Thursday, February 14, 2019
Here's what a sampling of motorcyclists think of HB 748, the Texas mandatory helmet bill
WARNING: Copyright ©2019 Tim Kreitz. This article may not be copied, republished, or redistributed without express permission of the author.
It's a pretty safe assertion to say that motorcyclists don't much like being told what to do. We tend to be iconoclasts, rebels and eccentrics of varying degrees. We're thrill seekers. We don't hop onto the back of fast, high-powered, 2-wheeled contraptions to feel safer. In some ways, we do it to experience those very zen moments and feelings that come from accepting and managing higher levels of risk. To paraphrase an old saying, by placing ourselves closer to the edge, greater is our awareness that we are alive.
With that philosophy in mind, I conducted an online poll of motorcyclists from my 3,000-ish Facebook friends to see how they felt concerning a new bill recently introduced here in Texas (HB 748) which would close a twenty year-old loophole allowing most of the Star State's motorcyclists to ride without helmets. I prefaced the poll and thread with this message:
"Point of Curiosity: I'm interested to know what my motorcycling friends think of HB 748, which would make helmet usage mandatory in Texas. I'd like to get my thumb on the pulse of this issue among riders because I might write a piece on the subject. Also, if you don't ride, what is your perception of motorcyclists who ride helmetless?"
The results of the poll after less than 24 hours of responses, as well as some of the associated comments, were thought-provoking. As of the writing of this article, over 140 people had answered the poll, with about 35 percent in favor of compulsory helmet requirements. NOTE: The polling software is a Facebook feature and should in no way be considered empirical. Anyone could've taken the poll, motorcyclist or not. Still, the results were interesting to me, even if the sampled demographic happens to be wider than intended.
HOW THE LAW CURRENTLY WORKS
For those of you who are not aware, Texas allows riders over 21 years of age who have completed a motorcycle safety course and carry adequate health insurance to be exempted from the state's otherwise compulsory helmet requirement. The catch is that a police officer may not contact a motorcyclist for the sole purpose of determining the existence of those conditions. Therefore, virtually everyone can ride helmetless without fear of being cited. The loophole effectively negates the law.
HOW THE LAW WOULD CHANGE
HB 748 would, in a very direct way, remove the loophole while adding very little new language. Here is the text of the bill:
BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF TEXAS: SECTION 1. Sections 661.003(c), (c-1), (c-2), and (i), Transportation Code, are repealed. SECTION 2. The change in law made by this Act applies only to an offense committed on or after the effective date of this Act. An offense committed before the effective date of this Act is covered by the law in effect when the offense was committed, and the former law is continued in effect for that purpose. For purposes of this section, an offense was committed before the effective date of this Act if any element of the offense occurred before that date. SECTION 3. This Act takes effect September 1, 2019.
The parts to be repealed are contained within this section of the Texas Transportation Code:
Sec. 661.003. OFFENSES RELATING TO NOT WEARING PROTECTIVE HEADGEAR. (a) A person commits an offense if the person:
(1) operates or rides as a passenger on a motorcycle on a public street or highway; and
(2) is not wearing protective headgear that meets safety standards adopted by the department.
(b) A person commits an offense if the person carries on a motorcycle on a public street or highway a passenger who is not wearing protective headgear that meets safety standards adopted by the department.
(c) It is an exception to the application of Subsection (a) or (b) that at the time the offense was committed, the person required to wear protective headgear was at least 21 years old and had successfully completed a motorcycle operator training and safety course under Chapter 662 or was covered by a health insurance plan providing the person with medical benefits for injuries incurred as a result of an accident while operating or riding on a motorcycle. A peace officer may not arrest a person or issue a citation to a person for a violation of Subsection (a) or (b) if the person required to wear protective headgear is at least 21 years of age and presents evidence sufficient to show that the person required to wear protective headgear has successfully completed a motorcycle operator training and safety course or is covered by a health insurance plan as described by this subsection.
(c-1) A peace officer may not stop or detain a person who is the operator of or a passenger on a motorcycle for the sole purpose of determining whether the person has successfully completed the motorcycle operator training and safety course or is covered by a health insurance plan.
(c-2) The Texas Department of Insurance shall prescribe a standard proof of health insurance for issuance to persons who are at least 21 years of age and covered by a health insurance plan described by Subsection (c).
(d) Repealed by Acts 2009, 81st Leg., R.S., Ch. 1391, Sec. 12, eff. September 1, 2009.
(e) Repealed by Acts 2009, 81st Leg., R.S., Ch. 1391, Sec. 12, eff. September 1, 2009.
(f) Repealed by Acts 2009, 81st Leg., R.S., Ch. 1391, Sec. 12, eff. September 1, 2009.
(g) Repealed by Acts 2009, 81st Leg., R.S., Ch. 1391, Sec. 12, eff. September 1, 2009.
(h) An offense under this section is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not less than $10 or more than $50.
