Heads up!

When Ken Dibner looked at his helmet after one of his motorcycle accidents, it had scrapes going in eight different directions. Without the lid, it would have been his head skidding on the pavement of Interstate 75 when he laid his bike down going about 95 mph near the Holbrook exit.

Dibner, a Grosse Pointe Woods construction company owner, knows the helmet certainly prevented a serious head injury and probably saved his life. Still, he hopes lawmakers repeal Michigan's mandatory helmet law for motorcyclists.

"I'd still wear mine," he says. "But I think it should be our decision to decide."

Just a year after Gov. Jennifer Granholm vetoed similar legislation, a bipartisan group of five dozen representatives this spring reintroduced a measure in the Michigan House that would allow motorcyclists over 21 to ride without helmets if they pay for a special permit: $100 annually or $200 for a three-year permit. They also would have to complete a motorcycle safety course, carry at least $20,000 of medical insurance and have been licensed to operate a bike for at least two years before discarding their helmets.

"I think that at a certain point, you can't tell adults what they should or should not be doing," says Rep. Fred Miller (D-Mount Clemens), one of the co-sponsors.

Michigan is one of just 15 states with mandatory helmet laws for all riders, according to the American Motorcyclist Association. Michigan's helmet law was enacted in 1969 during the first few years helmets became a public policy issue for states. When the 1966 Highway Safety Act was enacted, it contained a provision mandating that states adopt helmet laws or forfeit up to 10 percent of federal highway construction funds.

By the end of 1975, 48 states had adopted helmet laws. The American Motorcyclist Association and other groups opposed the laws, and by the time the 1976 Federal Highway Safety Act passed, states would only lose federal highway funding if they did not have mandatory helmet laws for riders 18 and younger. By 1980, 25 states had weakened or eliminated their helmet laws.

Then, in the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Act, Congress allowed states with helmet and seat belt laws to receive federal safety grants. If states did not have such laws, they could have up to 3 percent of their federal highway funds reallocated to safety programs. But in 1995, Congress lifted sanctions against states without helmet laws.

That's about when Gary Wiens, a now-retired Flint firefighter, started making annual appearances in Lansing with other riders. Motoring their bikes up to the Capitol grounds for the annual "Helmet Run to Lansing," riders meet with legislators and attend legislative sessions hoping to make helmet wearing their own choice instead of state law.

Wiens was there earlier this month, wearing his leathers and showing his support for repealing the helmet law. "It's all about education. They do all kinds of education for kids in driver's ed. We do the same thing for bikes," he says.

To legally operate a motorcycle in Michigan, riders need a standard driver's license plus an "endorsement" obtained when riders take vision and knowledge tests and complete a certified motorcycle safety course or pass a skills test. In nearly 45 percent of fatal accidents involving motorcycles, the rider was not endorsed, according to the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning.

Still, the number of motorcycle crashes decreased from 3,504 to 3,296 from 2005 to 2006 while the number of motorcyclists killed fell from 122 to 114 during those years.

No one argues that wearing a helmet won't make motorcyclists safer if they crash. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates riders without helmets are 40 percent more likely to suffer fatal head injuries and 15 percent more likely to have nonfatal head injuries than riders wearing helmets in similar accidents.

After Florida changed in 2000 from requiring helmets to allowing adult motorcyclists and moped riders to not wear them if they have $10,000 of medical insurance, there was a 49 percent increase in motorcyclist deaths the next year, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Michigan's Office of Highway Safety Planning predicts that repealing the state's helmet law here would result in 22 additional deaths, 132 more incapacitating injuries and 610 other injuries a year.

And there's an economic side to the issue. A University of California, San Francisco study found a 35 percent reduction in total medical costs for motorcycle accident-related injuries during the first two years of that state's helmet law's enactment in the early 1990s.

Through the permit fees, the Michigan measure would raise about $15 million during the first year if enacted, the House Legislative Analysis Section estimates.

But the cost of a projected increase in motorcycle accidents could more than offset that, says Jim Rink, spokesman for AAA Michigan. The Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association, a fund supported by surcharges on insurance, pays for claims after private insurance companies have funded the first $300,000 of an accident victim's treatment.

"Just one catastrophic claim can run into the multimillions of dollars over the lifetime of that claim. As an example, if someone becomes paralyzed, all of the costs associated with that claim will last the lifetime of the individual," Rink says.

The Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning estimates that repealing the helmet law would add $140 million in costs for the state.

Granholm has promised a veto if the Legislature again sends her a helmet law repeal. "The governor was very clear, and we certainly do not look at a $100 fee as a way to resolve the cost of a catastrophic injury," says Liz Boyd, a Granholm spokeswoman. "She believes it is in the best interest of the state for everyone to wear helmets and safety belts."

Boomer Ulman, who owns Boomer's Bike Shop in Waterford, says the issue is bigger than that.

"I just believe it's people's choice," he says. "I get tired of people who don't ride motorcycles telling people who do ride them how to ride them."

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]
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