Ben Roethlisberger's unfortunate motorcycle accident this week has editorial boards and pundits calling once again for mandatory motorcycle helmet laws. The Cincinnati Post went so far as to put the word freedom in sarcasm quotes.
I'm not exactly sure how Roethlisberger's accident demonstrates the need for such laws. Roethlisberger is more than capable of paying for his treatment, so the "cost to taxpayers" argument doesn't fly. It may cost the Pittsburgh Steelers some money, but they could have headed off those losses by stipulating a helmet requirement in Roethlisberger's contract (he has been outspoken about riding without a helmet). And despite being thrown from his bike and leaving an imprint in the windshield of an oncoming car in the shape of his skull---all while not wearing a helmet---Roethlisberger is expected to make a complete recovery.
That's not to say it's wise to ride without a helmet. But Roethlisberger is a grown-up. He knows the risks. He decided to assume them. He was seriously injured, and now he's recovering. I wish him the best, of course. I'm just having a hard time understanding how his accident provides conclusive evidence that we need a federal helmet law, or why it merits sneering commentary about an excess of "freedom." The answer is "yes," you should have the freedom to make your own decisions about what risks you take. Even foolish ones. But you should also assume responsibility for those decisions, and not expect taxpayers or anyone else to bail you out when poor decisions catch up with you. Seems to me that's exactly what's happening here.
If we're really concerned about the safety of motorcycle riders, we should probably just ban motorcycles altogether. USA Today, for example, notes that wearing a helmet would prevent 37 percent of motorcycle fatalities. But the paper also points out that motorcycle riders are 32 times more likely to die on the roadways than drivers or passengers in automobiles. So the paper is advocating a law preventing people from assuming the low-level risk associated with riding without a helmet versus riding with one, but still advocating allowing people to assume the exponentially higher risk of riding a motorcycle in the first place (as opposed riding in a car or truck). Just think of all the lives and health care costs we could save if we banned motorcycles!
My favorite diatribe comes from Sports Illustrated's Peter King. It's always fun to watch sportswriters comment on issues that spill out beyond the playing field. They seem to savor the chance to dress up as real journalists. And so they tend to come out swinging. King writes:
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.
Actually, all of that sounds pretty good to me (in truth, the minarchist "wild, wild west" wasn't all that wild). Here's the punchline:
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.
Empahsis mine. "Irresponsible" would be one word for it.
"Principled" would be another.