Another Chapter in the MI Motorcycle Helmet Debate

The change in seasons has Michigan motorcyclists revving up for open roads again. Another change is the perennial debate whether to allow those over 21 years of age to ride without a helmet, provided that they have $20,000 insurance coverage for first-party medical costs, complete a motorcycle safety course and pay for an annual permit; in addition, unhelmeted motorcyclists must have been licensed for at least two years. Currently, Michigan is one of 20 states to require helmets for all riders.

Adult Choice

Proponents of the 2010 bill say they deserve the right to make an adult choice. Paul "Snake" Miller, local American Bikers Aimed Toward Education chapter coordinator, told the Muskegon Chronicle that for years he did not wear a helmet - noting he has 65 tickets to prove it. Miller finds helmets to be a nuisance; he claims they are heavy and hot, and they block peripheral vision and hearing.

Ultimately, though, Miller finds it is about providing riders with a choice. He believes that people who support repealing Michigan's helmet law will wear a helmet anyway. According to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Research Note, a recent National Occupant Protection Use Survey found helmet use in states requiring motorcyclists to use helmets increased from 78 percent to 86 percent in 2009. In other states, usage increased from 50 percent to 55 percent.

Part of the Sport

Deni Hunter, member of Skilled Motorcyclists Association - Responsible, Trained and Educated Riders, Inc., opposes repeal of the mandatory helmet law. She likens helmets to seat belts, which provide protection even if they don't always save a life. She says that just as riding in a boat, jumping out of an airplane and playing football all require safety equipment, helmets are part of the sport of riding.

Her husband, Jimmy Hunter, sustained a severe brain injury in a 2009 motorcycle accident. Although he says there is no question that wearing a full-face helmet saved his life, he does not agree that helmets should be required universally. Instead, he thinks helmets should be required for first-time riders, and those with a few years of experience should have a choice whether or not to wear one.

A Safe Cycling - Motorcycle Safety Foundation publication claims that a properly fitted helmet can actually improve the rider's ability to hear by streamlining the head and ear, reducing wind noise. Helmets also can prevent eye injuries and distraction caused by dust, dirt and debris.

Muskegon County Sheriff Dean Roesler, who is also a paramedic, laments over the indescribable devastation a head injury causes, claiming that helmets provide a high level of protection. NHTSA estimates helmets to be 37 percent effective in preventing fatal injuries to motorcycle riders and 41 percent effective for motorcycle passengers. NHTSA further estimates that helmets saved 1,829 motorcyclists' lives in 2008.

Who is Paying?

In addition to personal freedom and safety concerns, the Muskegon Chronicle reports that some worry that motorcycle crashes place a disproportionate burden on the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association (MCCA), the state fund for high-cost traffic expenses. According to the article, while motorcyclists pay for only 1.7 percent of the MCCA fund, they account for 6.7 percent of the claims. The Michigan Traffic Safety Information Council states that hospital stays are longer for unhelmeted riders and the cost to taxpayers is significantly higher, since many motorcyclists are uninsured. Proponents of mandatory helmet use predict an increase in insurance premiums if helmets are not required.

The proposed legislation would require unhelmeted motorcyclists to carry $20,000 coverage for first-party medical costs. Under the current system, when a motorcycle is involved in a crash with another vehicle, the priority is for the insurer of the owner or operator of the other vehicle to pay the no-fault benefits. While the first-party coverage requirement represents a change to this priority, critics worry $20,000 is too anemic to cover potential hospitalization and health care costs.

An attorney can provide useful information to people with questions about driver or rider liability. If the driver, rider or passenger has a claim against the insurer or other parties in the accident, an experienced lawyer can protect that party's interests in court or mediation.