The 40 Year Debate; Are Mandatory Universal Motorcycle Helmet Laws Right or Wrong?
Across the United States, every year millions of license drivers choose to ride motorcycles rather than drive automobiles for a variety of reasons; Reasons range from individual pleasure to a much more cost effective way to travel. The universal motorcycle helmet law debate over the past forty years has revolved around whether the federal government should adopt a universal helmet law that mandates all motorcyclists to wear helmets at all times when riding to reduce societies economic cost, or whether the individual rider should have the right to choose rather to wear or not wear a helmet.
In 1967, nearly all States implemented a mandatory universal helmet law in order to receive federal funds to repair and improve our Interstate Highways. Once the 1966 National Highway Safety Act was imposed, the history of motorcycle helmet legislation began. Americans have continuously debated over the balance between an individual’s rights, the best interest of the public and when the government should take measures to protect the people of the United States from harm.
Four out of five Americans are in support of a universal helmet law, yet motorcyclists represent only about two percent of all registered vehicles in the United States (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 2008). This suggest that a majority of supporters are either not motorcycle owners and/or seemed to have taken a utilitarianism cost and benefits analysis approach, which according to Michael Sandel “many argue, that a weakness in utilitarianism is that it fails to respect individual rights.” Supporters believe that wearing a motorcycle helmet protects riders’ by preventing serious head injuries and lowers mortality rates, which results in society saving an immense deal of economic cost, such as taxes, insurance premiums and government funded healthcare expenses. Non-supporters, including myself a registered motorcycle owner, argue that a universal helmet law is unconstitutional, as it violates our right to “Freedom of Choice” as written in our Bill of Rights. Despite the tremendous amount of statistics, that claim motorcycle helmets may reduce head injuries and lower fatalities, as of now only twenty States and the District of Columbia currently have and enforce a universal motorcycle helmet law, twenty-seven States that do enforce partial motorcycle helmet laws that are directed at riders under a certain age (usually 18) and three States (Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire) still currently have no helmet laws in use (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 2008).
In order to have a better understanding of the ratiocination of the universal motorcycle helmet law, you have to know the history of the legislation of the universal motorcycle helmet law. The beginning of motorcycle helmet legislation in the United States was when the 1966 National Highway Safety Act was originally created to generate additional federal funding to States for our Interstate Highway System. However, in order for the States to receive funding, the federal government placed stipulations that influenced States to comply with safety laws that the federal government wanted to be in place. If the States did not comply, they would lose these funds (see Note: a, b, c, d and e in Figure 1, Homer, Jenny and French, Michael 416.)
Prior to 1966, only three States (New York, Massachusetts, and Michigan) had motorcycle helmet use laws, even though motorcycle helmet usage began as early the 1920’s by Motorcycle racers as a form of protection (Jones, Marian Moser, and Ronald Bayer 209). By 1967, after the federal standard for State Highway Safety Programs was implemented requiring States to have a universal motorcycle helmet law in effect in order to qualify for additional federal funds; All but three States (California, New Hampshire and Illinois) complied by...
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Homer, Jenny, and Michael French
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Jim Sensenbrenner Representative. "Sensenbrenner introduces resolution to defend the rights of motorcycle riders.” FDCH Press Releases (n.d.): Military & Government Collection. EBSCO. Web. 20 Oct. 2011.
Sullum, Jacob. "Freedom Riders.” Reason 37.6 (2005): 40. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 01 Oct. 2011.
Charles C., Umbenhauer. "It 's our right to decide.” USA Today n.d.: Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 01 Oct. 2011.
R.G. Ulmer and D.F. Preusser. “Evaluation of the Repeal of Motorcycle Helmet Laws in Kentucky and Louisiana,” DOT HS 809 530 Washington DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (October 2003) Web 12, Oct. 2011, www.NHTSA.dot.gov.
Sandel, Michael. “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to do?” New York, Farrar, Straus, and Groux, 2009.
United States Department of Transportation
United States Department of Transportation. National Health Traffic Safety. “Traffic Safety Facts: DOT HS 810 887W, Washington DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (January 2008) Web 12, Oct. 2011, www.NHTSA.dot.gov.
Watson, Geoffrey S., Paul L. Zador, and Alan Wilks. "The Repeal of Helmet Use Laws and Increased Motorcyclist Mortality In the United States, 1975-1978.” American Journal of Public Health 70.6 (1980): 579. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 4 Oct. 2011.
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