No Way In Helmet

June 23, 2006
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LANSING — First football. Then hockey. Then motorcycling. Over the past several decades the ability to feel the wind whooshing through one's hair has lost out time and again to concern over not cracking one's cranium. Michigan made the use of crash helmets mandatory for all motorcyclists in 1969. Since then, motorcycle advocacy groups have been lobbying for the repeal or amendment of that law. They say that it is unfair to motorcyclists and that it harms Michigan's tourism economy, as out-of-state riders choose to visit other places that allow them to enjoy helmet-free riding.

The helmet-law reformists have come closer than ever to getting their way this month as the state legislature put forward a modified version of the law. Senate Bill No. 297 would modify the Michigan Vehicle Code to make helmet use optional for riders 21 and older who have held a motorcycle license for at least two years and who carry at least $10,000 in medical liability insurance. This is the first time that both houses of the legislature have approved such a measure. However, it doesn't appear that the bill will make it past Gov. Jennifer Granholm. She has stated that she sees no compelling reason to change the existing law.

But if the helmet law were altered or repealed, would it open the door to a new influx of out-of-state tourist dollars and other motorcycle-related windfalls? ABATE of Michigan thinks so. The 30-year-old motorcyclists' rights group has been one of the biggest opponents to Michigan's current helmet law. ABATE, or American Bikers Aiming Toward Education, refers on its Web site to a study suggesting that repealing the current helmet law would result in a $53.9 million increase in Michigan tourism revenue. That would represent about one-third of 1 percent of Michigan's tourist economy. But the study suggested that there would be much larger impacts on other parts of the Michigan economy — totaling $1.2 billion.

The authors of the study, Lansing-based Michigan Consultants, stood by the accuracy of data in the study, which was commissioned by ABATE. The study is "based upon Michigan data, results in other states, and discussions with those involved with motorcycle events and sales," according to the group. The $1.2 billion impact would come from "likely increases in motorcycle registrations, sales and ownership, retention of tourism dollars of Michigan motorcycle enthusiasts, and attraction of visitors from other states."

MichiganStateUniversity's Tourism Area of Expertise Team estimated that in 2004 tourism contributed $17.5 billion to the state's economy. Fifty-seven percent of that total comes from intra-state travel. Of the out-of-state visitors, nearly half come from Illinois, Indiana and Ohio

The Business Journal surveyed several dozen chapters of the American Motorcyclist Association throughout those three states. Based on their responses to a series of questions about their travel to Michigan and their feelings about helmet laws, it would appear that Michigan's laws have very little effect on their likelihood to bring their bikes — and their bucks — to this state.

Tom Farley, an Ohio motorcyclist, said that he and a group of about eight other riders make an annual loop around Lake Superior

"As an avid motorcyclist of 35 years, I always wear a helmet and protective clothing," Farley wrote in an e-mail. He considers it unfortunate that industry lobbyists have "spent millions in advertising to promote a non-existing 'lifestyle' that promotes reckless behavior."

Steve Davis, an Indiana AMA member, voiced an opinion that was common among the respondents. Although he appreciates the personal freedom provided by Indiana's laws — which don't require mandatory helmet use — he chooses to wear a helmet at all times.

"You must take on some responsibility for your own safety gear," Davis wrote. "I know that there are two sides of the helmet law issue and personally feel that not having a helmet law in Indiana does provide riders the option to choose, but at the same time you need to understand the choice you make."

That opinion is not too far from the stance taken by ABATE, which feels that greater rider education could be more effective in saving lives than the use of helmets alone. Only one of the respondents to the informal AMA survey reflected the tourism-related concerns expressed by ABATE and other opponents of the mandatory helmet law.

"We are close to the Michigan border but rarely do our members ever take trips into Michigan because of the helmet law," said Vernon "Stroker" Hall, president and founder of V-Twin Motorcycle Club in Cleveland, Ohio. "There are many places we would like to visit in Michigan, but most of the members would rather go to a state without a helmet law. It was the same for Pennsylvania and Kentucky when they had a helmet law. It was hard to get members to go on a scheduled run or trips into these states. Now we have lots of rides, trips, and attend events and rallies in these states."

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, observed helmet use dropped from 91 percent to 51 percent between 1997 and 2001 in Kentucky. That state repealed its mandatory, universal helmet law in 1998. There was also a 37-percent increase in accidents that resulted in injury to the motorcyclist. Total fatalities and the rate of fatalities among accidents also increased. The NHTSA also cited studies that "have revealed that un-helmeted riders involved in crashes are less likely to have insurance and more likely to have higher hospital costs than helmeted riders involved in similar crashes."

That highlights the major economic argument in favor of maintaining the current helmet law. Although the statistics presented by both sides are debated, proponents of a mandatory, universal helmet law frequently cite reports that underscore the increase in public health costs created by loosening the restrictions on helmet use.

And while Michigan may be missing $50 million in new tourist revenue by keeping its existing helmet law, it may be saving money. The NHTSA estimates that in 2002 alone, helmet use saved $1.2 billion in public health costs nationwide. Michigan's share of that savings, based on population, would be just under $50 million.    

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