The Electric Commentary

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

King Peter

Courtesy of MDS we have this bit of wisdom from SI's Peter King:

And while we're at it, how dumb does Pennsylvania look for not making helmets mandatory? I heard a state legislator on the radio this morning say that this accident wouldn't cause him to change his mind. It's about human rights, he said. Riders should not be forced to wear a helmet.

I've got one for you, Mr. Politician. Let's repeal seat-belt laws, and gun laws, and minimum drinking ages, and let's just let America be the Wild, Wild West. Do what you want, when you want.

Laws are made to protect people, even when they think they don't need protecting. Wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle is about as basic as one can get in terms of human safety. It's irresponsible to argue the other side.

Perhaps we should ban Mr. King's annual run of egg nog lattes. After all, they are very high in fat and cholesterol, and clearly endangering one of our nation's most hallowed sports writers.

King has this exactly backwards. Of all of the potential laws out there, helmet laws are among the least justified. The negative consequences of going helmet-less on a bike are almost entirely internalized to the rider. Helmets, after all, do not prevent accidents. (In fact, if motorcycle enthusiasts follow the general trend, then helmets probably increase the frequency of accidents by providing a sense of security which allows for more risk taking. They also probably suffer a slight visual impairment.) They merely reduce the severity of accidents, and when a rider makes the decision to ride without a helmet, they are fully cognizant of that fact. While the injuries to Roethlisberger may be tragic, it is difficult to plausibly blame anyone but Roethlisberger for the state in which he now finds himself.

The state is justified in regulating an activity only when that activity inflicts negative externalities onto third parties. While I am not a fan of smoking bans, a governmental smoking ban is 1000 times more justifiable than a helmet law just based on dry-cleaning costs.

And seat-belt laws are every bit as unjustified as helmet laws (except for children, I suppose). The exact same arguments apply.

As for firearms, while the freedom to own guns is guaranteed by the 2nd amendment, guns at least do pose a threat to third parties, and so some regulation may be justified in some circumstances.

You all know how I feel about the drinking age. (If you do not, here is the short version: It is criminal to stop 18-year-olds from drinking, and teenage drinking should be allowed with parental consent and supervision so that teens can learn to drink properly.)

Perhaps the best argument against both helmet and seat-belt laws is that the natural negative consequences far outweigh the legal consequences in severity. This is an area where everyone makes an informed decision. Mr. King, do you really think that a $50 fine would have dissuaded Big Ben where the prospect of broken bones and a lost career failed to do so? I think not.

In this country, people should be free to make their own decisions, even bad ones. Some bikers may value the feeling of the wind in their hair more than the .1% chance of death that they may face. That may be stupid, but it is not for anyone else to decide.

Mr King, you should be careful when you advocate banning some activity that people enjoy. Eventually, someone may come for that latte.

The Coyote Blog has more:

By the way, helmet laws are a particularly interesting bit of nanny-statism, since motorcyclers are such a small percentage of the population. In most states where this law gets passed, the votes of people who will never ride a motorcycle and for whom the law will always be irrelevant generally overwhelms the wishes of motorcyclers themselves. I wonder how many women who piously preach that the government can't tell us what to do with our bodies typically vote for helmet laws that tell people, uh, what they can do with their bodies.


  • I generally agree with your point, and you're right that "the negative consequences . . . are almost entirely internalized to the rider." But I'm not necessarily convinced that we should write off those negative externalities. Consider, for exampe, the innocent, lawful driver whose car is hit by a speeding, drunk, center-line-crossing, seatbeltless driver who dies as a result of the accident. While there's no question that the seatbeltless driver bore the largest cost of his decision, the emotional trauma that the innocent driver may suffer (being proximately involved in another person's death is not easy to accept, even if you're not at fault) can be quite significant. I'm usually not a touchy-feely-pooh-poohy kind of guy, but I think the discussion is at least worth having.

    The argument for helmet laws, I think, is less compelling on that ground. I haven't seen the data, but I suspect seatbelts save many more lives than helmets do. A helmet law therefore would save fewer people from the position I just described.

