Posts Tagged ‘helmet’

Every libertarian has a pet peeve, and mine is paternalism. Yes, I am deeply disturbed by the warspolice militarization, Obama’s pursuit of whistleblowers, regulations which make it illegal to do math without a license, and many other freedom-snuffing things. But the kind of stuff that gets me most riled up are laws to protect people from themselves.

It is impossible to have a discussion of these laws without referring to the following passage from John Stuart Mill’s influential work On liberty. The sentence in bold from the excerpt below is usually called the harm principle and is a cornerstone of libertarianism.

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle … That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

I suspect that many liberal-progressive types agree with the harm principle on some level. So they often tend to justify paternalistic laws not on paternalistic grounds but on the grounds of limiting negative externalities. For instance, in their support for motorcycle helmet laws, their argument might echo that of the Massachusetts high court, which in 1972 (when it affirmed that a motorcycle helmet law was rationally related to the public welfare) declared:

From the moment of injury, society picks the person up off the highway; delivers him to a municipal hospital and municipal doctors; provides him with unemployment compensation if, after recovery, he cannot replace his lost job; and, if the injury causes disability, may assume the responsibility for his and his family’s continued subsistence. We do not understand a state of mind that permits plaintiff to think that only he himself is concerned.

In other words, your decision to ride un-helmeted harms other people, and so society can rightfully coerce you to wear a helmet.

The word “harm”, of course, needs to be interpreted narrowly in order that the harm principle be meaningful. A harsh word hurts. Breakups hurt. Abandoning your wife and going off with someone else may cause intense emotional harm. Everytime I buy something from X and not from his competitor Y, I am harming Y and favoring X. All these activities are legal, and should be.  Only kinds of harm that directly violate others’ rights (by causing violence upon them, or depriving them of their life, liberty, or property) should enter into the calculus.

Still, it is clear that if society is forced to pay extra because of someone’s recklessness, it is indeed a harm inflicted by the reckless individual upon the other members of society; who then might be justified in their intervention. This is what the high court affirmed in its ruling. In doing so, however, the court committed an elementary (but common) mistake; the failure to consider the alternative. The pertinent questions — when considering whether there should be a helmet mandate — are the following:

  • Does a person who rides unhelmeted cause a negative externality greater than one who wears a helmet?
  • Can any such negative externality be removed (i.e. internalized) without resorting to a helmet mandate?

Let us tackle the first question first. It is almost an article of faith among many that the unsafe and the unhealthy incur higher health costs. However, a recent study by Dutch researchers found that smokers and the obese typically cost less to society than the average person, the reason being that they die younger. It is likely that similar conclusions hold for several other activities that the safety brigade frowns upon. There is no doubt that a typical mountaineer or a base jumper spends much less over his lifetime on health and hospital costs than your average grandpa. So even if one lives in a jurisdiction where health costs are socialized, the argument that these people cost more to society, and hence their unhealthy/unsafe activites should be restricted, is specious.

The data on motorcycle helmets is more ambiguous. Some studies have found that riding unhelmeted reduces health costs per person (for the same reason as above, namely untimely death). Others have found a slight increase. For instance a 1996 NHTSA study showed average inpatient hospital charges for unhelmeted motorcyclists in crashes were 8 percent higher than for helmeted riders ($15,578 compared with $14,377). Now, that’s a small difference, and it is worth noting that the study only considered motorcyclists who were actually admitted to a hospital. When those who die on the spot are included, it is quite possible that riding unhelmeted actually reduces costs to society. There is also evidence that helmet mandates make little difference to  insurance premiums. Currently there are 30 American states where there is no universal helmet law for motorcyclists. There are 20 states where such a law does exist. The health insurance premiums across these states show almost no correlation with helmet laws. None of this is to say that it is good to be reckless or unhealthy, merely that the claim that by doing so you cost extra to society is often not true.

For the sake of argument, however, let us assume that there is indeed a significant negative externality associated with the act of not wearing a helmet. I would argue that this does not justify a mandate. What it does justify are steps to internalize this externality. How can this be done? By making sure that those who ride helmetless pay for the consequences. Here’s a proposal: Every motorcyclist who does not wear a helmet should be forced to either a) carry adequate insurance, or b) have proof of sufficient personal funds, or c) pay a certain amount of money annually into a common pool that would pay for any accident related costs not covered by their insurance; the amount would be empirically adjusted to ensure that unhelmeted motorcyclists, as a group, are cost-neutral for the taxpayer with relation to their helmeted counterparts, or d) sign a waiver that no part of their health or other costs reasonably attributable to their decision to not wear a helmet can be charged to the taxpayer. Furthermore, insurance companies, if they wish, should be allowed to charge an extra premium on helmetless riders.

