EVERY DEATH IS a personal tragedy, but what makes motorcycle crashes a matter of public concern isn’t so much the people who die. It’s the people who survive.
They’re the ones who are hauled away in ambulances to the emergency room, where surgeons struggle to stop the swelling and bleeding in their brains, patch up their skulls, salvage their spines. They’re the ones who spend the rest of their lives paralyzed from the neck down, unable to work or feed themselves or go to the bathroom. They’re the ones who linger in a vegetative state … for decades.
They’re the ones whose medical care the rest of us pay for, through higher insurance rates when they have insurance (most don’t) or when the hospitals cover the cost of their care, and through higher taxes when they’re on Medicare or Medicaid or when the government does its part to help reimburse the hospitals that provide the uncompensated care. They’re the ones whose lifetime care we pay for, once they can’t work and end up on Medicaid or other disability programs.
They’re the ones who ultimately are at the heart of the clash between those of us who don’t think we should have to pay for the grossly irresponsible choices of others and those others who demand their “freedom” and “right” to ride motorcycles without helmets.
The “freedom” crowd has a ready answer to this conflict: personal responsibility.
Here’s Skip, one of many, many people who responded to my column a few weeks ago making the case for a mandatory helmet law: “The law should be, if you ride without a helmet, you lose your insurance coverage and the state will not, WILL NOT, step in and pay your medical bills. It’s your decision and your responsibility.”
Phil was much more succinct: “Mr./Ms Government, leave me the hell alone, I’ll choose whether I want to be stupid and reckless and I will remain fully responsible for my choice.”
And then there was Bill, who said that by calling for a law to require people to act a little bit responsibly, “All you are doing is encouraging young adults to avoid personal responsibility.”
Surprisingly, I heard from more people who support requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets than not. That’s extremely encouraging, given how passionate the anti-helmet advocates always have been, and it indicates that public support for a rational law is even more overwhelming than I had ever imagined.
The supporters said mostly what I said; the opponents were the ones whose comments merit attention, and Skip, Phil and Bill pretty much summed up those objections. OK, maybe not Bill. I included Bill’s note just because it was so … bizarre: By his logic we encourage people to avoid personal responsibility when we require them to pass a test before they get a driver’s license. But I think his bottom line was the same as Skip’s and Phil’s:
I make my choices, responsible or not; I live with the consequences.
It’s an idea that is very appealing to many, and horrifying to those who take it to its logical conclusion. But whether you like it or not is completely irrelevant, because it is fantasy.
People in this country are not fully responsible for their own choices, at least not when those choices end in medical bills that they cannot pay.
To believe that they are is to believe in a world that has not existed for decades and is not going to exist, even if the tea partiers someday are able to “take back our country” or Donald Trump manages to “make America great again.”
Even if we somehow could remove the concept of “insurance” from insurance law, we would be left with the federal law, predating Obamacare by decades, that requires hospitals to care for those who need care, whether they can pay or not. And you thought the “death panel” claims were hysterical? They’re nothing compared to what we would hear if anyone tried to change that law, to say, “Oh, we’ll just let you die.” That law is not going anywhere.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, unhelmeted riders are twice as likely as helmeted riders to suffer from traumatic brain injuries; the hospital costs alone for those injuries are 13 times the cost of other motorcycle injuries. And most unhelmeted motorcycle riders don’t have insurance.
So the many pay for the immediate and lifelong medical care of the few, who pretend they are accepting the consequences of their irresponsible choices when in fact they are passing those consequences on to the rest of us. We will continue to subsidize far too much irresponsibility unless and until we demand that our Legislature requires motorcycle riders to do a very simple thing that will slash their chance of those incredibly expensive severe brain injuries by two-thirds: wear a helmet.
It’s precious little to ask in return for the rest of us providing whatever medical care they require if they survive the crash.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.