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Editorial: For safety’s sake, don’t reverse state’s helmet law

February 1, 2019 GMT

The reason for legislation introduced in this year’s West Virginia legislative session regarding motorcycle helmets isn’t 100 percent clear, but it may have something to do with montani semper liberi, which is Latin for the state motto of “Mountaineers are Always Free.”

Perhaps bolstering that concept is why Delegates John Kelly, R-Wood, and Scott Cadle, R-Mason, came forward with House Bill 2070. That measure would allow West Virginia residents 21 or older to operate or be a passenger on a motorcycle without hearing a helmet so long as they have had a motorcycle license for two years.

As it stands now, state law requires that all riders of motorcycles in West Virginia wear a helmet certified by the Department of Transportation, regardless of age or how long the rider has had a motorcycle license.

Changing the law would be a step backward in terms of safety, based on data gathered by various health agencies and organizations across the country. And House Bill 2070′s inclusion of the age and duration of licensing requirements would do little to change that.

About 5,000 people are killed annually in the U.S. in motorcycle accidents, while in West Virginia about 25-30 motorcyclists and their occupants have died annually in recent years. Those are not huge numbers in the context of overall traffic deaths, but motorcyclists and their passengers are far more at risk of death and injury than people in other vehicles. Consider: Per vehicle miles traveled, motorcycle fatalities occurred nearly 28 times more frequently than passenger-car fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Simply put, passenger-car vehicles provide far more protection to the occupants.

Motorcyclists’ use of helmets can help reduce that risk. The NHTSA, in assessing motorcycle fatalities that occurred in 2016, estimated that helmets saved 1,859 motorcyclists’ lives that year and that 802 more could have been saved if all motorcyclists had worn helmets. The agency also estimates that helmets are 37 percent effective in preventing fatal injuries to motorcycle drivers and 41 percent effective for motorcycle passengers. Granted, that’s far from a 100 percent guarantee that a motorcyclist will survive a crash, but it is a decided improvement in the odds.

While those supporting the proposed legislation may think that age 21 is a marker for safer driving and therefore no need for a helmet, recent data suggest otherwise. Both the NHTSA and the Governors Highway Safety Administration note that the age of motorcyclists involved in fatal crashes has skewed older in recent years. In 2016, people 50 or older were involved in more fatalities than any other age group, whereas a decade earlier that distinction belonged to people under 30.

We understand that many motorcyclists resent the loss of their freedom to feel the wind in their hair unobstructed by a helmet. But not long after motor vehicles came into being well more than a century ago, government has felt compelled to address a variety of safety issues that became evident. The public over time has adjusted, and lives were no doubt saved. This is one of those instances where the safety of a segment of our population has priority. The state’s current helmet law should remain.