Mandatory Helmet Law In Chicago?

Lynne Kiesling

Chicago has a well-earned reputation for cultivating busybody politicians. One of the busybodiest current aldermen is Ed Burke (14th ward), who has proposed a mandatory helmet law for motorcycles.

Now, while I think wearing a helmet while driving a motorized small vehicle in traffic with other, larger vehicles is the epitome of common sense, I cannot support the paternalistic drive behind mandatory helmet laws (or seat belt laws, for that matter). Nor am I persuaded by the “we pay through hospital costs” argument. Why impose another distortionary regulation to counter the ill effects of our convoluted means of paying for health care? To my eye, not wearing a helmet should leave you on the hook for you medical costs from an accident, and you shouldn’t be able to foist that cost off on others because of a no-fault insurance law.

But it gets worse … our mayor, Richard Daley (who himself possess notable busybody tendencies) would like to extend the helmet law recommendation to bikes and rollerblades!

Where does this belief that they know what’s best for others come from? Why do we indulge it?

6 thoughts on “Mandatory Helmet Law In Chicago?

  1. How about this explanation::

    Another study found that 57 percent of the patients listed a government program as the principal payer of in-patient hospital costs resulting from motorcycle crashes.

    Now my preferred solution to this problem would be to abandon all government involvement in health care funding. But that’s just not where things stand and I don’t honestly see that changing in the foreseeable future. So unless you can figure out a way to dump Medicare/Medicaid/Veterans health care funding/subsidized government employee health plans (all of which are serious inventions in health care funding by government) mandatory helmets for motorcyclists looks pretty reasonable.

    As I say I’d rather have a market solution. But I don’t see any way to get there from here.

  2. The interesting thing is that seatbelt laws do not save lives. John Adams made this point in his book Risk.
    His explanation is that seatbelts make us feel safer, more secure, so we compensate by driving more quickly. The converse is true when we drive on icy roads. In an accident, a seatbelt will obviously protect you, but you may be more likely to have an accident if you wear a belt, so there may be no net benefits to wearing a belt.

    So these laws are flawed on 2 counts – they don’t work, and they are illiberal.

    I remember my high school geography teacher telling why he thought spikes should be put on steering wheels – so that people would feel less safe and drive more carefully.

  3. What % of people in vegitative states due to motorcycle accidents would not be in vegitative states had they been wearing a helmet? I don’t think that its all that high, from what I have read. In fact, the force due to that heavy helmet can break your neck in some situations (Dale Earnhardt, for example).

    It seems to me that the problem is that motorcycles are relatively dangerous in and of themselves. Helmets may or may not make them safer, but even with a helmet, they’re more dangerous than most other activites (of course, that’s part of the appeal, right?).

  4. I predict that it is simply a matter of time before certain paternalistic States (such as California, where I live) will require helments for all occupants traveling in cars, trucks, etc.

    Of course, this will occur AFTER vehicle owners are required to purchase air pollution allotments.

  5. You ask where this comes from. I think in Chicago’s case it blew in from Ontario, where laws of this sort are well-established. In Ontario, laws require motorcylcists and bicyclists to have helmets, ban smoking in ALL public places including bars, make it very difficult to own a gun and illegal to walk around with one, and ban publication of polls in the 48 hours before an election (the latter two are federal rather than provincial laws. O.K., they’re provincial, but they’re not enacted by the Province.)

    As you may know, Gerald Wilde at Queen’s University has an interesting theory about risk, the Homeostasis theory. He argues that the only way to change people’s outcomes (e.g., lower the motorcycle accident rate) is to change their preferred risk level. If you make vehicles safer, people will just drive faster. If you make driving faster illegal, they’ll just drive with less attention. If you improve the street lighting, they drive faster – in fact, in a German study where lighting was improved over 500 km of roads, the accident rate actually went up a little bit. You can read a bit about Wilde here:

    Wilde’s webpage at Queen’s is here:

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