    Otherwise, yeah. Peter King sucks, huh?

    By Blogger Nye!, at 10:31 PM  

  • Look at it this way ... I only own one helmet because I choose to only own one helmet, and besides, they're not really cheap. It's a full-face helmet because sometimes I ride when it's pretty cold out, and I need the protection from the cold wind. I also ride at night sometimes, so I need a clear faceshield on it, since tinted ones are against the law at night. That helmet is almost unwearable during a 90 degree day. For one, it is hot and stuffy. For another, without tinting, it becomes very hard on the eyes. If I wear that helmet at that point, I become a less safe driver to those around me as I become less comfortable and can't see as well. While the helmet is a wise idea for my own safety in most situations in case of a crash, in the wrong situation, it can make driving it, more dangerous, and thus make an accident more likely. I truly think, while it is a good idea to wear a helmet, it should be left up to the driver/rider to decide if/when to wear one.

    As for the seatbelt law ... most laws that try to prevent people from being stupid -- in this case, not wearing a seatbelt -- are stupid themselves. Main reason being that people that are stupid enough to do things that may harm themselves are probably stupid enough to do those things even if they are against the law.

    The seatbelt law doesn't really bother me, though, since wearing a seatbelt doesn't really affect my ability to drive in any way. Sure, I can't lean all the way over to the passenger side of the car to get something out of the door pocket, but while I'm driving, I shouldn't be doing that anyway. Certainly, I am less incumbered by a seatbelt in a motor vehicle than I am by a helmet on a motorcycle. And secondly, it should encourage anyone with children to make sure that they are also buckled in safely.

    I do have to say, though, that I'd like to see rot in the pitfires of hell any lawmaker that votes to make a seatbelt violation a primary offense. The LAST thing we need in this country is to be pulled over under the suspicion of not wearing a seatbelt. That's just utterly ridiculous. If I don't have to wear a seatbelt on my motorcycle, why should it be a primary offense to be required to wear a seatbelt?

    Oh, and yes, Peter King sucks. I think Steve Czaban writes about how much Peter King sucks at least once a month.

    By Anonymous mitch, at 7:45 AM  

  • People should definately be free to wear or not wear a helment when riding a motorcycle. However, if a person not wearing a helmet is injured in an accident, the fact that they were not wearing one should definately be factored in for contributory negligence purposes. Right now, in WI, it can't be. Insurance companies should be able to write policies that only cover if the person is wearing a helmet too. Or charge a higher premium for a policy that covers even when the driver wasn't wearing a helmet.

    By Blogger DannyNoonan, at 8:13 AM  

  • Wow, I had no idea that was the law in Wisconsin. That's absurd. Do you know what the rationale is for preventing insurance companies from writing a policy like that?

    In all the talk about Roethlisberger, I'm amazed that I haven't heard anyone talk about the positive aspects of motorcycle riding: It uses less gas than cars, causes less congestion on the streets, takes up less space in parking, carries less of a risk to the other party in an accident, etc. I'm not sure what it says about our society when people who risk harm only to themselves by riding a motorcycle without a helmet are criticized more than people who harm everyone by driving a Hummer.

    By Blogger MDS, at 9:19 AM  

  • I think two of my thoughts blended together there MDS. The law does not prevent insurance companies from writing policies like that as far as I know. But the argument is made quite often. THe law does say that not wearing a helmet can't be considered negligence.

    Wis. Stat. sec. 901.053 states:
    "Admissibility of evidence relating to use of protective headgear while operating certain motor vehicles.

    Evidence of use or nonuse of protective headgear by a person, other than a person required to wear protective headgear under s. 23.33 (3g) or 347.485 (1), who operates or is a passenger on a motorcycle, as defined in s. 340.01 (32), an all-terrain vehicle, as defined in s. 340.01 (2g), or a snowmobile, as defined in s. 340.01 (58a), on or off a highway, is not admissible in any civil action for personal injury or property damage."

    I have no idea why anyone would think this makes any sense.

