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The Debate Over Mandatory Motorcycle Helmet Laws

For those of us who do not ride motorcycles, helmets seem like a no-brainer (no pun intended). Riding a motorcycle is highly dangerous, after all, and helmets have been proven to save lives. However, long-time motorcyclists disagree, and claim that it is young, aggressive, inexperienced bikers who are causing motorcycle accidents and suffering injuries and fatalities as a result. "Why should the risky few ruin it for the rest of us?" these experienced riders ask. Yet, medical professionals and advocates say that the high financial cost of traumatic brain injuries and other common motorcycle injuries renders the lack of mandatory helmet laws a public health issue.

It is largely undisputed that helmets significantly decrease motorcycle accident-related injuries and deaths. Helmets reportedly reduce the risk of death from an accident by 39 percent. Further, a medical study found that motorcyclists who do not wear helmets have a 66 percent risk for a severe brain injury, while the risk of such injuries in helmeted motorcyclists is just 38 percent. Consequently, it costs approximately four times as much to medically treat an unhelmeted biker than it does to treat one who was wearing a helmet at the time of an accident.

But experienced riders' claim that inexperience causes the majority of motorcycle injury and death is not without merit. In general, brain injuries are most common among young men between the ages of 15 and 24. In a study of motorcycle accidents, it was found that two-thirds of crashes studied were primarily caused by motorcyclist error, such as speeding or curving too widely. More than 50 percent of the motor vehicle accidents studied involved riders with less than three years of biking experience.

On the opposing side, medical advocacy groups such as the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons call the lack of a helmet law a 'public health issue'. Almost half of the medical care for unhelmeted riders is paid for out of public funds, a study says. According to a position statement released by the group, "the issues of personal freedom should be seen in the context of the fact that the public at large incurs a major part of the cost for injuries to motorcycle riders. Society must evaluate the claim of infringement on freedom versus the funding of these costs."

Source: The Huffington Post, "Head Injuries: Why Motorcycle and Bicycle Helmets Should Be Mandatory", Richard C. Senelick, 27 November 2010

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