It was clear when the Florida Legislature repealed mandatory motorcycle helmet laws that the decision would lead to more deaths and injuries. Now history shows that opponents of repeal were right. Fourteen years after relaxing its helmet laws, Florida has become a poster child for pro-helmet campaigns around the country. Motorcycle deaths have jumped dramatically from an average of 160 a year before the law was repealed to 457 in 2012 alone. Those numbers rank Florida among the top states for motorcycle fatalities and paint a grim picture of the cost of riding without a helmet. As Floridians enjoy the holiday weekend, drivers should particularly watch for motorcyclists — and motorcyclists should wear their helmets.
Motorcycle activists campaigned against requiring helmets for years. Most states had mandatory helmet laws by the mid 1960s, when Congress threatened to pull federal highway money if they didn't comply. When Congress changed its position, helmet laws began disappearing. Today only 19 states have mandatory helmet laws, and fierce battles are underway in many states to roll back those provisions. The debate heated up in Florida in 2000. Supporters of repealing helmet laws argued that helmets gave riders a false sense of security and endangered them because they blocked riders' sight lines and prevented them from hearing ambient noise, which made them less alert in traffic. Opponents of the repeal spoke of loved ones who died in motorcycle accidents while riding bareheaded. Others recalled suffering from debilitating injuries because they did not wear helmets or talked of walking away from accidents because helmets protected their skulls.
The Legislature repealed Florida's mandatory helmet law in 2000, allowing anyone over the age of 21 to ride without a helmet as long as they carry at least $10,000 in personal injury insurance coverage. Since then — except for a short period when the state required mandatory motorcycle training — there has been a steady increase in the number of injuries and fatalities among motorcycle riders. Ridership also has gone up, including among older riders who increasingly are involved in fatal accidents.
The vast majority of fatalities in motorcycle accidents occur among riders who do not wear helmets. Already, pro-helmet campaign leaders in Louisiana, Nebraska, Tennessee and Vermont have used Florida to dissuade voters from repealing helmet laws.
In this age of distracted automobile drivers, wearing a helmet when operating a motorcycle seems like common sense. It shouldn't take a law to enforce safety, but unfortunately it often does. Like seat belts in cars, helmets save lives.
Activists wary of losing the freedom to ride without a helmet should weigh that right against the costs of death or injury to the families who have lost loved ones in motorcycle accidents and to taxpayers who often pay when crashes result in visits to emergency rooms. The deadly results from repealing the helmet law are clear, and the Legislature should revisit the issue.