Ask WAVE: Why aren’t all motorcyclists required to wear helmets?

The short answer is that motorcyclists fought for that choice, but there is more to the story.
Published: Sep. 26, 2022 at 12:21 PM EDT

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - When you take a ride in a standard vehicle, Kentucky law says you have to wear a seat belt, but when you hop on a motorcycle, the law doesn’t require most riders to wear a helmet.

David submitted a question to Ask WAVE:

“I have always wondered why people that drive cars are required to wear seatbelts for their safety, but motorcyclists are not required to wear helmets?”

The short answer is that motorcyclists fought for that choice, and lawmakers eventually said OK.

Groups like the Motorcycle Riders Foundation (MRF) and the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) have been lobbying for years against helmet mandates for decades.

Their legislative platforms say that helmets should be voluntary for adult riders. In part, their statements say lawmakers should focus on preventing crashes altogether – not ensuring safer crashes.

One 2014 study, published by the National Institutes of Health, polled motorcyclists who said they don’t wear one because helmets are heavy, hot, suffocating, and a literal pain in the neck.

Despite those protestations from motorcycle riders, the federal government used to ‘redirect’ (essentially withhold) certain funding if a state did not keep mandatory helmet laws. In 1995, as part of the implementation of the The National Highway System Designation Act, Congress removed that stipulation.

That year, prior to the final vote in November, the political action committees of the MRF and the AMA collectively donated about $10,000 to various candidates.

However, University of Louisville law professor Russell Weaver said it was probably not the money that changed minds.

“I think sometimes bikers are very outspoken and lobby to get rid of that law,” said Weaver. “[It was] a push to try to raise personal liberty issues that legislators accepted.”

Weaver said the organized effort is likely what made the difference between helmet laws and seat belt laws–which remained unchanged and still mandatory, practically speaking.

“I’m not aware of anyone really lobbying to get rid of seatbelt laws,” Weaver said.

With states now free from federal oversight as of 1995, in 1998, Kentucky repealed its universal helmet requirement. A longtime member of the Kentucky Motorcycle Association (affiliated with the MRF) named David Newman told WAVE News that he went to Frankfort year after year to encourage passage of the repeal.

Newman also said, to his memory, it was never a partisan issue. He said he felt that both parties were equally responsive to the KMA’s pleas.

The facts of history do not dispute Newman’s memory.

In 1995, when the U.S. Congress changed the helmet requirement for funding, Pres. Bill Clinton, a Democrat, was in office, but both chambers of Congress were controlled by Republicans.

In 1998, when Kentucky repealed the helmet mandate, Democratic Gov. Paul Patton signed the bill that was passed by a Democratic majority in both chambers of the General Assembly.

Fast forward to 2022, where, in Kentucky, riders who are 21 or older and have had a license for at least a year may ride without a helmet.

However, health and transportation experts–and many motorcycling groups–encourage the use of helmets. The CDC reports that helmets prevent death in about 40% of motorcycle crashes and reduce the risk of head injury in 69% of motorcycle crashes.

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