Mandatory Motorcycle Helmet Laws? Ask Tom.

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The young man boarded the passenger airplane at Billings, Montana on the way to Seattle. Flight attendants concluded that he was mentally retarded and helped seat him with polite, patronizing words of reassurance. He slurred his speech and had difficulty pronouncing some phrases, but he was very friendly and his eyes shone kindly.

A few moments later, while refreshments were being distributed, he leaned over and said: “Hi, I’m Tom, can you help me open this package (of peanuts)?” While doing so, I asked how he received his head scars. “Motorcycle crash,” he replied, “and brain damage.” He then told me his story:

“Five years ago, when I was 22, I was riding my Honda motorcycle that I bought, together with a helmet, from a friend. I was preparing to turn right on a road at not a high speed at all and started skidding on some gravel. I went head-on into a light pole and was in a coma for twelve and one half weeks.

“I was not wearing a helmet; it was hanging on the back of the motorcycle. I was not about to be told what to do. I now believe in helmets.

“In addition to my head injuries, I broke or cracked all my ribs, broke my collarbone and right leg between the knee and the ankle. My right side was paralyzed.

“I had to learn everything, had to learn how to crawl, how to walk, how to speak and how to write. Luckily my intelligence, eyes and hearing were not damaged. But my neurosurgeon who calls me ‘my miracle boy’ says I could not work on any assembly line or at the job I had before the crash as an airline mechanic. I want to study data processing as a career.”

Tom is now at a special school near Seattle where he is studying math and English. He swims twice a week (“that helped me more than anything,” he said), drives a 1967 Chevy pick-up, with seat belts and other equipment that he had specially installed.

Besides getting a job someday, he wants to spread the wisdom of using motorcycle helmets. Newspapers print his letters on the subject. He knows what happens to many young riders every day who “are not about to be told what to do.”

While telling me this, I remembered all those letters to newspapers against laws requiring motorcycle helmet use. They usually came from riders, libertarians or politicians, like Ronald Reagan, who call themselves conservatives. In three minutes, Tom could make these people ring with hollowness. “It’s not fair for the family or friends,” he said.

Nor is it fair to other travelers on the highway who often get involved in secondary crashes after a motorcycle accident and the resultant traffic perils and tie-ups. Nor is it fair to society which has to pay for emergency, hospital and disability services.

Our country was doing the humane, sensible thing until 1976. By that year, 49 states and the District of Columbia had passed mandatory motorcycle helmet requirements for anyone traveling on public highways. A federal statute prodded this action by promising to subtract a small percentage of highway aid funds from non-complying states. In 1976 that federal stimulus was repealed. By 1980, 29 states had rescinded their helmet mandates. Fatal head injuries in motorcycle collisions and spills skyrocketed. There were 4800 motorcycle deaths in 1981 and many more riders totally and permanently disabled. The tragically accurate prediction is that there is a sudden increase in fatal or serious head injuries in states that revoke mandatory helmet use.

In Western European countries, where there are at least as many aggressive motorcycle riders as in the United States, the laws put helmets on riders. The laws are obeyed and are not controversial. Here in our country, a combination of motorcyclists (by no means a majority) and self-styled conservative legislators revoked these life-saving laws. These are often the same lawmakers who oppose adequate social services for the disabled.

Apart from this grisly hypocrisy, it would be very constructive and conserving of human heads were these lawmakers to meet people like Tom, who though having had to learn the hard way, did learn and want to teach.

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