With summer in full swing, motorcycle riders are coming out of the woodwork in Illinois and across the nation. Unfortunately, many of these motorcycle riders do not wear helmets on Illinois roads and highways for one main reason: Illinois remains one of the only states in the country to without a motorcycle helmet law.
The debate over mandatory motorcycle helmet laws has been highly contested in Illinois. On the one side, traditional motorcycle enthusiasts who feel bikers should have the choice to to wear a helmet or not, and on the other side, consumer safety organizations, and many top Chicago personal injury lawyers, who argue that motorcycle helmet laws save lives.
As the number of fatal motorcycle crashes in Illinois continues to rise, the debate over helmet requirements continues. Illinois is one of three states, along with New Hampshire and Iowa, with no motorcycle helmet laws at all. Twenty-one states require motorcycle helmets in all circumstances, and the remaining states require motorcycle helmets to be worn under certain circumstances.
Brief History Of Motorcycle Helmet Law in Illinois
In 1968, Illinois passed a mandatory motorcycle helmet usage law for all riders, but it overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court in People v. Fries, 142 Ill.2d 446 (1969), as an unconstitutional abuse of police power. A year later the Illinois Supreme Court overturned Fries ruling, but no legislation requiring motorcycle helmets has since become law.
In April 2009, the Illinois Senate voted on SB 1351, which would have required all motorcyclists in Illinois to wear helmets with chin straps whenever they operate their motorcycles. The Illinois Senate struck down the bill in overwhelming fashion. The final vote was 49-14 with one member abstaining.
Number of Motorcycle-Related Deaths On the Rise
According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the number and rate of motorcycle-related deaths on the roads of the United States are rising dramatically. There were approximately 7.1 million motorcycles on the road in 2007. The FHWA reports that motorcycle rider fatalities rose 115 percent between 1997 and 2005.
The United States Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that in 2007, over 5,000 motorcycle drivers and passengers died in motorcycle crashes, the highest ever since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began collecting the data in 1975. The number of motorcycle-related deaths increased almost 7 percent from 2006. According to the 2007 Illinois Crash Facts and Statistics, the number of motorcyclists killed increased by 18.9 percent from the previous year. Those motorcycle fatalities accounted for 12.6 percent of all Illinois fatalities in 2007.
Indeed, motorcycle accident fatalities have increased every year for the past 10 years.
Motorcycle Accident Fatalities Are Significantly More Probable Than Car Accident Fatalities
Motorcyclists are significantly more likely to die in a motor vehicle accident than someone riding in a car or truck. Unlike drivers and passengers in cars or trucks, motorcycle riders and passengers are completely exposed to sustaining direct impact in a motor vehicle accident. Motorcyclists can suffer severe personal injuries from the impact of another vehicle, landing on pavement or being thrown off the motorcycle and into some other object, such as a tree, building, concrete barrier or oncoming traffic lane.
Severe personal injuries include broken bones, severed limbs, traumatic brain injury, neck and spinal cord injuries and even death. Death can come from any of the injuries listed, or from internal injuries that may rupture the spleen, puncture the liver or other organs, causing internal bleeding that can lead to death.
Actual Motorcycle Helmet Usage Rates in Illinois
In June 2008, the state of Illinois commissioned a study to determine the actual helmet usage rates for motorcycle riders on the roads of Illinois. The 2007 Illinois Crash Facts & Statistics published the results, which showed that only 29.5% of all motorcycle riders statewide actually wore a helmet. This was slightly below the percentage of motorcycle riders in Chicago who wear helmets, measured at 34.9%.
The Helmet Debate: A Public Health Issue
Chicago area residents still remember the motorcycle accident in May that claimed the life of Anita Zaffke. A woman, driving a car, was painting her nails and failed to notice that Anita Zaffke was stopped at an intersection as a stop light turned from green to yellow. The impact caused Zaffke to be thrown off her motorcycle and suffer severe internal injuries. The fatal accident has sparked debate on whether fatal accidents caused by distracted drivers constitute reckless homicide.
State Rep. William Black (R-Danville) proposed a “negligent vehicle homicide” law, HB1382, in 2007 so that distracted drivers who cause deaths would face a prison sentence as well as a $25,000 fine and revocation of their driver’s license for at least one year upon conviction. The bill stalled in January of this year, so the current law still stands. Current law offers two choices for prosecution: a traffic citation, or proving reckless homicide, meaning the driver acted with complete disregard for the safety of others.
This accident also highlights the importance of a motorcycle helmet law as a public health issue. Proponents of such a law note that motorcycle riders are completely unprotected riding a vehicle that travels just as fast, if not faster, than cars or trucks. Specifically, the motorcycle rider’s head is completely vulnerable in an accident.
As noted in other blog entries discussing traumatic brain injury, the consequences of head trauma in a motorcycle accident can be devastating. A helmet lessens the trauma to the head, and saves lives.
But beyond personal safety, the debate over motorcycle helmet requirements is a public health issue. The cost of medical care as a result of a motorcycle crash can be millions of dollars, and mandatory helmet laws could save the state of Illinois a significant amount of money in health care costs — similar to seat belt laws and bans on indoor smoking in Chicago.
Those against mandatory helmet laws argue it’s a “freedom issue” as opposed to a “safety necessity.”
However, as the motorcycle accidents continue, and the number of motorcycle fatalities continue to rise, the need for a mandatory motorcycle helmet law in Illinois becomes clear.
If you or a loved one has suffered serious personal injuries as a result of a motorcycle accident, it is important to contact a top Chicago personal injury lawyer to investigate your case, especially if the driver of a car or truck was found to be distracted while driving. Our Chicago personal injury attorneys will help you understand current law and the options you and your family have to collect for pain and suffering, lost wages, medical bills, long term care and any other applicable damages.