The California Experience – What happened when their helmet law went into effect


California is proving the consistent trend that states with mandatory helmet laws have higher death rates than those which repealed the law. Instead of seeing a dramatic decrease in fatalities as proponents predicted, the truth is California’s death rate is 2% higher than the year before the helmet law went into effect. This falls in line with the experience of other states with mandatory helmet laws. In 1992, the states with the lowest fatality rates were Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Wisconsin none of which have full helmet laws. Coincidentally, those states with the best overall safety also have comprehensive rider education courses in place. This is the impetus for Senator Campbell’s S.234, which would exempt states from federal penalties for non-compliance with helmet mandates, if there were safety programs available. More evidence to the value of safety programs comes from the fact that in California, their award winning safety program accounted for a 43% decrease in fatalities and a 40% decrease in injuries from 1986 through 1991, before the helmet law was in effect. The decrease in injuries alone amounted to 12,258, compared to 5,829 which the California Highway Patrol attributes to the helmet law between 1992 and 1993. Did the helmet law in California cause a drop in fatalities? While death’s did go down, the number of riders decreased at even a greater number. That coupled with a national trend of continued fatality decreases, it’s hard to credit the helmet law with anything more than causing a financial disaster in California.

There was a 26% drop in new motorcycle sales in 1992-1993. Ridership was down an estimated 18%. How does that compute to dollars lost to California? Over $1 million less was received in gasoline tax, over $15 million in sales taxes, payroll taxes and in state income taxes. The state lost $950,000 in registration fees. California used to account for 1/5 of all motorcycles in the United States. They are now experiencing the lowest totals since 1969. With the increase in court challenges to the law, at a great cost to the state, there is no way to estimate the total cost. But it was all unnecessary.

ABATE of California puts this problem into perspective. Today’s violent society calls for an increased law enforcement presence at all levels. The primary and most important duty of those whom we elect to public office, and their enforcement arm, the police, is to protect the citizens of California from that which they cannot protect themselves. There has been a recent tendency to enact motor vehicle safety legislation which is designed to socially engineer our individual behavior after the image of those who have the political power to pass laws which regulate and control us. California’s motorcycle helmet law is a prime example of this. This law was enacted after years of controversy and little popular support, in spite of declining fatality and injury rates because of California’s motorcycle safety and training program. The law has been strictly and rigidly enforced from the day it became effective. Unreasonable and uncharacteristically heavy handed police activity has created an adversarial situation between otherwise law abiding citizens and the very law enforcement personnel they. rely on to protect them.

It’s time to repeal California’s mandatory motorcycle helmet law for adults, and this is why.

First. The helmet law has not delivered the safety benefit which was promised to justify its passage. The rate of fatalities per accident in the second year of helmet law enforcement was higher than it was in 1991, the last year before the helmet law went into effect.

Second. The helmet law costs California money in two ways. It has severely depressed the motorcycle business in California with a resulting loss of jobs and tax revenue. In addition, zealous, but ill-advised enforcement of the law has cost the state valuable law enforcement, judicial and prosecutorial resources on citations which are, for the most part, dismissed when contested.

Third. Freedom of Choice! The main and most important reason to modify the existing law to exempt adult riders from mandatory helmet use, is that it is simply wrong for the government to dictate to individuals on an issue of personal choice.

If a message was intended by the election results from November of 1994, it was that Californians and Americans want less government. The mandatory helmet law for adults represents a dramatic and largely unprecedented intrusion into the arena of individual rights.