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New Mexico’s 2015 Novel Motorcycle Helmet Legislation: Rider’s Choice or Responsibility?

posted on Wed, Apr 29 2015 11:31 am by Colleen Healy

“Helmets are proven to save lives and money, and universal helmet laws are the most effective way to increase helmet use,” said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in a 2012 analysis. The analysis looked at the association between states’ motorcycle helmet laws, injured motorcyclists’ helmet use, and economic costs of injury and fatality.

Helmet use has been shown to reduce the likelihood of fatal injury in a motorcycle crash by approximately 37 percent and to reduce the likelihood of brain injury by approximately 67 percent. Moreover, helmet use undoubtedly increases among motorcyclists driving in states with universal helmet laws. Currently, 19 states and Washington D.C. have universal helmet laws, 28 states (including New Mexico) have partial helmet laws that require helmet use by young riders, and three states have no helmet law. According to the CDC’s analysis, in states with universal helmet laws, 12 percent of fatally injured motorcyclists were not wearing a helmet, compared to 64 percent in states with partial helmet laws and 79 percent in states without any helmet law at all.

The CDC also found that helmet use resulted in average cost savings of $725 per registered motorcyclist in states with universal helmet laws, compared to only $198 per registered motorcyclist in states without universal helmet laws. These savings include medical and emergency service costs as well as property damage costs. 

Notwithstanding the significant life and cost saving impact of motorcycle helmets, a 2014 New York Times article, “Fewer Helmets, More Deaths,” noted the recent trend among states to repeal universal helmet laws in response to pressure from anti-helmet motorcycle advocacy groups. When universal helmet laws are repealed, “the number of fatalities starts to rise immediately.” Nevertheless, some anti-helmet motorcycle advocacy groups argue that “use or non-use [of helmets] is connected with a chosen lifestyle” and claim that universal helmet laws infringe on “their right as adults to make their own decisions,” despite having little or no data or legal authority to support their view.

In response to this trend, Dr. Kurt Nolte, M.D., Chief Medical Investigator for the Office of the Medical Investigator at the University of New Mexico’s Health Sciences Center, developed a new and innovative type of partial helmet law intended to prevent injury and protect the public’s health while respecting the rights asserted by motorcyclists to wear or not wear a helmet while operating a motorcycle.  

Dr. Nolte’s novel proposal, referred to as the “Rider’s Choice” Partial Motorcycle Helmet Law and introduced in the New Mexico State Senate during the 2015 Regular Legislative Session as SB 308, would allow motorcyclists to choose when registering their motorcycle whether to pay the standard registration fee of $15, which would require the registrant to wear a helmet when riding, or to pay an increased fee of $692 that would allow the registrant to ride without a helmet; the rider’s choice would be reflected in a validation sticker affixed to the rider’s license plate. The increased fee reflects the actual costs to New Mexicans for injuries and deaths of non-helmeted riders based on the CDC study. Advocates of the bill explain that the proposal “allows motorcyclists to choose whether to wear a helmet or not, and also makes unhelmeted riders responsible for the actual costs of choosing not to wear a helmet.”

Despite the element of “choice” that defines and distinguishes the “Rider’s Choice” Partial Helmet Law from universal helmet laws, the proposal was still met with significant opposition and was eventually tabled by the NM Senate Public Affairs Committee on February 24, 2015, with a one vote margin of defeat.

This post was prepared by Colleen Healy, J.D., Policy Analyst, Michigan Primary Care Association with input from Clifford M. Rees, J.D., Practice Director for the Network for Public Health Law – Western Region at the Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Conner College of Law.    

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.

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