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The MMA Wishes you a Very Happy Independence Day - Thoughts on Freedom and Helmets...

Published on 7/2/2012
The MMA Wishes you a Very Happy Independence Day - Thoughts on Freedom and Helmets...

As we celebrate the US Independence Day, we really should give pause as to the true meaning of the day.    The Massachusetts Motorcycle Association (MMA) would like to wish everyone a very Happy Independence Day and leverage the opportunity to reflect on the true meaning of freedom.

As John Adams originally wrote, “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”  As most of us should remember from grade school, it was a declaration founded in basic liberties, including the rebellion against “taxation without representation.”

Well, John was ultimately off by 2 days, but he was very right that since 1870, the US has “officially” celebrated the adoption of the Declaration of Independence with pomp, circumstance, and barbeque.  Of course it was only in 1938 that the holiday became a paid federal one, but even that long has allowed us to forget that it’s a day founded in the very freedoms we so often take for granted, and those very same freedoms which have come under increasing challenge in recent years.

In 1966, the Federal Government intervened by creating a “tax” on states by withholding highway funds from those who refused to mandate Helmet Use.  Naturally, every state capitulated – at least until 1975 when that misguided piece of legislation was finally repealed.  Shortly after, states across the union began repealing their own mandatory helmet laws, instead offering “Adult Choice” to riders.  This year, Michigan became the 31st State to offer Adults freedom of choice.  In a moment of triumph for freedom fighters, the US Government, not too busy with its own partisan arguments over healthcare, the future of the Space Program (which impacts countless industries including medical research), and differences on the economy and jobs creation, has instead responded by attempting to lay blame for everything including the price of coffee on Motorcyclists.  Most notably, apparently the National Center for Disease Control (CDC) has taken up the NHTSA mantra against Helmet Choice in a feeble attempt to restore credibility to a failing national cadre who can’t seem to put their collective funds towards accident causation prevention and infrastructure improvements.

Indeed, the CDC released a study which quickly captured the minds of the media latent with misinformation, old statistics, arrogant and inflammatory detritus.  News agencies around the country began blaming Helmet Law Repeal as a primary cause of Motorcycle Fatality increases, even though the statistics are incorrect and incomplete!  The media outcry depicts the apocalypse of motorcyclists and even society as we know it claiming that Helmet Choice will lead to increase costs and further increases in Motorcycle Fatalities.   Ironically, even recent reports lambasting helmet choice use examples of crashes in which the riders were wearing helmets!

Sadly, as with most large studies, using data from 2008, the CDC study leveraged incomplete and outdated information to generate a predictable conclusion, that a universal helmet law would save lives and money.  That was as predictable as hiring any marketing agency with a specific goal, “please write me a report that shows that peppermint bubblegum outsells spearmint.”  Collect the right data and spin, baby, spin.

The CDC Study can be found here: 

Massachusetts Motorcycle Association (MMA) and Motorcycle Riders Foundation (MRF) experts have been monitoring the various news reports, and analyzing the study in depth.  Unfortunately, this study is a rambling collection of conclusions that do not make sense when taken in context with the facts the study is supposed to be based upon.  Further, it attempts to establish a pattern of logic that would justify government regulation that is in conflict with the very foundation of the Declaration of Independence.

Of particular interest are the key elements of the CDC study and the various news reports that attempt to explain it.

On one hand, the study claims that fatality rates in states without mandatory helmet use laws have much higher fatality rates than in those states who do.  Matt Danielson, MRF State Representative from Virginia notes that the study specifically uses Florida as an example while ignoring some very salient details.  For example, while citing a rise in Motorcycle Fatalities in years since Motorcycle Helmet Choice was instituted, the study fails to note that in that same period, Motorcycle Registrations in Florida also increased dramatically.  According to Florida’s Department of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles’ report Traffic Safety Facts, October 2010: Motorcycles, between 2000 and 2009 motorcycle fatalities have increased by 63.4% and motorcycle injuries have increased by 62.3%  However, during the period where motorcycle registrations increased by 102.4%, injuries and fatalities did not keep pace with motorcycle registrations.

Further, using states such as Florida is very misleading.  It is one of the top motorcycle tourist destinations in the United States with a much longer riding season.  Florida also hosts one of the largest motorcycle events in the country drawing half a million motorcyclists a year from all over the country.  Clearly that number of motorcyclists is going to throw the numbers off.

Closer to home in New England is the “Live Free or Die” state of New Hampshire, home to one of the largest and oldest Motorcycle Rallies in the country and Massachusetts’ close neighbor, destination to many Massachusetts’ riders.  Yet boasting Helmet Choice for Adults, and one of the highest per capita ratios of Motorcycles to population, New Hampshire regularly has a fatality rate lower than Massachusetts!  Indeed since 2006, 2 years prior to the CDC study data through current, NH has had approximately half the fatalities of MA!

Jeff Hennie, MRF Vice President of Government Relations and Public Affairs points out that the CDC study also fails to take into consideration national motorcycle registrations in presenting its statistics.  Indeed, the numbers used by the article are taken from the National Highway Traffic safety Administration (NHTSA), which reports that in 1997 there were 2,116 motorcycle fatalities nationwide and in 2010 there were 4,502.  The article argues that the rise in fatality rates was greatly due to relaxed motorcycle helmet laws.  However, when looking at motorcycle registrations nationwide, in 1997, there were 2,116 fatalities for 3,826,000 motorcycles registered, meaning 0.055% of registered motorcycles were involved in a fatal accident.  In 2010, there were 4,502 fatalities for 8,368,000 motorcycles registered, or 0.053% of registered motorcycles were involved in a fatal accident.  In other words, Registration rates increased more than fatality rates.  Those numbers paint a completely different (and more accurate) picture.

