Without a motorcycle helmet law for adults, we all pay

August 28, 2023 4:34 pm
South Dakota Highway Patrol Trooper Jordan Melius stops a motorcyclist during the 2023 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. (Courtesy of South Dakota Highway Patrol)

South Dakota Highway Patrol Trooper Jordan Melius stops a motorcyclist during the 2023 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. (Courtesy of South Dakota Highway Patrol)

There’s a legend in journalism circles about a metropolitan daily newspaper that published a weak editorial page that was squeamish about taking a stand on anything. The paper was so consistently wishy-washy that the editorial writers had their keyboards fixed so that if they hit control-T, their computers automatically typed: “This bears watching.”

This time of year, South Dakota reporters, and the public information officer for the Highway Patrol, could use their own control-T when writing about motorcycle accidents: “The victim was not wearing a helmet and was pronounced dead at the scene.”

Control-T would get a workout this time of year as there are plenty of fatal motorcycle accidents to report on during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. A South Dakota Searchlight story noted at least six motorcycle deaths officially associated with the rally as well as five other deaths in the days leading up to or after the rally that weren’t in the official total. It stands to reason, though, that when motorcyclists from Virginia, Michigan and Kansas die in South Dakota just before the rally, they were probably heading for Sturgis.

The holy Sturgis trinity: Noem, Jesus and family

Some of these stories wouldn’t need to be written if South Dakota had a helmet law. In this state, motorcyclists under 18 have to wear a helmet, but the rest of the riders can go without helmets — enjoying the wind in their hair and the bugs in their teeth. In South Dakota, wearing a helmet is left up to the rider’s good sense, which is often in short supply, especially during the rally.

Currently 17 states and the District of Columbia require all riders to wear helmets. Contrast that with Iowa, Illinois and New Hampshire which have no helmet laws at all. The rest of the states, like South Dakota, require young riders to wear helmets.

Getting a helmet law through the South Dakota Legislature would be a heavy lift. And getting Gov. Kristi (Freedom lives here) Noem to sign it would be another matter.

It was tough enough getting legislators to endorse a seat belt law. When that law went into effect on Jan. 1, 1995, it made South Dakota the last of 49 states to require seat belt use in automobiles. (There’s no seat belt law for adults in New Hampshire where they seem to take their state motto, “Live Free Or Die,” quite seriously.)

South Dakotans resisted a seat belt law for a long time, hesitant to let the government into their cars and strap a belt across their waists. It’s likely they won’t be keen about the government sitting on their heads, either. That’s too bad, because helmets work. Research shows that helmet use reduces the risk of death in an accident by 37% to 41%. Motorcyclists that don’t wear a helmet and get in accidents are three times more likely to suffer brain injury.

Motorcycle helmet use isn’t just a matter of safety, it’s a matter of money. Any motorcycle accidents, but particularly fatal accidents, cause insurance rates to go up. So even if you wear a helmet, your insurance rates are likely to increase thanks to those who don’t.

It’s not just motorcyclists that pay. We all do. We all pay for the law enforcement that investigates the accidents and the first responders that have to deal with the mess. Accident-prone motorcyclists who don’t have health insurance cause rates to go up for the rest of us while putting a burden on local taxpayers who may have to foot the bill for their care.

Maybe the solution can be found in something like the laws they have in Michigan and Florida. Those states allow adult motorcycle riders to forgo helmets if they have insurance with medical benefits of at least $20,000 and $10,000, respectively.

The people who were inspired to take to the open road by “Easy Rider” are older now. That means an accident could be that much more serious for them. In 1980, the average age of someone who rode a motorcycle was 27. In 2018, the average age was 50. This year, many of the motorcyclists that died up to and during the rally were eligible for senior citizen discounts.

Like seat belts, motorcycle helmets save lives. Still, it’s easy to imagine the rough road a motorcycle helmet law would face in the current Legislature. Those who stand against it would say that wearing a helmet curtails their freedom of the open road. Going without a helmet also keeps them free from safety and free from common sense.



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Dana Hess
Dana Hess

Dana Hess spent more than 25 years in South Dakota journalism, editing newspapers in Redfield, Milbank and Pierre. He's retired and lives in Brookings, working occasionally as a freelance writer.