Pa. motorcycle helmet law still point of debate

LEWISTOWN – Ten years after Pennsylvania enacted the partial helmet law, debate still continues as riders fight for personal choice and healthcare professionals advocate for helmet safety during Motorcycle Safety and Awareness Month.

The purpose of wearing a helmet when riding, said Dr. David Braum, family medicine physician at Geisinger Lewistown, is to protect the brain. A helmet prevents minor concussions from a fall or a more serious injury like brain trauma during an accident, he said.

“Dying from a head injury is 40 percent more likely when the rider isn’t wearing a helmet,” Braum said. “It’s counter-intuitive that we ask people to wear seat belts for their safety, but not to wear helmets.”

Pennsylvania’s helmet law, enacted in 2003, states that a rider must be older than 21, with two years of riding experience, or have taken an approved motorcycle safety program to not wear a helmet. Pennsylvania is one of 28 states with partial helmet laws, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Rather than forcing riders to wear a helmet, the law allows them to make their own educated choice, said Mark Mitchell, legislative coordinator for the local A.B.A.T.E. (Alliance of Bikers Aimed Toward Education) chapter.

“I think the law is well written … a reasonable balance between letting people go uneducated or having the heavy hand of government involved in daily life,” Mitchell said. “Most of the time I do wear a half ‘police’ style helmet. There are times, though, when I go without it.”

A biker’s safety doesn’t come down to whether or not they wear a helmet, but to the education and experience they have, Mitchell said. An educated rider makes better decisions and understands how to ride better than an unlicensed rider, he said.

“Anyone can throw a leg over a motorcycle and twist the throttle,” Mitchell said. “It’s the understanding of how to ride and how to avoid or deal with events that risk your safety that makes someone a true motorcyclist.”

All the education in the world, though, doesn’t teach riders how to control their environment, Braum said. Going to safety classes only helps so much when a car is suddenly coming at you, he said.

“If people have enough riding experience and education, then they should know it’s the surrounding environment that’s the issue,” Braum said. “You might be less likely to have an accident, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. And in that case, wearing a helmet reduces the risk of death or injury.”

Since the helmet law was enacted, the percentage of motorcycle deaths and injuries where the rider wasn’t wearing a helmet has increased, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s Crash Facts and Statistics Report.

On average, 15 percent of riders were documented not wearing a helmet during fatal accidents before the law was changed. The percentage has since increased to 47 percent once the law was no longer universal. The number of no-helmet injuries has also increased by 21 percent.

Though the statistics might seem straightforward, Mitchell said, there are a number of factors that should be taken into consideration. The numbers need to be looked at and understood more deeply than as they are presented, he said.

“After the law was changed, Pennsylvania had a huge increase in motorcycle registrations and people getting their license,” Mitchell said. “If you look at five or 10 year reports, you see that, from year to year, the number changes, but in relationship to the number of motorcycle riders out there, the range of accidents stays pretty steady.”

A similar case can be seen in Michigan, where the same helmet law was passed, Mitchell said. After examining the statistics, they found that roughly half of riders in fatal accidents were not even licensed and were breaking the law, he said.

The concern is, licensed or unlicensed, that motorcycles are involved in 11 percent of accidents every year, Braum said. A helmet simply lowers the risk of death should the unexpected occur, he said.

“It’s not likely that the law will be changed anytime soon or even at all,” Braum said. “But hopefully, people will use their freedom of choice to make the right choice. Helmets save lives.”