People often go bonkers saying that they do not care to pay for risky decisions taken by others. Well, they don’t need to! Switzerland, the country I currently live in, has the right attitude about some of these things. The Swiss mountains are beautiful but many of the activities people love to do here (hiking, skiing, mountaineering, sledging, climbing, paragliding, base-jumping and so on) carry inherent risks. They do not ban any of these things here or mandate protective gear (a recent straw poll on a Verbier ski-slope found almost everyone, including the helmeted, opposed to compulsory ski-helmets) or even skimp on the protections. In fact, every time someone is in trouble and calls for help so that he can be airlifted out, a helicopter comes in swiftly for the rescue. What they do later, however, is to make an airlifted person pay the bill. Unless, of course, the person is already a patron of REGA, which one can do by paying a measly sum of 30 francs. Most avid adventurers choose to do so, and this small fee (which is basically an insurance premium) covers any heli-rescues they may need to avail of. So if you happen to need an airlift, and you aren’t a REGA patron, you pay for your rescue to the last cent. If you are a patron, you don’t pay anything. Externality internalized.

The proposal on internalizing public costs due to helmetlessness that I briefly sketched above is similar in spirit. I really don’t see how anyone committed to the harm principle can reject such a proposal and continue to defend helmet mandates. Yet, I know from experience that many will. I think the reason is that many of those arguing for mandates on grounds of externalities haven’t really thought carefully about externalities, nor do they really care. As evidenced above, the externalities related to motorcycle helmets, whether positive or negative, are most certainly negligible as a fraction of total costs; no one will notice any real difference in taxes or insurance premiums whatever the helmet law. There are all kinds of legal activities that people regularly do that create far, far, larger externalities, or involve much bigger risks. Then there’s the fact that the people who call loudly for helmet laws (whether it be motorcycling, cycling or skiing) only do so when someone tragically dies, but they barely notice it if someone is injured and requires expensive long-term care. Yet it is the former that actually saves the taxpayer money. When these same people resort to the specious “externality” argument while debating their helmet laws, I want to scream at them: “Stop arguing in bad faith.”

In fact, the act of riding a motorcycle itself is highly risky; whether or not one wears a helmet makes a difference in only a small number of cases (if a motorcyclist gets into a serious crash, a helmet will rarely save him). Yet very few people would support actually banning motorcycles. If one only cared about externalities and costs to the taxpayer, one should support regulations and counteracting measures roughly in proportion to the size of the externalities. In reality, the regulations reflect the size of the moral disapproval. It is stupid to ride without a helmet. It is such a completely unnecessary risk. Riding helmetless or not wearing a seatbelt is incredibly foolish. There should be a federal law stopping all these. Period.

The true reason behind paternalism (whatever the purported reason) is the desire of people to impose their values on others. Quite simply, paternalists ignore that different people have different values. Like all nannies, they think they know best. They decide what risks are acceptable and what risks are unnecessary. They fail to see that maximizing health is not the same as maximizing happiness. To some people, the joy of riding down a hill, unencumbered by a helmet, unweighed by laws, feeling the wind in your face and hair, is indeed worth the risk of severe injury or death. Besides, there is an inherent value to freedom. As Jacob Sullum put it, when it comes to how people feel about their lives, they may well prefer to make their own bad choices rather than have better ones imposed on them.

Most people has a deep seated urge to control others and bring them to the “right” path. It is important to be able to recognize this urge as the greatest evil. Libertarians oppose laws that mandate helmets or seatbelts, and those that prohibit drug use, prostitution, raw milk sales and the infinitely many other things the unwashed masses are supposed to keep away from. Yes, we personally may not indulge in or encourage most of these behaviors. But we recognize our decision to do so for what it is, an exercise of our own values and cost-benefit analyses, which may not match those of others.


The group was driving south on Route 11 in Lafayette around 1:30 p.m., headed toward Lake Como, just south of the Finger Lakes. It was a nice day, but they were there to make a point.

In the group was Philip Contos, from Parish, NY, and he was 55 years old. They were participating in a helmet protest ride initiated by ABATE, an organisation that opposes mandatory helmet laws. A beautiful day it was, but Philip’s bootlaces got stuck in a chain. The biker looked down to inspect the problem, looked up and saw traffic slowing and slammed on the brakes. The bike fishtailed, and he was ejected. He hit the ground with a crunch and he died on the spot.

He died on the spot. What did he die for? Was it to preserve his freedom to be an idiot, a rebel, a reckless individual? Perhaps he would have survived if he was wearing a helmet. But then again, if there was no law in New York that mandated helmets, he would not be out protesting that day, that beautiful day, and maybe his shoelaces would have not stuck in the chain…. His brother, Richard Contos, said Philip would do it again, if he could. “He would have wanted it that way. … He protested everything.” So, who was this man who protested everything?

I never met Philip Contos, but I feel joined to him. 

He died defending the freedom to be himself, to be free of moral busybodies telling him how to lead his life. I would probably wear a helmet if I did ride a motorcycle, but if I were in New York that makes it illegal to ride without one, I’d probably be joining Contos in his protest.

Helmets make one safer. But safety is just one thing among many. We do not have to live life in a way that maximizes safety. We have the right to make whatever trade-offs we wish in our personal decisions. He died defending this sacred right.

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I found this on the internet while searching for related stuff. It was written ten years ago by someone called Brian Wilson.

This is the important year. The beginning of the end. “The Shift” is happening.

[…] “The Shift” is what I call the mass hysteria, the mass group thinking that takes over suddenly, when 95 percent of the population suddenly and ferociously agrees on something that they never cared deeply about before. And what comes next is legislation to force the last 5 percent to bend to their will. To the population caught up in “The Shift”, this sudden new conviction is as strong as religion, and anyone in the last 5 percent who even SUGGESTS a calm debate or alternative is treated like a heretic who should be burned at the stake. If you are getting angry or self righteous at this rant because you suspect where it is going, then you have fallen prey to the mass thinking already.

[…] Now, you might be part of the 1 percent of the population that is like me. If that is the case, I apologize for lumping you in with the rest of the mindless masses. I seem to be immune to “The Shift” in most cases. This isn’t a blessing: I’m continually lamenting the loss of yet another freedom to “The Shift”. Those caught up in the various crusades (anti-smoking, pro-seat belts, pro-motorcycle helmets, etc) joyously give away their freedoms, and seem happy to do it.

This year we are still early enough in “The Shift” that some helmet wearers had some very thoughtful insights. One 50 year old couple who were wearing helmets suggested that the highly publicized deaths of Sonny Bono and Kennedy last year, both by colliding with trees, contributed to the large rise in helmet use. But we are far enough along in “The Shift” that the truly mindless were coming out of the woodwork also. I rode up a lift in Winter Park Colorado with a woman and her 4 year daughter. The daughter was wearing a helmet, and the woman was not. The woman actually told me that she wished the government would pass a skier helmet law, so that she would be forced to wear a helmet just like she forced her daughter to wear one.

For a moment I lost the will to live, and I almost jumped off the lift.

I cannot STAND people who have this kind of attitude. It is not the government’s job to force us to be “safer children”. It is not the government’s job to decide what is an acceptable risk for us personally, and what is not. If you want to wear a helmet while skiing, please do! It is a very good idea. I might choose to wear one also, depending on the conditions and where I plan to ski that day. But you and I need to accept the decision of the informed skier who chooses to feel the wind in their hair, and take the well known risk of going sans-helmet.

That applies today, it will apply tomorrow, and it will apply 50 years from now. Don’t succumb to “The Shift”, in which you suddenly change your opinion at the same time as the rest of the population does, and you hold your new opinion with religious fervor.

I realize this rant is hopeless; I am tilting at windmills. I predict that within 5 years there will be a skier helmet law for anyone under 18. Within 10 years, there will be a skier helmet law for everyone. And 20 years from now, on a ski slope, on a perfect day with a blue sky and perfect snow, I will irritate my friends by playing the heretic. While wearing my government mandated ski helmet, I will wish out loud that just for one run I could feel the wind in my hair.

Do read the whole thing.

Brian’s prediction hasn’t yet come to pass. No  country yet has a universal ski-helmet rule that covers everyone. However many places already mandate  helmets for children and it seems likely that some Canadian provinces will soon pass a a law forcing all skiers to wear helmets. And maybe it will then be California, or some European country, and pretty soon the rest of the world will follow. Or maybe not.

But his thoughts about “The shift” are true, not just in the paternalistic context but about anything really. And if you are thinking that shifts are merely rational reactions to updated human knowledge, I’d prefer you mull over it some more.


And now a more personal note. I don’t know what Brian thinks today of his rant from ten years ago. He probably believes his rant made no difference to anyone’s lives. And to an extent he is right. No law has been influenced by his opinion and most people don’t care about freedom anyway. But if he ever reads this, I’d like him to know that it did make a small difference to someone’s life about fifteen minutes ago. His rant made me happy. It made me smile, even if that smile were tempered by sadness and a tinge of hopelessness.

