Insurance issue revs up Michigan helmet law debate

John Egan

The freedom to ride a motorcycle in Michigan without wearing a helmet could mean the loss of some financial freedom.

On a 24-14 vote Tuesday, the Michigan Senate approved Senate Bill 291, which would let anyone at least 21 years old operate or ride a motorcycle without wearing a helmet. But going without a helmet would be permitted only if someone has had a motorcycle "endorsement" (showing you've passed the necessary tests) for at least two years or has passed a motorcycle safety course.

Motorcycle lobbyists hate SB 291, while traffic safety advocates laud it. Now, the two sides are battling over a new insurance requirement that was attached to the bill Tuesday.

An amendment to the measure would mandate that bikers who don't wear helmets buy a minimum of $100,000 worth of personal injury coverage for their motorcycle insurance. Current Michigan law does not require cyclists to buy personal injury coverage, according to the Lansing State Journal. But every car insurance policyholder -- including motorcyclists -- pays into a state insurance fund for catastrophic injuries.

Insurance becomes sticking point

According to Michigan's Booth Newspapers, Vince Consiglio, president of the Michigan chapter of American Bikers Aiming Toward Education (ABATE), says his group opposes the requirement for personal injury coverage.

"Not only is the insurance requirement way too high, it's unavailable from many insurance companies," Consiglio says. Pete Kuhnmuench, executive director for the Insurance Institute of Michigan, says insurance premiums would climb if the helmet law is repealed, according to The Detroit News. AAA Michigan says the law would trigger higher insurance costs for all motorists, not just motorcyclists.

"It kind of blows my mind that we spend tens of millions of dollars to keep our cars safe, but now we're going to turn around and allow them (bikers) to ride without motorcycle helmets," Kuhnmuench says.

State Sen. Roger Kahn, a cardiologist, had sought unsuccessfully to require minimum personal injury coverage of $250,000. Emergency room treatment and surgery alone can cost $60,000 alone, he tells Michigan's Booth Newspapers.

“Simply put, allowing Michigan residents to ride without a helmet is putting their lives at risk,” Kahn says.

The no-helmet argument

Backers of the no-helmet law aren't buying that reasoning. “If someone is 21 and has received the proper training, the choice to wear a motorcycle helmet or not should be left to them,” says state Sen. Phil Pavlov, sponsor of the legislation. “Responsible adults can make their own decisions.”

In an opinion piece in the Detroit Free Press, Jim Rhoades, legislative director for ABATE of Michigan, argues that helmet laws do nothing to improve safety, and don't have any effect on costs for health insurance or health care. Rhoades cites a Wisconsin Department of Transportation study indicating that head injuries kill about 29 percent of motorcyclists involved in traffic accidents -- regardless of whether they wore helmets.

"Helmets do not make a difference in saving the lives of motorcyclists," Rhoades writes.

The pro-helmet argument

On the flip side, groups like AAA Michigan and the Insurance Institute of Michigan are trying to combat Rhoades' and Pavlov's arguments.

In underscoring its stance, AAA cites a poll of about 600 likely Michigan voters showing that 81 percent of them think the current mandatory helmet law should be kept on the books. Michigan is one of 20 states requiring all motorcycle riders to wear helmets.

AAA also highlights an analysis by the state Office of Highway Safety Planning that found repealing the law would result in at least 30 additional motorcycle deaths each year, along with 127 more "incapacitating" injuries.

AAA says that each year, "challengers of the state's mandatory helmet law try to get it repealed without regard for the common good or the will of the public."

What's next

Pavlov's bill now heads to the Michigan House. House Bill 4608 also would repeal the motorcycle helmet law but would mandate just $20,000 in personal injury coverage for bikers who ride without helmets. AAA says $20,000 "would barely touch the amount of medical costs" arising from serious injuries suffered by bikers.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder says he would consider repealing the motorcycle helmet law as part of a broader effort to reform car insurance, according to the Lansing State Journal.

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