    By Blogger DannyNoonan, at 10:05 AM  

  • new mexico prides itself on two things: (1) their "click it or ticket" seatbelt deal, and (2) their love of sobriety checkpoints. the checkpoints are beyond awful (waste enormous amount of time for citizens, lead to illegal searches, etc), but what's worse is that the local government rationalizes them by pointing to the high drunk driver rate in the state (which of course is a self-fulfilling prophesy).

    by the way, i love the coffee reference to king.

    By Blogger ethan, at 12:12 PM  

  • sobriety checkpoint!
    best band ever!

    they also have seat belt checkpoints now. yay.

    By Blogger ahren, at 2:33 PM  

  • I would say that seatbelt laws are more justifiable than helmet laws. Why? Because there is supposedly evidence that seatbelts prevent secondary collisions in accidents by keeping the driver in an upright position behind the wheel and thus able to control the vehicle after it has been impacted.

    You might be able to make the argument that because seatbelts can so dramatically reduce the severity or existence of injuries that the reduction in costs to the community in terms of emergency and medical services is great enough (not even having to call an ambulance) to contribute to the externalities justification.

    By Blogger Scott H, at 2:39 PM  

  • Back to Peter King, this is the sentence that really grinds my gears: "Laws are made to protect people, even when they think they don't need protecting."

    Why not pass a law protecting football players from being tackled? We would prevent thousands of injuries this year if tackle football were abolished. I don't have any numbers to back me up on this, but I feel confident saying that of the two things we know Roethlisberger likes to do -- riding motorcycles and playing football -- he's more likely to sustain an injury that requires medical attention doing the latter. In fact, I'll wager anyone right now that in 30 years, Ben Roethlisberger will have had more surgeries related to his playing of football than he'll have had related to his riding of motorcycles. Peter King, what do you say? Wanna wager a week's salary?

    By Blogger MDS, at 3:03 PM  

  • Just thought I'd throw it out there that I had this discussion, more or less, with my wife a few hours ago. She's a med student, and has spent quite a bit of the time in the ER--she says that the vast majority of motorcycle accident victims that came into her ER were uninsured, and argues that the benefit of helmet laws is that it greatly reduces the burden those uninsured motorcyclists inflict upon society. She even cited several different studies finding that, on average, total medical bills were in the range of 20% to 63% higher for helmet-less riders. She even found a paper that said uninsured cyclists were more likely to ride without helmets. Just thought I'd throw that out there.

    By Blogger Nye!, at 9:36 PM  

  • Well first of all, a "helmet" can be many things, and most of them suck when it comes to protecting your head in a non-trivial wreck.

    A full-face is really the only way to go in an accident where you are engaged face-first which looked to be the case with Big Ben. The problem is that most cruiser riders (Big Ben again) tend to not use them in lieu of the cap-top or 3/4 face models. Of course these guys ride in t-shirts and vests too.

    In response to the ER post, I would argue that a biker who rides without insurance has already expressed a disregard for the law, so a helmet law would seem have a negligible effect on their behavior and - by extension - their cost to society.

    By Anonymous Rashid Z. Muhammad, at 8:58 AM  

  • "a biker who rides without insurance has already expressed a disregard for the law, so a helmet law would seem have a negligible effect on their behavior"

    No, because a cop can see if a motorcyclist isn't wearing a helmet and give him a ticket on the spot. That's not true for riding without insurance.

    By Blogger MDS, at 1:48 PM  

  • Maybe in a perfect world MDS, but most of the people that I know who are prone to ride without helmets - and we have helmet laws here in Ga - only do so when they are riding locally (e.g. to the grocery store or a nearby friend's house). The probability of them being stopped on such short rides is pretty low (hence their willingness to regularly take the risk), plus, enforcing helmet laws isn't really high on the priority list for The Man.

    The sad thing about that is, every biker who has taken a MSF sponsored license test (and just about all of them are) knows that most accidents happen within two miles of the rider's home. I've always found it curious that this probability is rarely calculated into the short distance non-helmet risk assessment.

    By Anonymous Rashid Z. Muhammad, at 7:51 AM  

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