I shouldn’t be my brother’s keeper

Posted in Liberty at 17:30 by RjZ

Perhaps you’ve already heard about the New York man who died from a motorcycle crash, during a protest ride. The protest group he was riding with maintains “Mandatory helmet laws do nothing to prevent accidents, the decision on when to wear a helmet while operating a motorcycle should remain with each responsible adult rider.”

How do we pass laws requiring helmets in some places and not in others? Frankly, I agree with the protesters that helmets don’t reduce accidents and they have a right not to wear one. What happens, however, when a driver has an accident with a helmet free motorcyclist who suffers dramatically worse injury or even death thanks to his lack of protection? Who should be at fault? If the uninsured motorcyclist suffers avoidable brain trauma, who should pay for his hospital bills? Mandatory helmet laws may be wrong in attempting to require riders to be safe, but riders cannot also demand that others be responsible for their choices.

Why aren’t the laws like that already? I suspect this isn’t a big enough issue for most folks who have never had an accident with a cyclist and don’t really plan on it, or think about it much. On the other hand, motorcyclists are rather likely to be activists for their freedom to ride without a helmet and thus quite responsive to keeping such a law off the books. They think about the issue each time they get on their bike. It’s about the incentives.

How, then, are there laws in some states that require helmets at all? Here I think that it was an easier sell to propose a law ‘for the public good.’ Many motorcyclists are opposed to such a law, but it’s much easier to convince the rest of a community that a law protecting people is necessary, compared to one which wouldn’t save any lives but only keep us from paying for those who refuse to protect their own.

The biblical invocation that we are not to act like Cain (Genesis 4:9) but must be our brother’s keeper may be an historic motivation for this attitude. For many, the religious inducement for this moral idea is more than sufficient justification for laws that safeguard the community at large. The problem with such laws is that one person’s idea of protection is another’s infringement of rights. What if, for example, the religious-right were to outlaw homosexuality in an effort to mitigate the spread of AIDS?

Insurance companies may only offer their services pending suspension of risky behavior, but governments tread very dangerous ground when they do the same. I may decide to choose a different insurance company, but changing my government is a significantly bigger hurdle. If instead we focus on laws that simply codify responsibility then we can still affect a positive change in society, inasmuch as the majority of society actually agrees.

Surprisingly, one almost never sees a bicyclist riding without a helmet these days, even without a law enforcing them to do so (in Colorado at least). Don’t they have as much interest in freedom as motorcyclists? Or is it simply that people interested in fitness enough to ride bicycles don’t think it makes sense to throw it all away on an avoidable head injury? Seems like that should work the same for motorcyclists too, but who are we to judge? If motorcycle riders understood the risks they are taking and if, aside from the tragedy of losing victims of their own risky behavior, they do no harm to anyone else, then we have reached a reasonable compromise.

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