The Nation's Pulse

Decider Rider

Montana cyclists choose to remain helmetless.

By 2.19.07

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"I make the decision, this is America for God's sakes."

Thus spake a retired fire chief in Montana as motorcyclists lined up in the state capitol to oppose a legislative proposal to mandate the use of safety helmets for cyclists in the Treasure State. Fire chief Ralph Elrod needn't have worried. The proposition was tabled in committee, 15 to 2, the latest failed attempt to bring Montana in line with 20 states that have mandatory helmet laws. Twenty-seven states, Montana among them, do have laws requiring such head gear for minors under 18. And three states have no such laws. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lists them as Colorado, Iowa, and Illinois.

A state senator declared the Montana matter to be "an issue of freedom," not surprising perhaps for a state that only recently acceded to installing a speed limit on its highways. Not even an amendment allowing those with at least a hundred thousand dollars in medical insurance to ride helmet-free could clear passage, but it holds a clue to the motivation of those who want to curtail the fire chief's freedom to decide. The traffic safety folk say helmetless cycle riding costs money-- and frequently it is public money. And hospital groups were among those leading the pleading for a helmet law.

NHTSA estimates helmets saved $1.3 billion in 2002 alone and that another $853 million would have been saved if all involved in fatal crashes had been wearing helmets. Figures show fatalities rising faster than motorcycle registration: 2,116 deaths in 1997, 4,553 in 2005. The NHTSA folk say helmets saved 1,316 cyclists in 2004 and if all wore them, another 671 could have lived. In short, helmet use, they claim, reduces likely crash fatality by 37 percent.

All the compelling statistics from the government files, and those adjacent in the nursing association notebooks, fail to take into account the psychology of "bike" riding. It is not done for reasons of safety. That tinnitus-inducing roar speaks of something else; that cervical-snapping acceleration treats of another time. The appeal is to adventure beyond reach of many, and alien to most.

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.