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New Mexico’s Novel Motorcycle Helmet Legislation: Defining Individual Choice in Public Health

posted on Wed, May 13 2015 4:20 pm by Colleen Healy

In an earlier post, I discussed the background of a partial motorcycle helmet bill, Senate Bill 308, tabled by the recently adjourned 2015 New Mexico Legislature. The proposed law 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.

 A strong source of opposition to SB 308, referred to as the “Rider’s Choice” bill, came from the New Mexico Motorcycle Rights Organization (NMMRO). The NMMRO used precisely the same language of “choice” to characterize its opposition to the bill as public health advocates had used to support it. In a NMMRO newsletter, a writer explained, “The NMMRO does not oppose helmet use, [sic] would like to keep our state a rider choice state on helmet use …”

The key word “choice” permeating the debate between public health advocates and the anti-helmet motorcycle lobby suggests that both parties’ central goal when considering motorcycle helmet use is to protect a rider’s “right” to choose whether or not to wear a helmet. But if the goal is the same, why didn’t this choice-oriented legislation win the support of the anti-helmet motorcycle lobby, and why did public health advocates need to vigorously fight for the law in the first place? Perhaps it’s because the nature of the “choice” that each party is striving to maintain is not the same. Public health advocates aim to allow for individual choice appropriately circumscribed by fiscal responsibility. The anti-helmet motorcycle lobby claims a “right” to choose regardless of the impact of individual choice on society.  

Literature distributed by public health advocates in support of the legislation emphasized that motorcyclists who choose not to wear a helmet must take responsibility for a share of the $40 million cost imposed on New Mexicans by injuries and fatalities from unhelmeted motorcyclists. Public health advocates used “choice” to promote an underlying value of community. They recognized that individual choices and consequences do not occur in a vacuum but instead occur in a community; accordingly, responsible individual choices are essential to ensure the health and well-being of the entire community.

Unfortunately, the word “choice” more closely aligns with an individual-focused perspective than with a community-focused perspective. “Choice” is therefore a more natural fit with the anti-helmet motorcyclists’ message of individual freedom than with the public health message of responsibility.

Public health is not necessarily about small government or big government per se but is instead about population-based health. And population-based health is about thinking beyond individuals and thinking instead at the level of a community, state, nation, continent, hemisphere or world. Population-based health is about taking responsibility for one’s own choices because those choices inevitably impact the community and world far beyond the individual.

In contrast to “choice,” perhaps “responsibility” would provide a more appropriate frame for public health values. If the proposed novel partial helmet legislation was referred to as a “Rider Responsibility” bill rather than a “Rider’s Choice” bill, perhaps the title would more effectively trigger the support of public health advocates and policy-makers. If public health advocates focused consistently on defining and fighting for public health values rather than fighting against the values of other interest groups, public health could possibly achieve a broader base of support, which is critical to improving health, saving lives, and enhancing community well-being.

For further discussion of framing and messaging and its potential application to public health, see “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt and, “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” by George Lakoff, among other current works on this subject.

This guest 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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