Helmets

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WHILE INFORMATION IS unlikely to change a rider’s mind on whether to wear a helmet, perhaps a more educated decision can be rendered. Laws and regulations regarding motorcycles are different from state to state. If you only travel within your home state, you may never be affected by this disparity. But, if you’re planning to hit the road and cross state lines, it’s a good idea to verify laws in the states you’ll be visiting.

Most of us know that helmet laws aren’t universal, but fewer know why. In 1967, states were required by the Federal Highway Act to implement helmet laws to qualify for certain federal funding related to the development of the Interstate highway system. The federal pressure worked and by 1974, every state except California and Illinois had enacted universal motorcycle helmet laws, though no funds were ever withheld. In 1975, several states successfully lobbied Congress to amend the Federal Highway Act to eliminate financial penalties against states without helmet laws and in 1976 President Gerald Ford signed it into law. This allowed each state to enact its own helmet laws.

By 1980, more than half the states had repealed the universal helmet law. Surprisingly, the laws enacted since then don’t differ very much. There is generally either no law, an age-specific law (typically for minors and new licensees) or a universal helmet law (applicable to every rider), but there are some quirks: Delaware requires a helmet “in your possession” and Florida, Kentucky, Michigan and Texas have additional insurance or training requirements.

MY LAW ENFORCEMENT career began in the seaside town of Ocean City, Maryland. Seasonal officers were not provided a ballistic vest. We had the option of purchasing our own, but due to the cost and the uncomfortable hot, humid environment we worked in, few did. I did. I was also aware that a vest could reduce trauma in a collision, not just from an assailant. Later, as a trooper, I was issued a vest from the department and never worked a day without it. A ballistic vest may never be needed, but tasking a fellow officer to notify my loved ones that I died when a vest could have saved me was not how I intended to go. The anger a family experiences when officers put personal comfort over their family’s well-being endures forever. Some of the complaints regarding wearing a vest are as compelling as those against donning a helmet. They’re hot, heavy and uncomfortable. They are not appealing and cumbersome.

Fortunately, I never did need that vest, but I can’t say the same about the helmet. Helmets work. I’ve been spared traumatic brain injuries on three occasions. Besides being an avid motorcyclist, I also snowboard. Twice, while traversing the icy slopes of the northeast, my edge kicked out, landing me on my back with enough force to snap my neck backward. The back of my head struck the ice with enough impact cause a concussion and a temporary blackout, with a helmet on. The third incident was during a funeral escort at about 10 mph when a fellow officer gave a conflicting signal causing the two of us to collide. At impact, I rolled off the bike, my right shoulder impacted the pavement and the right side of my head followed. Helmet to pavement impacts are surprisingly loud. I righted the motor and continued. Later, I found the pavement caused significant damage to the helmet. Thankfully, not to my head.

FREQUENT EXPOSURE TO dicey pastimes dictates that eventually our luck will run out, but we never know when. Engaging in high-risk activities, such as law enforcement, hunting, climbing, sky diving, snowboarding, football or similar activities, typically involves training and safety gear. Even though it’s not always legally required, we train to make fewer mistakes, and gear up for inevitable failure. That might mean a rope and harness, ballistic vest, padded clothing or a helmet. Why wouldn’t everyone do the same when riding a motorcycle? The riskiest activity most people routinely participate in is driving. Motorcyclists are 37 times more likely to be killed in a crash than the other roadway users, because we are less protected. Managing this risk and reducing the likelihood of serious injury or death is relatively easy for novices and experts alike. Perhaps those inconsistent helmet laws indicate an inability to legislate common sense.