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Free to Be...Roadkill?

US motorcycle deaths have more than doubled since 1997. Bikers' response: Leave us alone.

| Thu Jun. 7, 2012 3:10 AM PDT

Other studies have shown that while training helps riders pass basic skills tests, their odds of crashing after six months on the road are about the same as those of an untrained rider. And even if training does make some motorcyclists safer, public health advocates argue that relying on it exclusively is like telling people who take a driver's ed course that they no longer need seat belts or car seats for their children.

That motorcyclists have managed to evade the sort of regulation that has made seat belts and car seats standard equipment speaks to the power of a vocal minority whose libertarian message resonates with lawmakers. The bikers' groups are funded by manufacturers that have nothing against helmets per se, but are loath to offend their most vehement customers. The American Motorcyclist Association—whose corporate members include Harley-Davidson and North American divisions of Yamaha, Kawasaki, Honda, and Suzuki—has spent $3.8 million lobbying Congress on helmet laws and other issues over the last decade, while doling out more than $200,000 in campaign contributions, according to OpenSecrets.org. The Motorcycle Riders Foundation spent $2.1 million in lobbying during the same period.

These groups also maintain armies consisting of thousands of grassroots volunteers who are always down for a good protest ride, and are ready to make plenty of noise when called upon. That's the force Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), a longtime supporter of mandatory helmet laws, ran up against last December, as he was poised to propose a bill that forcing states to pass helmet laws or else lose millions in federal highway funds.

The rider groups raised the red flag among their members, encouraging members to give their lawmakers an earful. In the end, Lautenberg ditched his pro-helmet bid without even offering it up for formal consideration. A spokesman for the senator says Lautenberg "remains committed to strengthening helmet laws and is pursuing several strategies to increase helmet use across the country."

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety InformationSource: National Highway Traffic Safety Information

In the mid-1990s, NHTSA began encouraging states to pass helmet laws, and set aside $330,000 to educate legislators on the issue. One of the components, a video titled "Without Motorcycle Helmets, We All Pay the Price," featured testimonials from crash survivors and a trauma room physician who compared helmets to "a vaccine" because of the compelling evidence that they reduced brain injuries.

Controversy ensued when the Motorcycle Riders Foundation circulated an early cut of the video to its congressional allies, complaining that NHTSA was using tax dollars to lobby against the interests of taxpaying bikers. They found a champion in Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.)—Harley-Davidson is headquartered in Milwaukee—and in 1998 Congress passed a sweeping measure barring NHTSA from influencing state and local legislators on any pending legislation. Representatives of the agency may appear as witnesses, but only in response to an official invitation.

More recently, after NHTSA signaled a renewed interest in promoting helmet use, Sensenbrenner sponsored a House resolution that would reaffirm the gag rule. And last year, when NHTSA earmarked $350,000 to help state police set up roadside safety checkpoints for motorcyclists, Sensenbrenner introduced a bill that would sever funding for the program. His resolution, which attracted 18 cosponsors, is now in the hands of a House subcommittee, while the ban on checkpoint funding is with a House-Senate conference committee working on a long-term surface transportation bill.

The aim of the state checkpoints, in part, has been to crack down on so-called novelty helmets, which account for an estimated 1 in 5 helmets on the road. They are lightweight, come in various styles, and help riders keep police off their case. But they're worthless in a crash. "They are just plastic toys, essentially," says Tim McMahon, a California personal injury lawyer who won a $1.7 million award for a Fresno man who sustained brain damage while wearing a novelty helmet he thought was safe.

"These checkpoints are not an effective use of taxpayer money," Sensenbrenner responded in a statement. "Motorcycle-only checkpoints force law enforcement officials to play 'nanny state' to all riders rather than focusing on those who are endangering themselves and others on the road, and do not address the factors that contribute to motorcycle crashes."

"You cannot be in this battle," says Michigan public health advocate Michael Dabbs, "and not be frustrated by this senselessness."

Instead, the bikers' groups insist that NHTSA, which has doled out more than $30 million in training grants over the years, should step up that effort. "The federal government says all day long: 'You guys are a huge problem. You are killing yourselves out there. You need to start wearing helmets.' But then they do not want to put resources" toward training and accident prevention, says Jeff Hennie, a DC lobbyist for the Motorcycle Riders Foundation.

The stark disconnect between what biker groups are asking for and what safety experts say actually works riles public health advocates like Michael Dabbs, president of the Brain Injury Association of Michigan. "You cannot be in this battle," he says, "and not be frustrated by this senselessness." He adds that the riders' insistence on personal freedom would be socially unacceptable if taken to its logical extreme: "Maybe we ought to save some of the costs when police or emergency responders go to the scene of a crash and the person is not wearing a helmet," Dabbs says. "Perhaps they ought to be left there like roadkill."

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