"Freedom" for Motorcycle Riders Isn't Worth the Risk

By: Morgan Gaynor

A recent Tampa Bay Times column by Sue Carlton noted that a Florida lawmaker introduced a bill to once again require motorcycle riders to wear helmets. She cited findings on how helmets protect riders from death and brain injuries, wryly concluding that sometimes the law really does need to protect us from ourselves.

There’s an even larger point here which deserves some elaboration.

When lawmakers repealed the requirement for riders to wear helmets, they did so with a condition. The condition was that riders carry $10,000 of insurance to protect themselves in case of accident. People who didn’t get the insurance were supposed to keep wearing helmets.

That was a great idea in theory, but it didn’t work out in practice. In our experience, most bike riders don’t comply with this requirement. We’ve seen more cases than we can count where motorcycle riders were injured while riding without helmets, but did not have any motorcycle insurance.

In fact, most of those riders profess shock when they’re told that they’re legally required to have insurance if they ride bare-headed. Most say they’ve never heard of such a thing. They also have no idea of how to get such insurance if they do want it.

Even if everyone who wanted to shuck the helmet actually got the required insurance, there would still be a big problem. A head injury suffered by a rider can burn up $10,000 in an hour or less. A trip to the ER with x-rays, CT scans, and other head injury tests now routinely exceeds that amount.

Just taking a ride to a trauma center on a life flight helicopter costs $40,000 to $60,000 these days. That means an injured rider would be “upside down” four to six times over before any real treatment starts.

This is to say nothing of any follow-up care one might need for a head injury, such as visits to a neurologist, therapy, or prescriptions. Experience tells us that long-term treatment for a moderate or serious head injury often costs several hundred thousand dollars or more.

Furthermore, these types of possible medical bills are for head injuries alone. In reality, motorcycle riders injured on their bikes often receive multiple injuries, such as broken bones, road rash, and ligament tears. Although those types of injuries aren’t prevented by helmets, the fact remains that the costs of caring for those injuries have to be paid for somehow too.

There’s no question that requiring bikers to wear helmets again wouldn’t solve all these problems. Nonetheless, there’s a strong argument that motorcycle riders should give up a little bit of freedom to protect themselves from the mental and financial fallout from head injuries. We have laws against many things which are unreasonably dangerous, such as drunken or reckless driving, because we recognize that the freedom to do those things isn’t worth the social cost. It’s difficult from a cost-benefit standpoint to see why this is any different.

Under the current system, many uninsured riders end up with bills they can’t pay, which requires government benefits to pick up the tab. That cost, as we all know, is ultimately borne by the taxpayers. That’s a high price for all of us to pay so that riders can feel the wind in their hair when they get on their bikes.

A hard-core libertarian would respond by saying that government benefits should not pay those uninsured charges either. There are few of us in the real world, however, who’d be hard enough to turn a brain-injured motorcyclist away from the emergency room and let them die. It thus becomes a question of who will pay this cost, rather than whether it will be incurred.

The bottom line is that we all have to sacrifice some liberty on the road. It doesn’t make sense that we have to wear seat belts inside our cars, but don’t have to wear helmets when we get on a motorcycle. Given what we now know about traumatic brain injuries and their associated costs, the case is strong for requiring riders to put on their helmets again.

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