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States Urged to Enact or Retain Motorcycle Helmet Laws

Statement for Attribution to Lt. Colonel Jim Champagne, Chair of the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA)

Washington, D.C. - I am deeply disturbed by the serious increase in motorcycle fatalities. Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) projected that 2004 represented the seventh straight year of increases in this area. NHTSA's preliminary estimate is that 3,927 motorcyclists died in 2004. This is a 7.3 percent rise since 2003 and an 85 percent rise since 1997. Motorcycle fatalities have increased from 5 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities in 1997 to a projected 9 percent in 2004.

Why is this happening? In large part, the lack of motorcycle helmet laws in states is the culprit. Currently, only 20 states and the District of Columbia have a helmet law that applies to all riders. Given the serious trends in motorcycle fatalities, one would think additional states would be mulling enactment of new laws. The reality is that some of the 20 states are actually considering repealing their laws. As chair of GHSA, I have taken action, as the situation is too serious to ignore. Recently, I've testified in Virginia urging that state retain its law. At the request of safety advocates, I have also contacted governors and legislators in Michigan, West Virginia and Maryland urging they reject attempts to repeal their laws. I am also working with advocates in Nebraska to help them defend their law.

I feel so strongly about this issue because I have seen the impact of a motorcycle helmet law in my state of Louisiana. In 1999, Louisiana abolished its universal helmet law. This led to a terrible spike in the death of motorcyclists. In 1998, the year before the law's repeal, we achieved nearly 100 percent helmet usage and experienced 35 motorcycle fatalities. By 2003, the law's repeal had reduced helmet use to 35 percent and fatalities had spiked to 83---a 137 percent increase.

Fortunately, in 2004, Louisiana's universal motorcycle helmet law was reinstated. We are the only state in the country to have enacted this law in the last decade-a shocking statistic given fatality trends.

As I travel the country, I am often told that a helmet law is an infringement on a person's freedom of choice. The problem with this argument is that one's freedom of choice should not negatively affect the rest of society. A recent study from the Medical Center of Louisiana in New Orleans (a Level 1 Trauma Center) showed that 91.8 percent of people admitted after unhelmeted motorcycle collisions did not have any health insurance. We all pay their medical bills.

Whether everyone likes it or not, we legislate highway safety in all states. We pass laws to protect people who are unable or unwilling to protect themselves. Public access highways are built and maintained by the government to provide people with the freedom to travel. It is not a right to operate a vehicle on these roads, but rather, it is a privilege. It is a privilege earned after reaching a certain age, passing a driving test and gaining a license. In order to maintain this privilege, one is required to obey the common sense laws and those should include a universal motorcycle helmet law.

May is Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month. I encourage all states to use this occasion to highlight the need to reverse the sobering fatality trends surrounding motorcycle fatalities.