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Why Rise in Motorcycle Deaths Hasn’t Meant Tougher Helmet Laws

June 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
More and more states are repealing and relaxing helmet laws, even as the death toll continues to rise from motorcycle accidents. Judy Woodruff interviews Rick Schmitt, a reporter for Fair Warning.org on the subject.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Next, the correlation between motorcycle casualties and helmet laws.

Judy Woodruff has the story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fatalities on the nation’s roads may be declining, but motorcycle deaths are not. Those deaths have increased from about 3,200 in 2002 to 4,500 in 2010. And yet state laws requiring helmets have been weakened.

In the 1970s, 47 states shown here in gray required all motorcycle drives to wear helmets. Today, just 19 of them, all in dark blue, require them. Most of the rest in light blue still require helmets of younger riders. That’s the finding of a new report released earlier this month by the investigative group FairWarning.org.

Days later, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued its own report, finding that five times as many cyclists who don’t wear helmets die in accidents compared to those who do wear one.

All of this has stirred plenty of anger in the motorcycle community. The American Motorcyclist Association said in a statement that it — quote — “opposes helmet mandates because they have unintended consequences. Historically, the enforcement of helmet mandates has siphoned away scarce funds from effective crash prevention programs such as rider education and motorist awareness.”

Well, we get the latest on these studies from Rick Schmitt. He’s a reporter for FairWarning.org.

And, Rick, thank you very much for being with us.

RICK SCHMITT, FairWarning.org: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: First of all, why did your organization decide to undertake this study?

RICK SCHMITT: Well, we were impressed by the growth in the number of motorcycle deaths, essentially a doubling the number of people dying in motorcycle accidents since the mid-1990s.

What made it particularly interesting to us was the fact that the number of people dying in car accidents, as you mentioned, has declined and, in fact, is at a low that we haven’t seen since the 1940s. So you have these kind of two divergent trends. We seem to be doing a better job when it comes to regular auto safety, but a poorer job when it comes to motorcycle safety.

And so we looked into some of the sources and influence of those kind of divergent trends.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what did you find about the correlation between these — the deaths, the number of deaths, and not wearing or wearing helmets?

RICK SCHMITT: Well, it’s sort of like the same old story in a way. And it was underscored by a recent CDC report, as you mentioned, that there’s — if it’s not a silver bullet, wearing a helmet is the closest thing to a silver bullet when it comes to catastrophic injuries or deaths in motorcycle accidents.

And so there have been many studies over the years that have shown that and the CDC study underscored that, whereas hundreds of people every year have their lives saved by virtue of wearing a helmet and hundreds more die needlessly because they are not.

So that is one important element of all this. The CDC study also looked at the social costs of not wearing helmets. It’s oftentimes said by motorcycle rider groups that the decision to wear a helmet is essentially an individual decision by a consenting adult and should be able to accept the consequences of that decision.

Well, the CDC study showed that it’s not quite that simple, that there are vast billions of dollars in social costs in the form of lost worker productivity and medical costs that inure to the public because of the overwhelming nature of care that can be required to attend to somebody who has suffered a catastrophic injury.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I do want to ask you about that. I also want to ask you about what did you learn about why so many states have reduced or weakened their laws requiring the wearing of helmets?

RICK SCHMITT: Well, the motorcycle lobby is a very effective one and they have made a strong case, both at the state and the federal level, for essentially tying the hands of state and local regulators.

As you point out, the number of states with helmet laws is half the level it was in the 1970s. And that largely reflects an effort to — a grassroots effort by motorcycle riders to basically state the state that this is an issue of personal liberty and the government should really butt out.

And so — and at the federal level, there have been also efforts. Every time an effort is made to restore any kind of a federal helmet mandate, which was in effect in this country in the ’70s and in the ’90s, the motorcycle rider groups have been effective in defeating those efforts promptly, as well as defeating other efforts by the nation’s traffic cop, the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, to take other steps, limited as they may be, to encourage safety among motorcycle riders.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I have to ask you about one of the statistics, or a major statistics that the motorcycle groups put out there. And they say, yes, the number of fatalities has more than doubled, as you point out, but they also say the number of motorcycles out there, the number of motorcycles registered has more than doubled.

RICK SCHMITT: Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And when you compare that with the percentage of fatalities, they say the percentage of fatalities has actually slightly decreased.

RICK SCHMITT: Well, it’s definitely true that a lot more people are riding motorcycles and enjoying riding motorcycles on the roads.

It’s also true that there are lot more people driving cars these days since the 1940s, maybe five or six times number of folks. And yet the number of people who die in car accidents is actually the same as it was. So I think we need to ask ourselves, why is one about the same and why is one continuing to climb rapidly?

JUDY WOODRUFF: The — you make the point about the argument that motorcycle riders want their freedom.

And, in fact, one of the association comments I read, they said, this is one more example of the nanny state, government telling us what we need to do when we ought to be here.

RICK SCHMITT: Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, I read a visitor to the Web site of the Federal Occupational Health and Safety website, a man from New Hampshire.

He said: “Stop with trying to tell people what to do.” He said, “I pay taxes,” he wrote, “for EMTs and fire and police personnel. So I don’t want to wear a helmet. I shouldn’t be forced to.”

What do you say to people?

RICK SCHMITT: Well, there’s certainly an element of paternalism in all this. And the person liberty arguments, it seems like now more than ever, seems to resonate with members of Congress and with folks in statehouses around the country.

At the same time, I think that it’s less of a question of personal freedom than it is in terms of the social costs that kind of redound to the public from these sorts of accidents, and that it’s really not a question of individual responsibility, as much as public — a public response.

Indeed, there are many efforts. Certainly, we allow people to ride cars, but we require them to wear seat belts. In other contexts, if more people are smoking, or dying of lung cancer as a community, we have responded whether through litigation or laws to try to address that. So there is — it may seem like the nanny state, but there is certainly precedent, and it’s not unusual for the community at large to respond when more people are dying.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just finally, quickly, as you look around the country and the tug-of-war in a number of states about these laws, what’s the prospect? Does it look like more states are going to be weakening their laws? Is there a prospect of pushing back against it? How does. . .

RICK SCHMITT: I think the traffic is going in the other direction, frankly.

There seems to be more and more disdain for these — for helmet requirements. And I think for — and I think public safety people are both sort of confounded and very frustrated at the state of events right now. They’re seeing more people die, and there’s nothing that they can go do about it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Rick Schmitt of FairWarning.org, we thank you for coming in to talk to us.

RICK SCHMITT: Thank you.