Our society rightly safeguards individual freedom but limits it in select cases when the public interest needs to be protected. This is why we have seat belt laws in states across the nation.
Nebraska's law requiring motorcycle riders to wear a helmet, first passed in 1989, is another example of a necessary public safety requirement. Nebraska lawmakers have repeatedly debated the law over the decades, and it's set for debate again this session.
Supporters of the helmet law underscored key points during a hearing on the issue last week before the Legislature's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.
If Nebraska jettisons its helmet law, experience elsewhere in the nation shows that the number of traumatic head injuries would rise. When Michigan ended its helmet requirement for adults in 2012, head injuries requiring trauma center treatment rose 14 percent, Eric Koeppe, CEO of the National Safety Council, Nebraska, told the legislative committee.
Helmet non-use in Michigan doubled the odds of a fatality from a motorcycle accident, Dr. Brooke Murtaugh, brain injury program manager at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, told the lawmakers.
Louisiana repealed its helmet law but later reinstated it after experiencing a major increase in motorcycle injuries and fatalities, said Rose White, with AAA Nebraska.
Fred Zwonecheck, retired Nebraska highway safety administrator, said his four decades as a traffic safety professional convinced him that Nebraska's helmet requirement is one of the "most effective (tools) in the prevention of traffic-related deaths and injuries."
Dr. Nicholas Bruggeman, an Omaha orthopedic surgeon speaking for the Nebraska Medical Association, said he has had "dozens of patients who have fortunately survived motorcycle accidents because they were wearing a helmet." He described a patient who was in a motorcycle accident and broke both arms and had a chest tube inserted to treat his injuries. But he was wearing a helmet and sustained no head trauma from the accident. He "is back to coaching baseball and working construction again. ... There are many similar stories like this."
A considerable number of helmetless riders who are injured in accidents require Medicaid — taxpayer dollars — to meet their medical costs. The lifetime cost of a single severe traumatic brain injury is an estimated $3 million, Murtaugh told the committee: "Only 5 percent of persons with severe traumatic brain injury have the adequate funding for long-term treatment and support. Ninety-five percent of individuals with traumatic brain injury rely on state and federal programs to fund and support their long-term needs."
White of AAA Nebraska cautioned lawmakers to be wary of exaggerated claims by helmet law critics that repeal would produce a tourism boom in Nebraska. Many attendees of the annual Sturgis rally haul their cycles to South Dakota, she said, so the helmet law isn't a factor for them. The most direct route for many of those traveling to Sturgis from the east isn't through Nebraska but via Interstate 29 in Iowa northward.
The Legislature should make sure the helmet law remains in force. As this testimony shows, it serves the public in important ways.