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Iowa should remain one of few states not requiring motorcycle helmets

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JULY 06, 2009 7:20 AM

Iowans have never been a population willing to put up with being told what to do. We have a civil-rights record that is often years ahead of that of other states — including a decision earlier this year that gives same-sex couples the right to marry.

Iowa is one of only three states that does not require motorcycle operators to wear helmets. Not having a helmet law might seem trivial when measured against civil-rights feats, but it’s something we should maintain. The decision to wear a helmet should be one made on a personal level, not on the state level.

There’s no question that motorcycles are dangerous. The number of Iowa motorcycle deaths has climbed over the last 15 years along with the number of motorcycles our roadways. In 1996, there were only 16 motorcycle deaths in our state, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation. In 2007, there were 61 motorcycle fatalities statewide.

Similarly, in 1996 Iowa had 108,670 registered motorcycles. That number had grown to 153,273 by 2007.

Those numbers also indicate that motorcycle helmets are quite effective in protecting downed riders. Of the 61 deaths in 2007, only eight involved riders with helmets.

That appears to be pretty damning evidence for the case against a helmet law. However, what those numbers don’t tell us — and what we can’t reliably know — is whether or not helmets make crashes more likely.

“It really boils down to ‘Do I want a hard plastic thing on my head for hours at a time?’ ” Iowa City police Sgt. and motorcycle rider Troy Kelsay told The Daily Iowan.

His question isn’t unique; many motorcycle riders complain that helmets obstruct their range of vision and distort their hearing. Not only does impaired hearing and vision endanger the motorcyclist, it poses a threat to pedestrians and the occupants of other vehicles.

That point also demonstrates why helmet laws aren’t comparable to life-jacket or seat-belt laws. Proponents of the motorcycle-helmet requirement often argue that car drivers are required to buckle up, so cyclists should be required to strap on a helmet. However, a seat belt is, at most, a source of minor discomfort. Helmets, though, fundamentally change the way it feels to ride a motorcycle.

Still, there’s considerable pressure on Iowa — as well as New Hampshire and Illinois — to implement motorcycle-helmet laws.

For instance, during 10 months in 1975 and 1976, Iowa mandated motorcycle helmets after the federal government restricted highway funds for states that didn’t.

While the federal government has not made a similar move since then, many people — both inside and outside the state —think Iowa should require helmets. A 2000 survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 81 percent of all U.S. drivers support motorcycle-helmet laws. However, only about half of motorcyclists surveyed support such laws.

That disparity in opinion makes the proposition of a motorcycle-helmet law alarming. It would be unfortunate if non-riders were able to force restrictions onto motorcycle riders. This highlights the necessity of a hands-off government and turns the issue of motorcycle helmets into an issue of freedom.

When considering rights (the right to marry or the right not to wear a helmet alike), the line between democracy and mob rule can be quite narrow. Just like with same-sex marriage, those who the law does not affect should resist the urge to impose their opinions onto the those who the law does affect.

For most, the option of wearing a helmet is not nearly as grave as the right to marry, but the principle is the same: Government and the opinion of the masses has no place in personal decisions.


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