(i) In this section, "health insurance plan" means an individual, group, blanket, or franchise insurance policy, insurance agreement, evidence of coverage, group hospital services contract, health maintenance organization membership, or employee benefit plan that provides benefits for health care services or for medical or surgical expenses incurred as a result of an accident.
HOW COMMENTING RIDERS FELT ABOUT HB 748
The biggest number of those in the poll's comment thread who opposed HB 748 most often cited freedom of choice, government overreach, and the "bigger fish" that endanger motorcyclists (such as distracted or non-attentive drivers) as reasons for opposition. The biggest number of those in favor of HB 748 cited burdens to the healthcare system and the higher death rate among helmetless riders as reasons to support the bill. Let's take a look at all these contentions and see how they flesh out when compared to reliable data.
PREFACE: The sources I trust most when it comes to motorcycle crash data are the NTSB and NHTSA, because regardless of what opinions they may render, they will always supply the total raw numbers for scrutiny. Organizations such as the IIHS cannot be trusted in my opinion. The IIHS is a lobby organization for the insurance industry and has historically manipulated stats and data in such a way as to benefit insurers. Let's not forget that these are the people who tried twice over a span of three decades to get sportbikes banned, presumably to increase insurer profits.
THE HELMETLESS RIDER DEATH RATE AND BURDENS TO HEALTHCARE ARGUMENTS
The assertion that un-helmeted riders add unnecessary strain to the healthcare system is compelling on its surface and seems to make sense. But just how much effect does riding without a helmet actually have on things like total medical cost, cost shifting, and insurance rate increases? The following numbers vary from year to year, but according to the NTSB, about 4,000 motorcyclists per year are killed in accidents, while about 85,000 are injured. Of all those accidents (both fatal and nonfatal), helmetless riders are involved at a rate of about 33 percent. This means that about 1,400 un-helmeted riders die in the US every year, and about 28,000 helmetless riders are injured or otherwise involved in accidents, for a total of around 30,000. The NTSB's average medical cost per un-helmeted rider is a little over $250,000. So using simple multiplication, un-helmeted riders cost the system an estimated total of about $7.5 billion per year.
That number is definitely significant and certainly sounds like a lot. That is, until it is compared to the things that actually place the most burden onto the healthcare system; namely obesity and heart disease. According to the CDC, the annual medical cost of obesity in the US hovers somewhere around $150 billion. The annual medical cost of heart disease comes in at about $800 billion. Yes, that's almost a trillion dollars.
The reason I invoke obesity and heart disease over other health problems in this comparison is because, much like riding without a helmet, they are highly preventable. This begs the obvious question: If the relatively small burden placed onto the system by helmetless riders justifies legislation to make helmet usage compulsory, why do we not have laws criminalizing fat people? It would seem to me that anyone concerned with the medical cost of caring for un-helmeted motorcyclists is barking up the wrong tree.
THE FREEDOM OF CHOICE AND 'BIGGER FISH' ARGUMENTS
According to the NHTSA, the most common cause of motorcycle accidents is the failure of motorists to detect and recognize motorcycles in traffic. Motorcycles are small and hard to see. Combine that fact with distracted driving, poor driving skill, or aggressive behavior on the part of a motorist, and it's no wonder. Almost 40 years after the Hurt Report, left-turning drivers continue to be one of the greatest dangers faced by motorcyclists.
These realities form the basis for a good argument; motorcyclists wouldn't die as often if motorists cared more about driving with excellence. But everyday life shows that they apparently don't care much at all. Texting and driving is a pandemic, as is impaired driving. In fact, impaired driving on someone's part continues to be a contributing factor in over 50 percent of all motorcycle accidents, according to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.
Many of those who oppose helmet laws say the government should be cracking down on bad driving instead of picking on bikers (who are relatively few compared to motorists) and leave them to make their own choices on helmet usage. But isn't that very line of logic also an effective argument for wearing a helmet to begin with? In a collision with a car or truck, it doesn't matter who was right or wrong, who has the logical or moral high ground, etc., because the motorcyclist is always the one who will lose. If we as motorcyclists expect a high level of responsibility from motorists, should we not also expect the same of ourselves?
WHERE I STAND ON THE ISSUE
As I said in the poll discussion, I always wear a helmet. In fact, I love wearing a helmet. I feel safer and it makes the ride more comfortable. That said, I'm always torn when presented with the possibility of giving the government more power over my life and activities. Helmets definitely save lives, but so would outlawing motorcycles altogether. Helmets reduce burdens on the healthcare system, but so would outlawing obesity. It's a very tricky subject. I think I'm against HB 748, but I can't say that with absolute conviction. Like one of the poll commenters said, I'll accept a mandatory Texas helmet policy if you'll give me lane-splitting in return. I mean come on Texas, if you were really interested in keeping me safer on the road as a motorcyclist, you would've legalized splitting and filtering a long, long time ago.
HB 748 is filed and awaiting its first reading. I'll post updates as info becomes available.
UPDATE: I recently appeared on The Vann Cave Podcast to discuss the subject in more detail. Here is the video feed of that episode: