Tourism, tax dollars and helmet laws

“Mine is the only bill that will create new jobs and revenue for Nevada without raising taxes,” says state senator Don Gustavson. The bill he’s trying to pass? One that will modify Nevada’s vehicle code to allow motorcycle riders 21 and up to choose whether or not to wear a helmet. Gustavson predicts benefits including increased tourism, more money spent at casinos, new jobs at new motorcycle dealers and nothing less than “an economic boom.” All that just for the chance to feel your hair blow in the wind?

There’s actually some precedent to Gustavson’s claims. One of his chief goals is to up attendance at Nevada’s Laughlin River Run, a pirate convention that’s seen its attendance drop from 70,000 in the middle of last decade to just 50,000 last year. It’s unclear if parrots or bitches were included in that total. A similar event, the Thunder in the Valley assless leather chap rally, saw its attendance spike by 30,000 the year after Pennsylvania repealed its helmet law. The thinking is, that more eye patch and peg leg sales will put more dollars in the pockets of Nevada’s government and citizens.

Less immediate, but more impressive, is the increase in motorcycle sales predicted by Gustavson. In the five years after Florida repealed its mandatory helmet law in 2000, motorcycle sales in the state increased by $2.8 billion. The senator predicts a $56 million increase in Nevada in the first year alone, if his bill is passed.

“I think a 30 percent to 40 percent increase in the first year is realistic,” quantifies Gustavson. “Five percent a year after that.”

Those numbers sound good. Since 2005, motorcycle sales nationwide have fallen from 1.1 million annually to just 439,000 last year. In all likelyhood, Nevada is down by an even more significant percentage. Over-ambitious expansion saw much of the state’s tourist industry left with huge debt and too few actual tourists when the bottom fell out of the economy back in 2008.

But, Gustavson has detractors in surprising places.

The organizers of the Laughlin River Run only predict a slight increase in attendance should the helmet law be repealed, nothing like the 30,000 boost experienced in Pennsylvania. Las Vegas Harley-Davidson, the state’s largest dealer, is equally cautious, only figuring the bill would give them a slight increase in sales.

Less suprising places too. “We are the ones who pick them up after their accidents, there is no doubt in my mind that helmets save lives,” stated a lobbyist for Professional Firefighters of Nevada.

In 1999, when Florida still required helmets, 164 motorcyclists were killed. In 2000, when the helmet law was repealed, that number climbed to 241. That number increased to 532 by 2008. There’s no data on the numbers of non-fatal injuries.

The problem with those deaths and injuries is that they come with costs both social and fiscal. By choosing not to protect themselves, riders place a burden on society for their medical care.

“These people want to exercise their rights,” says Nevada’s Dr. John Filds, who’s opposed to the repeal. “I want to exercise my right not to pay for their medical care. There is no such thing as unpaid medical care. You and I pay for their accidents.”

Your right to swing your unhelmeted head ends where another man’s wallet begins?

The average cost of treating the injuries of a helmeted motorcyclist in Nevada is $96,700. Unhelmeted riders? $112,500. One hospital in the state alone had to write off $45 million in unpaid treatment costs for injured motorcyclists.

Would the potential increases to tourism and motorcycle sales revenue outweigh the financial burden of increased treatment costs? Would the average Nevada citizen put enough money in their pockets from extra bike dollars to offset the increase in their insurance premiums?

Nevada isn’t the only state currently looking at repealing its mandatory helmet law. Only 20 states and Washington DC currently require all riders to wear helmets at all times. No helmet laws of any kind exist in Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire. The rest allow riders to make the choice once they’ve reached a certain age. Now, Oregon is considering dropping that total of mandatory helmet states to 19.

Oregon state representative Andy Olson doesn’t want to see the mandatory helmet law there repealed because of the potential increase on motorcycle sales our tourism, he wants it repealed to increase safety. Wait, what? According to him, it “would allow motorcycle riders to hear better and see more.”

Impaired peripheral vision is frequently cited as a reason not to wear a motorcycle helmet. We’ve never heard the better hearing argument before, likely because we’re partially deaf from years of riding bikes. The thing is, it’s a total myth that helmets reduce peripheral vision.

Most helmet standards, including ECE, Snell and DOT set the minimum set the minimum degree (as measured in one direction from a vertical plane running down the center of our face) of sideways visibility for full-face helmets at 105°. It’s generally accepted that you can only use about 90° of that sideways vision. While you can perceive the edges of the visor apperture at the extremes of your vision range, the ability to see that far sideways essentially goes unused by the human brain.

Motorcyclists who want to ride helmet free are probably familiar with unused portions of the human brain. That's summed up much more eloquently than we can manage by that old Buell ad up top.

Sources: Don Gustavson, Las Vegas Review Journal, Oregon Live, Democrat Herald, KATU.com, Gazette Times

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