For to believe in individual liberty is to see your strongest moral convictions treated like dirt by ninety-five percent of the population. It is a bit like living in some country in the past where everyone else possesses slaves. When you believe something to be utterly wrong it does not help if the overwhelming majority thinks it is good.

Why did his post make me happy?

I am not happy to be part of a minority that rails against the stupid majority. Such happiness is an enemy of rational thinking. On the contrary, I’d like most other people to think similarly on this core moral issue– my dream world is one where liberty is taken for granted by everyone so that it is not even an issue; where there is no need for me to blog about it or do random internet searches.

His post made me happy because, quite simply, it gave me some kind of support. In a small way, it told me I am not alone. I can not justify this happiness except to say I am human. So thanks Brian, and all those other advocates for liberty who I have read but never met.

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Ski helmet poll

This poll depresses me. The state by state breakdown is revealing though. New Hampshire, Colorado, Montana and Oregon are red as I expected, though I am a bit surprised to see California that blue.

Anyway, motorcycle riders have resisted mandatory helmet laws in more than twenty American states despite overwhelming public support for such laws. So perhaps there is still hope.

And besides, this news indicates that Swiss skiers almost unanimously believe helmets and such should not be compulsory. Heh.

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I have written enough in the past about Canada’s (usually successful) attempts to muzzle free speech and monitor thought crimes and enforce some kind of bizarre right to not get your feelings hurt.

But this latest proposed law takes policing your head to an entirely different level. I understand that the proposal has been spurred by Natasha Richardson’s tragic death, but that’s what makes it all the more scary; that so many people’s natural reaction to a tragedy is to clamor for more government regulation.

Considering the fact that ski helmets are fairly useless at speeds higher than 20 mph (an impact leads to a fatal collision of the brain with the inside of the skull, something no helmet can prevent), I wonder if they will next make a rule that declares Newton’s laws of motion illegal.

(Also read: On motorcycle helmet laws and freedom)

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In London (my British friend informs me) it is illegal to ride a bicycle without wearing a helmet. I find that amusing because Londoners can jaywalk legally; so it is the precise opposite of California, where helmets are not mandatory for adult cyclists but jaywalking is illegal. Actually I think that both jaywalking  and riding without a helmet should be legal, but at least (careless) jaywalkers (sometimes) disturb cars by coming in their way and can potentially even cause other people to have accidents. A cyclist without a helmet, on the other hand, is endangering no one but himself; the probability that a cyclist ends up disrupting traffic by some stupid maneuver is not really decreased by forcing him to wear a helmet. So I am not terribly bothered by jaywalking regulations while a helmet mandate would drive me crazy. I don’t think my friend even got the argument; he was clearly arguing from the point of view of relative safety, not individual liberty.

I suppose we cannot escape the nanny-state wherever we go but some laws are more oppressive than others. To give a closely related example, American laws do mandate seatbelts while driving (unless you live in New Hampshire!) but that affects me less personally because first of all, even if you violate this rule it is virtually impossible to get caught by a cop for it and secondly, I would anyway wear a seatbelt most of the time irrespective of the law. Bicycle helmets are another matter — I do not wear them unless I am planning to ride on a busy road for an extended period of time, and more importantly a cop can see from far whether or not you are wearing one, thus making it very easy to get caught.

And you see, there is this little complication: having a paternalistic rule imposed on me offends my morals very strongly. So in short, cycling in London would either make me vulnerable to lots of fines or make me very very angry for a significant part of the day. To save my sanity, I would therefore not cycle. And I really like cycling. 

So, as I informed my friend, the London helmet rule is sufficiently disconcerting to me that I will never accept a long-term position there (of course, even without that rule, Britain is one of the most unlibertarian places in the world). Thankfully, my google searches have so far showed no evidence that I am required to wear a helmet while cycling in Switzerland. In fact I have learnt the happy news that in Denmark, Netherlands and Switzerland — which I have previously mentioned in this blog as probably the three most libertarian countries in the world from a personal issues standpoint — almost no one wears helmets while riding a bike.

It may be a small matter to most people but it’s a big deal to me: the fact that I can bike around in Zurich without going crazy makes me very happy.

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“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” — Margaret Mead.

As we all know, governments do one thing really well — telling us how to run our lives. Thus, most places in the world (for instance every US state except New Hampshire) makes it mandatory that you wear seatbelts while driving. Surprisingly though, most US states do not require motorcycle riders to wear helmets. How did this strange situation come about?

The answer is fairly simple; motorcyclists, against all odds, fought for their freedom and won it. That stirring story is recounted with delicious pleasure by Jacob Sullum in this old Reason article.

