Drive down any road in eastern Idaho during the summer and before long, a motorcyclist will pass by.
And many of them won’t be wearing helmets. Idaho does not require helmets for motorcyclists 18 and older, despite warnings from public health experts, and a wealth of data that supports the contention that motorcycle helmets save lives.
Michael Martinez, owner of Bonneville County Choppers, said the use of safety gear such as helmets and protective clothing separates “motorcycle enthusiasts” from hard-core “bikers.”
“There’s a culture about it,” Martinez said. “Most of the bikers I know don’t wear leathers.”
While Martinez considers himself a motorcycle enthusiast, he admits he doesn’t always wear a helmet or other safety gear.
“When I’m on the highway, I wear a helmet, and I should probably wear one in town,” he said. “But I’m not doing the speed that I am on the highway.”
‘All the gear, all the time’
Physician Andrew Garrity is a motorcycle rider. He works with Intermountain Emergency Physicians and also in the emergency room at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center.
He said he’s seen many deaths that could have been prevented by a helmet.
“It doesn’t take people riding recklessly or even at high speed to end up with a life-threatening injury or a fatality if they don’t have a helmet on,” Garrity said. “If their head comes in contact with the pavement or something hard, the head is going to lose that battle.”
With full gear, he said, the outcome usually is different.
“I can count on one hand the times I’ve seen people with all the gear get seriously injured on a road bike,” he said.
Since 2008, Nikki Egbert has worked as a motorcycle skills tester and safety instructor for the Harley-Davidson Riding Academy and Idaho STAR training program.
Egbert also advocates using protective gear, including helmets and protective clothing to help prevent “road rash” — abrasions that come from a rider sliding along the road.
The anti-helmet lobby
Motorcycle rights organizations have led the charge against mandatory helmet laws.
In Idaho, there are two chapters of the ABATE — “A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments.” ABATE was established in 1971, five years after a federal law was passed that threatened to withdraw federal funds from states without mandatory helmet laws. That provision was abandoned in 1976.
During the next four years, 28 states repealed their helmet laws.
A 2007 report published in the American Journal of Public Health cited studies of Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky and Florida that all showed an increase — from 20 to 100 percent — in fatalities following the wave of repeals.
Idaho passed a universal helmet law in 1967, but repealed it in 1978. Today, only riders younger than 18 must wear helmets in Idaho.
Michelle Audette, is in charge of legislative affairs for ABATE of Southern Idaho.
“The government is not responsible for our safety,” she said.
The group also questions whether helmets increase rider safety.
“I’m sure in some cases (helmets have) saved some people from head injuries, but at the same time, a lot of the statistics would show that it has caused actual decapitation or getting caught and breaking necks,” she said.
The data available
But private, academic and government studies consistently show helmets reduce fatalities, as well as the severity of injuries, in motorcycle crashes.
In 2012, Michigan relaxed its laws to allow those 20 and older to ride unprotected. Consumer Reports found the average medical insurance claim for a motorcycle accident-related injury rose by 22 percent the following year.
Since Idaho does not require helmets, it is difficult to determine how many riders regularly wear them. Available data suggests, however, that riders without helmets were more likely to die in crashes.
According to a Department of Health and Welfare report, at least 41 percent of the 227 people who died in motorcycle accidents between 2003 and 2010 were not wearing a helmet. Helmets were worn in 33.5 percent of fatal accidents. Helmet use was unknown in the remaining cases.
During that same period, however, about 55 percent of motorcyclists involved in accidents were wearing helmets, according to Department of Transportation data.
A matter of choice
Although Egbert advocates helmet use, she said she would not support a law forcing adults to wear them.
“I’m not going to tell someone they have to wear a helmet if they don’t want to,” Egbert said. “That’s their choice.”
But Egbert said it’s a choice that should not be taken lightly.
“It is not just about you,” she said. “It is about everyone around you — friends, loved ones.”