Ever since Lawrence of Arabia (T.E. Lawrence) crashed his motorcycle in 1935 -- portrayed in the opening scene of the epic film -- a debate has raged over the need for helmets. Lawrence crashed his Brough Superior SS100 after swerving to avoid some boys on bicycles near his home in Britain. He was not wearing a helmet and suffered serious injuries to his head. He died after six days in a coma.
His doctor, neurosurgeon Hugh Cairns, launched into a study of injury prevention, and his work led to the growing adoption of helmets by motorcycle riders, both civilian and military. Debate has raged ever since. Proposals to require helmets by law on all Utah highways have consistently failed to gain traction.
Now a Utah lawmaker -- Sen. Todd Weiler of Woods Cross -- is bringing the subject up again. Weiler says he doesn't want to "subsidize stupidity" and will be pushing a bill to make motorcycle helmets mandatory when the Legislature convenes next month. He says too many motorcycle riders who survive a crash end up needing government assistance.
Steve Thompson of the Utah chapter of American Bikers Aiming Toward Education says his group will oppose the measure, saying bikers should have the "right to decide."
Data are mixed and often controversial. By one estimate, approximately 60 percent of the people killed in Utah motorcycle wrecks in the past 10 years were not wearing a helmet. A slipperier 2008 review of studies concluded that helmets reduce the risk of head injury by around 69 percent and death by around 42 percent.
Yet with relatively small absolute numbers, it must be wondered how motorcycle helmets get elevated to a "public health issue." That's the term vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Christopher Hart, used when he noted a doubling in the past decade of motorcycle deaths as the overall number of traffic deaths was shrinking. Two-thirds of dead motorcyclists were not wearing helmets.
That doesn't make it a "public health issue" -- a term properly associated with epidemics, widespread pollution and the like. Those are cases where government should step in. Riding a motorcycle? Not so much. Nobody but the rider himself risks a head injury.
What is argued by Utah's Sen. Weiler -- and others on side of government intervention, including the feds -- is that the public is forced to cover medical costs when bikers have no insurance. This might be a valid argument if the burden of actual dollars -- not just percentages -- was so large that it justified the intrusion of personal liberty that a mandatory helmet law represents.
But be careful there, Bucko: If you're going to base your argument solely on the public cost burden, then it's only fair to consider the mitigating factors on the other side of the equation. Freedom results in public savings when a man dies in a wreck. There are no medical costs, no collections of Social Security, no Medicare to pay. When a dead biker happens to be young, even more benefits can be seen, starting with terrific, healthy organs that can be donated to anxious transplant patients.
We speak only half in jest. What should be taken seriously, though, is the principle that data, not emotion, should drive public policy. All policy should be balanced in light of the consequences for individual liberty, and government ought to be consistent.
Critics of mandatory helmet laws rightly argue that many behaviors in society can burden taxpayers. Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman expressed it this way: "If you have a strong disregard for your own health and safety, you are free to express it in all sorts of ways. You can smoke cigarettes. You can gorge on fast food five times a day. You can go live among bears in Alaska. You can stagger through the worst part of town at 2 a.m. You can become a trapeze artist. You can join the Marine Corps."
And so it's fair to ask: In light of the personal discretion Americans exercise as they take all manner of risks, why single out the poor motorcyclists for legislative punishment? They don't represent even a ripple in an ocean of health care costs. It's obesity that will be the monster drain in coming decades.
Unless you're going to ban motorcycles altogether -- along with extra large sodas -- you might as well forget about reducing risks to individual riders. Riding itself carries inherent risks, helmet or no helmet. And the state's interest doesn't seem compelling.
Twenty states plus the District of Columbia have mandatory motorcycle helmet laws for all riders. Others are a mixed bag, depending on age. Utah, for instance, requires a helmet for any rider under age 17. This seems reasonable since young people cannot be expected to understand the risks.
But isn't that far enough? Here's hoping the Utah Legislature doesn't go bonkers and expand the nanny state.