Q&A with AMA President and CEO Rob Dingman and Government Relations Director Michael Sayre on the AMA’s stance on helmet use and laws
By Pete terHorst
Dec. 14, 2021
Among AMA members and motorcyclists in general, one of the most discussed issues is the organization’s position on helmet use. Some years ago, the AMA Board of Directors adopted a formal position statement urging voluntary helmet use but opposing state or national laws mandating helmets.
Critics of the statement argue the AMA is anti-helmet. Supporters reject that claim, countering that mandates have unintended consequences that can harm motorcycling.
We decided to go straight to the top and get answers. AMA President and CEO Rob Dingman has an in-depth understanding of this issue. Before joining the AMA’s Washington, D.C., staff in 1994, he was a government relations specialist for the Motorcycle Industry Council, and a legislative aide and research associate in the New York State Assembly. While in the AMA’s D.C. bureau, the organization was successful in repealing federal penalties on states that didn’t have helmet laws. Before rejoining the AMA in 2006 as AMA President, he held the position of Assistant Commissioner for Transportation Safety at the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, where he also headed the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee.
Mike Sayre, AMA director of government relations in Washington, D.C., is directly involved in the day-to-day implementation of the AMA’s legislative agenda, and has an intimate knowledge of the current state of affairs in the highly charged partisan environment of the nation’s politics.
American Motorcyclist: There seems to be some confusion and misinformation among non-members and even AMA members regarding the AMA’s position on helmet use and helmet laws. What’s the overview on helmet use from the AMA’s point of view?
Rob Dingman: The main point is that the AMA is a strong advocate of helmets and helmet use, as well as the use of other protective equipment. We simply want the decision to be voluntary, not mandatory. It’s a well-reasoned position that I find our members understand and support, even if they initially were OK with a helmet mandate because they thought it was harmless. But we can and should do a better job of explaining our opposition to mandates and our support for voluntary helmet use.
Michael Sayre: The AMA’s position is often misunderstood or misstated, but can be boiled down to two sentences found in the board’s formal statement:
1) The AMA strongly encourages all motorcyclists to make use of a properly fitted motorcycle helmet certified by its manufacturer to meet the DOT standard in addition to a full range of protective gear.
2) The AMA believes the decision whether or not to wear a helmet is an adult’s personal decision, and as such, opposes laws that mandate the use of a helmet by adults.
Those two statements may seem at odds, but they are based on decades of advocacy and experience in the motorcycling community. We believe that, taken together, they are the best way to support motorcycling while encouraging motorcyclists to make their own decisions about their personal safety.
AM: If the AMA wants riders to wear helmets, what’s the problem with state or federal mandates?
RD: Certainly, there’s no argument from us that helmets are crucial to reducing injuries and deaths. Whenever a motorcyclist is involved in a crash, there is considerable risk for injury or worse. And helmets can mitigate that risk.
But where we differ is when the talk turns to mandates. Mandatory helmet laws do nothing to prevent crashes, and that’s where we want to see increased focus — and funding — from our state and federal governments.
If we just focus on requiring helmets and not on crash prevention, then we all lose. Because even with a mandate, crashes and fatalities will continue to occur. So we can’t afford to take our focus off of crash prevention.
MS: In our experience as motorcycling safety advocates, we too often see helmet laws treated as the only solution to prevent injuries or fatalities on the road. This allows government agencies responsible for road safety to “check the box” on motorcyclist safety without taking the more difficult steps of addressing motorcyclist safety in a way that actually prevents crashes.
The AMA and our partners have focused on preventing crashes, with some notable success.
Those efforts have resulted in federal funding being made available to support motorcycle awareness campaigns aimed at both motorcyclists and other motorists, state funding for rider education, stakeholder groups at the state level addressing motorcyclist safety, as well as groups like the Motorcyclist Advisory Council addressing infrastructure issues that impact motorcyclist safety at the federal level.
All of these efforts focus on preventing motorcycle crashes through rider training, improved licensing and testing, motorist education, programs to reduce impaired riding, and redesigning infrastructure that currently poses a risk to motorcyclists.
RD: There is a clear distinction between the voluntary use of helmets and mandatory helmet-use laws. Mandates require enforcement, and new enforcement requires new sources of funding. And these days, government funding is a limited resource that is being divvied up between more and more programs.
To those who would support mandates, I ask: Are you willing to lose funding for instructor training and rider education? Funding for PSAs, distracted driving and motorcycle awareness campaigns? Or even highway maintenance?
If our legislators and bureaucrats direct public funds to enforce helmet laws, will there still be funds left for these other valuable measures that are proven to reduce the likelihood of crashes? I think it’s a fair question to ask.
AM: Rob, you have often talked about the slippery slope argument. What’s that about?
RD: Simply this: If safetycrats succeed in imposing helmet mandates but motorcycle crashes and fatalities continue — and sadly, they will — where will regulators turn their attention next?
