In covering Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s motorcycle accident, the media has done a commendable job in emphasizing the critical fact that Roethlisberger failed to wear a helmet while riding his bike. The Monday crash left the SuperBowl champion quarterback in serious but stable condition with multiple facial fractures, including a broken jaw and nose, along with most of his teeth knocked out and a nine-inch cut on his head.
Roethlisberger, who was due to begin training camp for the Steelers’ next season, now faces an uncertain future and leaves his team and city, who won their first SuperBowl in 26 years last season, without their star player.
Like too many American motorcycle drivers, Roethlisberger refused to wear a helmet, despite repeated warnings from his coach and teammates. In a Pittsburgh Tribune article in May 2005, “Big Ben” defended his decision:
Roethlisberger will take his chances. He said there isn’t any special reason for not wearing a helmet, calling it “a choice.”
“I think that’s at your own discretion,” Roethlisberger said. “Obviously, Pennsylvania doesn’t think people need to.”
According to state law, helmets are optional for motorcycle riders 21 years or older who either have been licensed to operate a motorcycle not less than two years or have completed a motorcycle safety course.
The Pennsylvania law, which had for 35 years required mandatory helmet wearing for all motorcycle drivers was changed in 2003. This is part of a national trend of repealing mandatory helmet laws for all riders, which have gone from being the law in 47 states in 1975 to only 20 states today.
While proponents of voluntary helmet laws claim that personal responsibility and judgment is an adequate replacement for state mandate, data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Board suggests otherwise. Their 2001 study of motorcycle accidents found that the number of motorcycle fatalities in Louisiana increased by 108% in the two years following the repeal of their universal helmet law going from a two-year average of 26 fatal crashes prior to repeal, to a two-year average of 54 following repeal. The fatality rate, comparing the number of fatal crashes to the total number of crashes, also increased by 75% in Louisiana following repeal. The data are similar in other states, with Kentucky’s two-year average of motorcycle fatalities increasing 58% following repeal, Texas’s by 37% and Arkansas’s by 29%.
While so many in the media choose to focus on purported threats to our national health such as “carcinogens” in food or trace levels of “toxins” in drinking water, most of which demand solutions that are worse than the alleged problem, events like the Roethlisberger crash remind us of the tremendous benefit to our national safety that can come from inexpensive and simple solutions such as wearing a helmet while riding motorcycles or bicycles and wearing a seatbelt while driving. Nationally-known figures such as Roethlisberger and John Kerry should be acting as role models in emphasizing these safe habits, but instead Roethlisberger will serve as another cautionary tale of this dangerous activity.