It’s clear the intent was not to paint an objective picture when stating only one side of an argument.  For example, on page six of the study, the statement is made, “People who do not wear helmets are more likely to be killed in a crash.  Forty-one percent of motorcycle operators and 51% of motorcycle passengers who died in 2008 were not wearing a helmet.”  What the report fails to point out is that the same argument would mean that 59% of motorcycle operators and 49% of motorcycle passengers, or a majority of victims in 2008 were wearing a helmet!

Sadly, these statistics don’t even identify the cause of death in each of these fatalities, only whether a helmet was being worn.  In other words, for riders and passengers that died of trauma to neck, blood loss due to severed limbs, or injury to internal organs, the fact that they were or were not wearing a helmet is irrelevant.  The study would have you believe the inferred conclusion that helmeted riders never die of head injuries and non-helmeted riders only die from head injuries; we’re all smarter than that!

Additionally, Todd Riba, MRF Director of the State Representatives Program and MRF State Representative from Minnesota points out that motorcycles make up 6 percent of the national traumatic brain injuries while bicycles are 7 percent, pedestrians are 13 percent, and occupants of enclosed motor vehicles are 62 percent!

Another major argument of the CDC study is that forcing all motorcyclists to wear a helmet would save money.  Unfortunately, it’s not clear from where the study gets its numbers.  For instance, the study states that the United States saved nearly $3 Billion due to helmet use in 2008 and could have saved an additional $1.3 Billion in 2008 if all motorcyclists had worn helmets.  The study does not tell us how they came to that conclusion nor how the money would have been saved.

If states that allow adults to make their own choice have higher costs, why is that not reflected in Motor Vehicle Insurance Rates?  Isn’t it a given that costs borne by companies are simply passed on to the consumers?  Yet a study of motor vehicle insurance rates do not support the argument that states that allow adult choice incur higher costs as a result.  According to, the top five most expensive jurisdictions for motor vehicle insurance in 2012 are Louisiana, Oklahoma, Michigan, West Virginia and Washington DC.  Out of that list only Oklahoma allows riders to choose (Michigan had a mandatory helmet law when the study was conducted).   The five cheapest states are Maine, Iowa, Wisconsin, Idaho and North Carolina; of those only North Carolina requires riders to wear a helmet.

To take it even further, only two of the ten cheapest states for motor vehicle insurance have mandatory helmet laws. The other eight either allow adults to choose (or, as in the case of Iowa, simply have no law whatsoever).  Simply put, if you look at the entire list there is no correlation between motor vehicle insurance rates and universal helmet laws.

How can that be if the majority of states allow riders to make their own choice and that choice is creating such a public cost?  Because the public cost argument is a blatant assumption and a myth.  According to the US Census Bureau there were 2,035,474 injuries and deaths resulting from motor vehicle crashes 2009.  94,462 of those were related to motorcycle crashes. (  That means that in 2009, only 4.7% of the motor vehicle crash related deaths and injuries involved motorcycles. Statistically, we are not a large enough segment of the population to contribute to the overall cost of motor vehicle related deaths and injuries.

Unfortunately, it gets worse.  The study attempts to leave the reader with the impression that the only  proven way to reduce motorcycle fatalities is to strip adults of the right to choose whether or not to wear a helmet.  Indeed, on page 5 the study states, “Helmets are the only safety measure proven to save lives.”

Indeed, a recent MSNBC article discussing the helmet question also quotes an older Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Indiana Study which claims that riders who’ve completed rider education are 44% more likely to be involved in an accident that untrained riders.

Yet here in MA, statistics show that on average, 80% of those involved in fatalities had NO rider education.  Recent New Hampshire statistics used by former State Senator Robert Letourneau while arguing against a bill that would have eliminated the NH Motorcycle Training Program, the percentage of trained riders involved in fatalities is a very small percentage of those involved in Fatalities.  Further, the Virginia Coalition of Motorcyclists studied the effectiveness of Virginia’s rider education program with the VA Division of Motor Vehicles.  Over a five year period, they jointly broke the crashes down between graduates of Virginia’s rider education program and non-graduates.  The former were tremendously under-represented in those statistics, and indeed, two out of the five years in which out of all fatalities for that year NONE were graduates of the rider education program.  Other states have done the same thing with similar results.  Rider education is most certainly a proven safety measure.

So where’s the discrepancy?

The MMA’s assertion is that the NHTSA, CDC, and others are fighting for their very jobs.  Rather than focus on jobs creation by increasing funding towards infrastructure re-design and improvement, but increasing funding to safety programs and awareness initiatives, they’d rather fund studies as if Motorcycles are a “disease” that needs to be cured.  If it’s indeed a disease, we’re glad we caught it!

According to the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, 65% of the time that a Motorcyclist is involved in a crash with another vehicle in Massachusetts, it’s because the other vehicle made a left in front of the Motorcycle, violating that motorcyclists’ Right-of-Way.  It’s the escalating aggressive driving behaviors by all motorists that’s the single biggest culprit in increasing motorcycle crashes and fatalities.  Motorcycle Rider Education helps significantly in that it teaches not only the physical skills necessary to avoid crashes, but the mental skills to be aware and alert.

Do helmets help?  In certain cases, perhaps, but the MMA does not argue the benefits or detriments of helmets.  We believe in the strength of Rider Education, and in the fundamental freedom of an adult to make choices.  As stated in the very document we celebrate this coming July 4th, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Ride Safe, Ride Proud, Ride FREE!

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