The following editorial was published in the Des Moines Register on Nov. 4:
For a brief period — from September 1975 to July 1976 — Iowa had its statutory head in the right place on motorcycle helmets. The law required them to be worn while riding.
Fatality rates for motorcycles were 40% lower during that time than for the same period one year earlier, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation.
Unfortunately, a special interest group quickly succeeded in convincing legislators to rescind the helmet law.
More than 40 years later, Iowa is one of only three states that do not require motorcycle riders of any age to wear helmets. For about as many years, the Des Moines Register editorial board has supported a law for this state. We were reminded recently that is a position some Iowans oppose.
A Register story quoted the mother of a man who died from head injuries he suffered in a 2014 crash on Southeast 14th Street in Des Moines. He was not wearing a helmet. His mother said she sees value in wearing one, but it should be a personal decision.
“I just feel like I should have the right to decide about my own life, and I think everybody else should too,” she said.
That argument is a tough sell.
At every turn, the government rightly imposes safety requirements on the public, particularly when it comes to transportation. The goal is to save lives. Mandates also recognize that when injured people are admitted to hospitals, all of us share the burden of paying for their care. That includes long-term care for people with severe head injuries.
If you take a canoe on an Iowa waterway, state law requires you to have a life jacket on board. Children under 12 must wear a life jacket at all times in a canoe, kayak or on a paddle board.
The law requires adults to wear seat belts in automobiles and provide car seats and proper restraints for infants and young children. It is illegal to drive down the interstate with an unsecured toddler crawling around in the back seat.
So it makes no sense that parents can legally perch a young child on the back of a motorcycle, tell them to “hang on” and hit the road.
It’s inconsistent with other child safety laws and should not be allowed.
And what about teenagers?
Elected officials and safety experts have repeatedly recognized that this group of inexperienced drivers is at higher risk of accidents. Don’t let teens drive at certain times or with others in the car or with a cell phone, some lawmakers have argued — while failing to require them to wear helmets on motorcycles.
Iowa should have a helmet law.
At the very least, helmets should be required for children and teen riders. Ideally, the law should apply to everyone.
When a state passes a helmet law covering all riders, helmet use rates rise to nearly 100 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One reason is that law enforcement officers can easily determine if a motorcyclist is wearing a helmet. Applying the law only to minors would force officers to guess a rider’s age.
Helmets save lives. Study after study has concluded this. It’s why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration encourages every state to have and enforce a law requiring all motorcycle operators and passengers to wear appropriate helmets.
“Motorcycle helmets provide the best protection from head injury for motorcyclists involved in traffic crashes. The passage of helmet use laws governing all motorcycle operators and passengers is the most effective method of increasing helmet use,” the NHTSA writes.
A proposed law would no doubt meet some of the same arguments we’ve heard for years: Helmets are too hot. They restrict visibility. The government isn’t going to tell me what to do. It’s my choice.
Wearing a seat belt or driving while intoxicated is a choice, but the law punishes those who make the wrong choice and encourages people to make better choices.
Iowa’s lack of a helmet law is not admirable. It doesn’t make a statement about freedom or rejecting government intrusion. It means one thing: More Iowans die in motorcycle crashes.
It’s time for lawmakers to use their heads and pass a helmet law — at least to protect our children.