Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why Helmet Laws Turn Safety on its Head

Schuberth makes a comfy helmet. 
Its my choice.
There are two motorcycle helmet bills currently before the New Mexico Legislature. These will be heard on Tuesday. One is SB308 and the other SB327. One bill mandates helmets and sets a $300 penalty for a first offense. One includes a "buy out option" allowing a motorcyclist to opt out of a helmet by paying an annual registration fee of $692, calculated to reflect the costs of helmetless riders to the public. While I support wearing helmets and wish I had been wearing one on a fateful day in 1979**, I do not support these bills in their present context. They do nothing to prevent crashes, instead transferring to the crash victim (and a little bit of plastic and styrofoam) the job of crash survival.

Note. Today, 2/24, according to the New Mexican, the Senate Public Affairs Committee killed both bills.A version of this blog post had been sent to the members of the Public Affairs Committee, as testimony, over the weekend.

A helmet law turns safety on its head. A high quality (Snell Memorial Foundation, etc) and properly fitted helmet can protect from or mitigate impacts that can cause skull fracture or traumatic brain injury. But like any form of personal protective equipment (PPE), a helmet is a last line of defense. One's main line of defense is to avoid the crash, because a helmet will not protect against all brain impacts and does nothing to protect the rest of your body from potentially catastrophic crash injury(1). Crash avoidance includes training, good roadway engineering, research into how people crash, and policies (law enforcement, insurance premiums) that reward good behavior and penalize the bad. It is therefore exasperating to the motorcycle community that the same Senate that wants to require helmets has refused, repeatedly, to require greater roadway accountability via enhanced penalties for careless drivers who injure or kill. There is yet another enhanced penalty bill in the hopper this year, SB 651.

David Anderson's Ghost Bike
The penalties proposed are disproportional to the act. Texting drivers who create dangerous conditions on the road are fined $25, when the law is enforced at all. Other moving violations that raise risks likewise have paltry penalties. Miranda Pacheco, who killed bicyclist David Anderson while driving carelessly (she lost control of her car on Paseo del Norte, went over an embankment, and killed Anderson as he cycled on a nearby bike path), was subject to the same fine as the proposed first offense of not wearing a helmet, $300. Thankfully, she got a little jail time too. Very little.

This bill will do nothing to change the deadly driving culture in New Mexico that extracts a staggering cost to New Mexicans, most of which has nothing to do with motorcycle use. While physicians Fleegler and Nolte suggest that helmetless riders may cost New Mexicans $40 million per year, that is not even a blip compared to what dangerous driving costs the public (note added later: The NM Legislature, in its fiscal impact report on 327, suggests that NM would save $48 per registered motorcycle. In the fiscal impact on 308, it claims 63,000 registered motorcycles. Multiplying these, you get $3,024,000. Hmmm). The New Mexico Dept. of Transportation (pg. 173) puts the annual human cost of traffic crashes at about 1.4 billion dollars and the total costs at over 3 billion.  Interestingly, in a post to the Albuquerque Journal, Warren Woodward, the Legislative Chair of Street Bikers United Hawaii, claims that helmet laws don't reduce the death/accident ratio. They just reduce riding. His stuff is here.

Yours Truly...
 As pointed out by NMDOT, (pg. 88) vulnerable users such as bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians are overrepresented in traffic casualty counts, simply because we are not shielded behind tons of steel. New Mexico has a sorry record on this topic, ranking second nationally in the per capita killing of bicyclists. Mandating helmets for those of us on two wheels will not change this, as it puts no burden on others to drive safely.  Only by looking at our lack of a safety culture will we change these dreadful statistics and put helmet use into a proper context, i.e., as the last line of defense under a traffic safety paradigm that ensures those of us with helmets will rarely, if ever, need them.

If the NM State Senate wants to help, it can assist us in working towards a Vision Zero safety culture and by better understanding motorcycling, rather than simply trying to put a helmet on a rider and falsely claiming victory. I am sure we in the moto community would be eager to help.

Ref. (1) "While the use of a motorcycle helmet has been estimated to be 37 percent effective in preventing fatal injuries to motorcyclists who are involved in a highway crash, only 59 percent of motorcyclists who sustained fatal injuries were reported to be wearing a helmet at the time of their crash. (as quoted in Kerns et al)

Other stuff.
NHTSA (2010): The Economic and Societal Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes

 The Economic Impact of Traffic Crashes, M.J. Kittelson, M.S. Thesis, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology, 2010

National Center for Bicycling and Walking Traffic Justice Initiative (2006)

 Vision Zero Initiative

Motorcycle Safety Foundation Research Library

On bicycle helmets, by John S. Allen and the late Sheldon Brown

** Was riding my bicycle to work when a motorist made an unannounced left turn in front of me. Went over the car and onto Mr. Pavement where I was out cold, suffering a TBI.


John H. said...

I wholeheartedly agree that New Mexico needs to build a "culture of safety" and an attitude of modesty. We must also work together to overcome a Southern culture of machismo and inflated self-esteem, especially when coupled with a ton and a half of metal moving at 45+ MPH.

Jon Spangler said...

Well said, Khalil! WE have a similar mandatory bicycle helmet law being proposed here in CA. Your response is far more detailed than mine was to Liu's bill. Permission to steal, please?

Khal said...

By all means, Jon, steal away!

John S. Allen said...

I'll also add that a helmet law can shift the presumption of negligence qway from the person who caused a crash. See the discussion on for a more detailed discussion.

Dr. J said...

Well said Khal, thanks!