ZACH WAS AN extremely gifted musician who sang in our parish choir, an outgoing young man who had a brilliant life ahead of him. Earlier this year, Zach broke his collarbone in a motorcycle wreck, and his friends at church were constantly lecturing him about the danger of riding without a helmet, and begging him to be more careful.
But he was 22 and of the male persuasion, so of course he didn’t listen, and the state of South Carolina doesn’t care enough about young lives like his to even suggest that he wear a helmet, much less require him to do so.
So when Zach crashed again last month, he died.
Massive head trauma, they called it.
You don’t want to think about what that can look like.
The Sunday after Zach died, we talked a lot about him at lunch after Mass, and eventually the conversation turned from his beautiful young life to the ugly details of the wreck, and then to public policy. South Carolina is among 28 states that require only the youngest drivers to wear a helmet; here, that means younger than 21, which practically speaking means people who are so young that their unhelmeted figure on a moving motorcycle looks pre-pubescent.
When someone mentioned that the Legislature had repealed our universal helmet law back in 1980 because of pressure from a motorcycle lobbying group, I noted that the group still so terrorizes legislators that they dare not even speak of reinstating the law.
“I’m a conservative,” one of my friends said, “but that’s not conservative; that’s libertarian.”
State Motorcycle Helmet Laws and Fatality Rates
He recalled that after South Carolina repealed the helmet law, the state agency he was working for created expensive programs to help people who lived through massive head trauma, and that hit a nerve with our friend who was particularly fond of Zach. “We all pay for that,” she said, “through our insurance or our taxes.”
And as my other conservative friends became more animated over the state of our laws, I started getting a queasy feeling — like Zach’s blood was dripping from my hands.
I’m not so egotistical as to believe that I could have convinced the Legislature to treat motorcycle helmets the same way we treat safety belts. But speaking out on such matters can provoke a chain reaction of protest, which can make a difference. And I’ve written precious little about our state’s indifference to motorcycle safety, other than occasionally mentioning it among other highway safety laws we need.
That’s certainly not because the arguments against helmet laws stand up to scrutiny. Motorcyclists sometimes say helmets interfere with their ability to hear, but essentially, theirs is the same libertarian argument that is made against safety-belt laws: It’s my choice, my freedom to wear a helmet or not; it’s no one else’s business.
Of course what anyone does on the taxpayer-funded highways is the business of all of us, even before we consider the supersized subsidy we provide injured riders through our insurance policies and our taxes. Telling motorcyclists they must wear a helmet is no different than telling them (S.C. Code Section 56-5-3630 (b)) that they may “ride upon a motorcycle only while sitting astride the seat, facing forward, with one leg on each side of the motorcycle.” That applies to passengers as well as drivers; something to do with safety, best as I can tell.
From the archives: Motorcyclists’ ‘freedom’ comes at steep price for the rest of us
But the motorcycle lobby is so obnoxious and the number of deaths so small (about 100 a year) that I decided long ago not to waste my energy worrying about it.
And now my stomach was turning.
It’s a terribly shortsighted perspective, which ignores just how dangerous motorcycles are: Although they were involved in only 2 percent of the wrecks in our state in 2012, motorcyclists accounted for 13 percent of our too-numerous highway fatalities; that’s six times as many deaths as you’d expect.
It’s a shortsighted perspective that overlooks the difference that helmets make, reducing the risk of death by 37 percent and the risk of non-fatal brain injury by 71 percent.
It’s a shortsighted perspective that brushes aside everything we know about the effect laws have on human behavior — a perspective that overlooks promising young lives like Zach’s.
The hard-core anti-helmet crusaders who pack the State House on opening day aren’t going to wear a helmet even with a law. But they are the exceptions. Unless the state undermines its own laws — as ours did for years with the safety-belt law — most people obey the law simply because it is the law.
More motorcyclists, pedestrians, cyclists killed on SC roads
They might fudge on laws that don’t feel so black-and-white — figuring it’s OK to drive 56 or 58 or 63 in a 55 zone, for example, in the same way we eat a larger serving of cheesecake than our diet allows. But when the choice is to stop at the red light or not, they stop. If the choice is to wear a helmet or not, and the law requires them to wear a helmet, most people wear a helmet.
That obey-the-law inclination is why South Carolina’s safety-belt usage rate soared after the Legislature finally agreed to let police enforce it. It’s why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported in 2012 that 89 percent of motorcyclists were observed wearing helmets in states with universal helmet laws, compared to just 49 percent in the other states.
I suspect Zach still would have driven recklessly, still would have crashed, if South Carolina had a helmet law. But he would have been wearing a helmet, and he probably would be alive today, and my conservative friends wouldn’t be calling for laws to protect people from themselves, and we wouldn’t be talking about any of this.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.