Will they force motorcycle design changes? Limit horsepower? Decree that motorcycles are inherently dangerous and ban us from the public roadways?
If that seems like hyperbole, let me remind readers that in 2014, we discovered that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s Community Preventive Services Task Force called for universal mandatory helmet use by motorcyclists. That’s right, the CDC and its task force, in a flagrant case of mission creep, viewed motorcycling as a disease and were looking for ways to reduce riding. You can’t make this stuff up!
Another case in point is the Vision Zero movement. As we speak, cities across the country are developing long-range strategies to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries. It’s a noble vision, but when you start reading these plans, very, very few include motorcycles in any of their plans. That’s very telling, and we can’t allow ourselves to be excluded from these policy decisions.
At the risk of sounding like Chicken Little, the same logic that would have every state require helmets and potentially other mandated safety gear for all motorcyclists would just as likely see our vehicles banned from public streets. There is an inherent risk in riding a motorcycle, more so on our nation’s roads where riders face a myriad of threats, and for some in the world of road safety, every risk must be eliminated in the name of public safety.
The AMA has been around long enough to have witnessed efforts to ban motorcyclists from certain roads as well as efforts to ban entire classes of motorcycles from all roads. For example, in 1998 the Chicago City Council pushed to ban motorcycles on Lake Shore Drive, a scenic urban expressway that hugs Lake Michigan. Even before that, Senator John Danforth from Missouri led a campaign — along with the Insurance Institute for High Safety (IIHS) — to completely ban high-performance motorcycles across the nation. The AMA fought vehemently and defeated those efforts. While many risks can be eliminated through education, road design and better enforcement, the AMA will never accept the banning of motorcycles from public roads in the name of safety.
AM: One claim that’s often made by helmet-law supporters is that injured motorcyclists are uninsured and disproportionately rely upon the public to pay for their injuries. Another claim is that the costs associated with un-helmeted motorcyclist injuries and fatalities compel the enactment of mandatory helmet laws to save taxpayer dollars. Is any of this true?
MS: Motorcyclists are just as likely to be privately insured as any other road user. A medical center study by Harborview Medical Center reported that injured motorcyclists in the trauma center relied on public funds a lower percentage of the time than did automobile drivers to pay their hospital bills during the same time period. A university study reported that automobile drivers and motorcyclists have their medical costs covered by insurance at a nearly identical rate. The conclusion, then, is that injured motorcyclists are less likely than the general population to use public funds to pay for injuries sustained in crashes, and no more likely to be uninsured than other vehicle operators.
Some states have made a motorcyclist’s decision to not wear a helmet contingent on the purchase of additional insurance coverage. This rationale may allow riders in these states to make their own decision when it comes to helmets but laws that provide this are based on the idea that motorcyclists making this choice are a social burden while also conditioning this right on the motorcyclist’s ability to pay for more insurance. The AMA believes that accepting such requirements is contrary to the long-term interests of motorcycling.
AM: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
RD: I just want to reiterate that the most effective way to reduce motorcyclist injuries and fatalities is to prevent crashes from occurring. Helmets and helmet laws do not prevent crashes.
It’s naïve to say motorcyclists should just accept helmet mandates and move on. Because there are opponents of motorcycling, represented by all political persuasions, who seek to eliminate motorcycles altogether. If we accept mandates, that will not be the end of our battles. It will be the first step in the continuing erosion of our legal right to access America’s public roads and highways.
What does a comprehensive motorcyclist safety program look like?
In recent years, the number of motorcycle crashes has increased roughly in proportion to the increase in motorcycle sales and use. While a cause for concern, the AMA believes that a comprehensive solution, not a flawed “silver bullet” approach, will result in fewer crashes, injuries and fatalities.
Too many public agencies’ motorcycle safety programs treat a mandatory helmet law as a comprehensive motorcycle safety program. Motorcyclists are overrepresented in alcohol-involved and speed related crashes and fatalities as well as those by unlicensed operators. A mandatory helmet law, by itself, is not a countermeasure to these causes.
Motorcycle safety programs that promote licensing and testing can further reduce motorcycle crashes. Slightly more than one of five motorcycle operators (28 percent) involved in fatal crashes in 2018 was operating with an invalid license.
More than one-third (39 percent) of all fatally injured motorcyclists had consumed alcohol. Alcohol awareness campaigns and intervention programs can drastically reduce alcohol-related crashes and fatalities.
More than one-half (56 percent) of all fatal motorcycle crashes involve another vehicle. The most common crash involves the driver of the other vehicle turning in front of the motorcyclist (43 percent), followed by both vehicles colliding while going straight (21 percent). Motorist awareness campaigns and motorcyclist conspicuity programs can reduce the frequency and/or severity of these types of crashes.
This article originally appeared in the December edition of American Motorcyclist. To view the issue click HERE.