Letter to the Editor

Don't repeal helmet law

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Recently, Sen. Baker addressed the McCook Chamber of Commerce discussing the upcoming debate on the repeal of Nebraska's successful motorcycle helmet law. The Senator, like many people across the state, has been led to believe that the law is ineffective, that somehow Nebraska's record of fatalities and injuries was somehow twice that of Iowa's, that the LB contains a training provision that will offset any expected increase in fatalities, and that somehow repeal will be "good" for Nebraska citizens, employers, and tourism.

None of the above is true.

Two major "reasons" are usually cited for repeal.

First, proponents of repeal count on "training". They cite as proof training works the "fact" that Iowa has training, and no helmet law. Senator Baker cited Iowa as having a mandatory 40-hour training requirement. Unfortunately, not true.

Iowa, like most states including Nebraska, allows adult riders the option of taking the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Basic Rider Course to waive Department of Motor Vehicle testing on a motorcycle to receive a motorcycle endorsement on the driver license. Its not required. The course is 15 hours, not 40.

LB 70 does require training -- IF you are under age 21, don't already hold a license, and want to get one. As written today, LB 70 has no training requirement for about 58,000 riders 98 percent of all licensed riders in the state.

Training, for all its many benefits, is designed to prevent collisions. It can do nothing to protect you once you are actually in a collision. The best remedy there is physical protection, like a helmet and good riding gear.

Secondly, opponents of helmet laws like to cite statistics, and are particularly fond of comparing Nebraska with its helmet law to Iowa, a neighboring state without any helmet restriction whatsoever. Let's look at some numbers -- unadjusted to make a point.

Fatalities 2000 -- 2005. Nebraska = 64. Iowa = 197.

Injuries 2000 -- 2004. Nebraska's average = about 318. Iowa's average = about 800.

But opponents of helmet laws aren't willing to rest their arguments against the evidence brought forward through a body count. An often cited yet illusory statistic comes from NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a federal agency that collects and compiles highway death an injury statistics. NHTSA's statistics for fatalities per 10,000 registered motorcycles show that Iowa has a "lower" rate than Nebraska. This is an illusory statistic because there are so many variables as to why this might be. Iowa has more bikes registered than are normally ridden. The riding season in heavily populated areas of Iowa may be shorter than Nebraska, leading to fewer collisions per registered bike. Laws in Iowa may give owners greater incentive to register bikes that aren't normally ridden. Whatever the reason, it is impossible to establish a clear cut correlation between the number of licensed motorcycles and how many riders die.

A better correlation of risk is between how many motorcyclists die as a percentage of a states total traffic deaths. According to NHTSA, in Nebraska, 4.4% of 2003's 293 traffic deaths were motorcyclists. In Iowa, that rate rises to 11.6 percent of its 441 fatalities. The Nebraska Office of Highway Safety offers similar statistics: While motorcycle crashes account for less than 1 percent of all reported crashes in Nebraska, they account for 5 percent of all fatalities and 1.3 percent of all serious injuries. In Iowa, while motorcycle crashes account for less than 2 percent of all reported crashes, they account for 8 percent of all fatalities and 6 percent of all serious injuries.

Another misquoted statistic is that helmets are only designed to withstand a 14 mph crash. This is true, but taken out of context. The speed an average human head is traveling when it strikes pavement after falling off of a motorcycle is about 14 mph. This is true whether the forward velocity of the biker is 0, 30, or 70 mph.

But helmets are protective in long slides, too. Ask any rider who has fallen to the ground at highway speeds while wearing a helmet whether they would have preferred their face or the helmet to be ground up by the passing roadway.

Ultimately, here is the truth surrounding the helmet debate. A lot of riders don't want to wear helmets. They don't want to be told what to do. Fine. Lets repeal all the things that government tells us we have to do for the good of society as a whole. Stop paying taxes (who likes those?). Allow meat packers to put whatever they want in the sausage (but first read Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle").

Allow ranchers upstream to pump the rivers and aquifers dry before the water can get to you. Lets add lead to paint and gasoline, eliminate smog restrictions for power producers and stop forcing auto manufacturers to add safety devices to their vehicles.

A helmet is a small price to pay to help ensure you survive an accident. All the training in the world won't help you survive a collision; it can only help you avoid it in the first place. But even with expert, ongoing, and up to date training, sometimes roadway users are going to make mistakes. And that's where the helmet comes in.

Please, call your state Senator now and urge them to vote down LB 70. If they pass it, we may have only regrets and funerals to attend.

-- Bill Mulherin is with the National Safety Council, Greater Omaha Chapter.

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