In 2003 there were 5.4 million registered motorcycles in the U.S., compared to about 136 million registered cars. Despite their relatively small numbers, motorcyclists have been far more effective than drivers at resisting traffic safety paternalism. After some initial grumbling, most motorists got used to buckling up and are now unlikely to put up much resistance as states move toward primary enforcement, allowing police to pull people over for not wearing seat belts (as opposed to issuing citations after stopping them for other reasons). By contrast, going back to the 1971 founding of the American Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments (ABATE) by the staff of Easyriders magazine, motorcyclists have been willing to invest the time, effort, and money required to fight helmet laws.

And this happened because motorcyclists, with a fierce passion, think that people ought to be able to lead their lives the way they deem fit. They believe they should have the freedom to make their own choices, including ones that are risky or potentially lethal. And they are prepared to protect this freedom by every means at their disposal.

“Motorcyclists believe in freedom, and we attack anything that is attacking our freedom,” explains Robert Fletcher, coordinator of the Texas ABATE Confederation. “Helmet laws go against the grain of everything this country stands for,” says New York Myke, ABATE of California’s state director and owner of San Diego Harley Davidson. Just as abortion rights groups insist they do not favor abortion, motorcyclist groups are at pains to make it clear they do not oppose helmets. Jeff Hennie, vice president for government relations at the D.C.-based Motorcycle Riders Foundation, says, “What we’re advocating is freedom of choice….It should be the decision of the rider whether to put on extra safety equipment.” He describes the attitude of helmet law opponents this way: “Let me decide what is right for me, instead of the government jamming regulations down my throat.”


The view of helmets as confining and stifling meshes with the sentiment that forcing people to wear them ruins what is for many riders a visceral experience of freedom. “We’re passionate about our motorcycles,” says ABATE of California’s Myke. “This is something that’s more of a way of life than a hobby or a sport. It really goes to the core of our being….Riding a motorcycle is my celebration of freedom.” Few motorists feel the same way about driving, which for most of us is a workaday means of getting around, not an important part of our identities.

Sullum goes into details about how the motorcyclists argued, demonstrated and lobbied. There were defeats and there were victories. But they never gave up.

What makes their achievement all the more astounding is that they never had either the numbers or the support of the public.

To block or repeal helmet laws, activists must convince legislators to defy public opinion. While a 1978 Louis Harris poll found that 57 percent of Americans thought motorcyclists should be free to ride without helmets, a 2001 survey by the same organization found that 81 percent thought helmets should be required. Add to that the fact that the fatality rate per mile traveled is more than 25 times as high for motorcycles as it is for cars, and the success of helmet law opponents is even more impressive.

But my favourite part of Sullum’s article is the last paragraph, where he is at his eloquent best.

In the final analysis, not enough people took seat belt laws personally. For the most part, whatever objections they harbored were overcome by force of law and force of habit. By contrast, substantial numbers of motorcyclists have complained loudly, conspicuously, and persistently about helmet laws for more than three decades. “Apparently,” says the National Safety Council’s Ulczycki, “legislators are easily convinced that the perceived rights of motorcyclists to injure themselves are more important than the public good.” Aside from the tendentious definition of “the public good,” this gloss is misleading on two counts: Resistance to helmet laws hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t necessarily involved convincing legislators of anything but the motorcyclists’ determination. Politicians didn’t have to understand their passion to respect it. And therein lies a lesson for the world’s busybodies and petty tyrants.

Sullum is right. If a small group of people care strongly enough for liberty, there are ways to make legislators fall in line. For that you do not have to make them understand you, merely make them understand your resoluteness . How I wish car-owners shared some of this passion that motorcyclists have!

However my short review does no justice to Sullum’s long, well-researched and wonderfully narrated article. Read the whole thing.

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In my previous post, I expressed my distaste for mandatory helmet laws and criticised them from a libertarian perspective.

However, it also seems apt to point out here that as far as things like helmet and seatbelt laws are concerned, there exists a middle path between coercive paternalism and complete unregulation, namely what Thaler and Sunstein call libertarian paternalism. For instance, one could have motorcycle helmet laws that allow riders to go without a helmet but only if they get a special license. To qualify for the license, a rider would have to take an extra driving course (and perhaps submit proof of health insurance). It would involve no extra tests, and getting this special license would not really be harder than getting the more regular license. However, due to the power of inertia in human behavior, and the tendency of individuals to go with the default, many people would opt to get the regular license. This system would enable people to ride without a helmet if they really want to but would also incorporate much of the safety gains of current laws.

(And I promise this is my last post on this topic today.)

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