Friday, January 7, 2011

Helmets and IQ -- commentary

There goes another one; he flunked my primary IQ test. How’s that you say? He was riding a motorcycle without wearing a helmet, which is one of the least intelligent things a rider can do.

A recent AP article in the Sun reported there were 4,400 motorcycle deaths in the United State last year with head injuries as the leading cause. Sadly, only 20 states have laws requiring all riders to wear helmets. Arkansas used to be one of them.

For 20 years, all riders in Arkansas were required to wear a helmet, but in 1997 the law was changed, and a recent proposal requiring those not wearing helmets to carry at least $10,000 in health insurance didn’t make it out of committee. In truth, even this would not have been enough.

Medical studies show beyond a doubt that the costs to our society are extremely high when riders have accidents without helmets. I look at the damage done to my own helmet and realize that damage would have been done to my skull and brain if I hadn’t been wearing it. The cost without any brain damage was close to $200,000 and a couple of years of recovery. With brain damage, that cost would have been much higher and full recovery probably impossible. If you think it is “cool” to ride a motorcycle without a helmet, visit a rehab hospital and watch people who are trying to recover from brain damage. Riding without a helmet might be “cool,” but living with muscles that won’t work and slobber running down your chin is not.

Only slightly more than half the motorcycle crash victims have health insurance, which means the government winds up picking up the cost for the rest. And, the average cost for the unhelmeted rider is eight percent higher. Without adequate insurance, you are going to be sent home from the hospital long before you are ready and your family will bear the burden of your care: feeding you, emptying your bed pan, dressing you, and bathing you in bed: not nearly as cool as having your hair flowing freely in the wind as you cruise down the highway.

In spite of what the medical literature and cost analyses show, lobbyists for motorcycle enthusiasts managed to get helmet laws changed at the federal and state levels. After the repeal of the helmet law in Arkansas, the percentage of motorcycle fatalities where the rider was not wearing a helmet went from 47 percent to 78 percent.

The anti-helmet crowd argues that “nobody has the right to tell me I have to wear a helmet.” The same argument is used by the anti-seatbelt crowd. This kind of elementary school idea of freedom doesn’t exist anywhere. And though it is tough for one with my libertarian instincts to defend these laws, I will, in part because a true libertarian society exists only in books and in the minds of libertarians like myself.

Where does the government get the right to dictate helmets, seatbelts or other such safety measures? It comes from we the people and our expectations. When faced with catastrophic financial ruin through an accident, an act of God such as a tornado or earthquake, or maybe a terrorist attack, we expect our government to provide some relief. Add to this government programs like Medicare and health insurance.

If the government is going to pick up the tab for these catastrophes, they have the right to make some rules. How many of you subsidize your teen agers living expenses or would consider financing a car for them without some rules? If you do or would, you are a highly irresponsible parent. Neither is the government going to pick up these costs without some rules.

We all want freedom until there are consequences to pay. One reason libertarianism doesn’t work is because most people don’t have the stomach to allow those without financial resources to die in the street, so we create social programs to care for them and ask the government to pay.

For those who want to ride without a helmet or ride in a car without a seatbelt, we could create an alternative. Let them sign a waiver that says in case of an accident, they will take full responsibility. Let them waive the right to the help of any government subsidized ambulance, EMT personnel, emergency room or medical care.

Then have them wear a med-alert bracelet that says “I am a free and independent person able to pay my own way. If you are in anyway subsidized by the government, you are forbidden to help me.”

Forget the waiver; we welcome government or insurance programs which spread these costs among many. When we do, we lose the right to abandon common sense and agree to abide by reasonable rules.

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