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Our View: State helmet law would save lives, dollars (with video)

2:01 PM, May 13, 2013  |  Comments
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You can get a taste for the level of subtlety the motorcycle lobbying group ABATE brings to the debate when you learn that the name is an acronym for "A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments."

By "totalitarian enactments," the group does not mean North Korea-style control of freedom of speech, expression and association, government marked by secret police and official control over art, culture and education.

It means helmet laws.

Wisconsin does not require helmets for licensed motorcyclists. This despite the fact that unhelmeted riders are 40 percent more likely to die from a head injury than someone wearing a helment, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Going without a helmet = freedom; requiring a helmet = totalitarianism. It is a comfortingly black-and-white way of looking at the world. It also bears no resemblance to the actual world we live in.

In the real world, there are real public costs to irresponsible behavior. Ambulances, medical care, disability; all these things come from the public coffers. According to the CDC report, the estimated economic burden of injuries and deaths from motorcycle-related crashes was $12 billion in 2010 alone - much more if higher insurance rates and lost tax revenue are considered.

It's not just a dollars and cents issue. We set safety standards and impose norms on all sorts of behavior, because it's in the public's interest to do so. Consider: We require drivers training and licenses. We set speed limits. We prohibit driving while impaired by alcohol or drugs. We don't allow pedestrians to walk along interstate highways. And, of course, we mandate seat belts in cars.

Do these things compromise the freedom of an individual who might like to take a stroll along the freeway or drive at 120 mph after a few beers? Yes, of course they do, under a facile definition of freedom as the right to do whatever you want all the time.

They also help to ensure everyone else's freedom - like the freedom to drive on safe roadways.

Don't worry, helmetless riders: No Wisconsin lawmaker on either side of the aisle has introduced a bill that would require helmets. That hasn't stopped ABATE from making regular lobbying trips to Madison, just to make double-sure that nothing changes.

Intensely interested single-issue groups like ABATE not only have a right to make their voices heard; they also have a real role to play in our democracy. The federal Highway Safety Act first pushed states to enact mandatory helmet laws in 1966; as a feat of political organizing, it's to the anti-helmet activists' credit that it has been able to maintain dominancy in this debate for going on 50 years now.

But they are still wrong.

They'll be wrong during this summer's driving season, when some number of helmetless motorcyclists will die or sustain injuries which the public will pay for with tax dollars. And they'll still be wrong next year, when legislators once again decline to mention this issue or do anything to change the law.

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