the right thing to do. Now when I ride, I would feel naked without my Helmet.
    I watched your video about lane splitting and man we need to have this legal across the country.

  4. I don’t ride but a coworker does. He was going 50mph when a deer jumped into the front of his bike. He was wearing a full face helmet and that is what he landed and slid on after killing the deer with his shoulder as he was ejected. He walked into work the next day. No helmet and he would have had no head.

  5. Pingback: Pinlock | eric.r.shelton

  6. Agreed. I don’t need bureaucrats to protect me from my self. At the same time (and assume no one else does). At the same time, I wear my seat belt and a helmet every time I ride (Ohio doesn’t have a mandatory helmet law*); but if other people want to make the gene pool deeper… well…

    That being said, trading lane splitting for mandatory helmets… that’s through provoking.

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