James Winston, a large man with a shiny Harley, doesn't like to wear his motorcycle helmet. He lives in California, which has a mandatory helmet law, so Winston usually puts it on with a scowl.
But there are days he cruises the San Gabriel Mountains east of Los Angeles or the desert near Palm Springs when Winston scans the distance for police, ties the helmet to the backrest and lets his silvery hair loose.
"It feels damn good," he says. "I just hope the cops aren't looking."
Winston isn't particularly impressed that he's much less likely to be killed or seriously injured in an accident while protected with a helmet. To him, it's a freedom thing. But to the states with laws requiring that riders wear them, it's a public safety thing. And to the insurance companies paying the medical bills, it's a money thing.
Twenty states and the District of Columbia require all riders to wear helmets, with 27 states requiring them for some cyclists, usually those 17 or younger (here's a state by state breakdown, courtesy of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety). Only Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire do not have a helmet regulation.
Riders forced to wear helmets often don't like it. In New York, a helmet-free protest ride is a yearly event. And this year, one of its participants died during the ride in a crash experts agreed he would have survived had he been wearing a helmet. Phil Contos, 55, was no novice and no fool, his friends say.
"If he's looking down now, being the poster boy for helmet laws is making him sick to his stomach," friend Nick Chudyk told the Syracuse Post-Standard.
Despite the statistics, many motorcyclists across the country are against the mandatory laws, stressing that helmet use is a personal choice, regardless of the risks. The primary "anti-law" groups are the American Motorcyclist Association, the Motorcycle Riders Foundation and American Bikers Aimed Toward Education (ABATE).
Most have been around for decades and maintain one principle: No government or agency has the right to dictate safety gear. "The very nature of riding a motorcycle is a feeling of freedom," Paul Williams of the Helena, Mont., ABATE chapter told USA Today. "People who ride motorcycles tend to be a lot more sensitive about losing their freedoms."
Helmets, no helmets, and somewhere in between
The ongoing battle over helmets is currently being waged in Delaware and Michigan. Delaware's governor recently vetoed a repeal of that state's mandatory helmet law. Even so, a peculiar loophole in the 30-year-old law remains: Riders are required to possess a helmet, but not to actually wear it.
In Michigan, efforts are under way to repeal the state's helmet law for motorcyclists over 21. The proposed twist: Those who choose to go without must carry a $100,000 personal injury protection insurance policy.
Michigan, a no-fault insurance state, has a fund for catastrophic medical costs that all insured drivers pay into. With the state projecting an additional 30 deaths, 127 incapacitating injuries and $129 million in catastrophic costs if the helmet law is repealed, trial attorneys and Michigan AAA say the surcharge on all drivers will soar.
The state's insurance rates are already among the nation's highest.
In general, helmet laws are not a big factor in what motorcyclists pay for insurance, according to Michael Barry, a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute. "Motorcycle insurers are generally looking at the actual claims-filing history in any given state when calculating their premium rates, regardless of whether or not that state has a mandatory helmet law or not," he says.
Even so, industry experts and the insurers themselves stand firmly behind the laws.
An insurance-discount carrot
In support of a universal helmet law, the IIHS points to studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showing that crash deaths are reduced by more than one-third when a cyclist wears a helmet. The figure is usually reflected in states that adopt such regulations; NHTSA used California as an example:
"When California's helmet use law covering all riders took effect on Jan. 1, 1992, helmet use jumped to 99 percent from about 50 percent before the law," NHTSA notes. "And the number of motorcyclist fatalities decreased 37 percent."
Beyond that, most insurers provide discounts for any cyclist who takes a safety course provided by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation and others. These classes usually make a point of wearing a helmet in all driving situations.
Christine Tasher, GEICO's public relations director, says the company offers a 10 percent cut for course certification. Elizabeth B. Stelzer, a Nationwide spokesperson, points out that the insurer provides a five percent premium discount if you pass a class.
Stelzer adds that Nationwide's standard motorcycle policy includes up to a $3,000 reimbursement for any damage done to a helmet or any other safety gear. Other insurers offer similar provisions with varying amounts. Your agent can tell you what's available.
"I try to do all the stuff, all the mental check lists" to be safe on his Harley, says Winston. "I respect myself and other riders. … I just want to respect them without a helmet stuck to my head, that's all."