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Keep the Helmet Law 

Each year, the Web site honors the dumbest individual acts of mankind that result in what the judges call "culling the herd" or "the improvement of the human genome by honoring those who accidentally remove themselves from it." In order to qualify for a Darwin Award, the site states, a person must remove himself from the gene pool via an "astounding misapplication of judgment." That turn of phrase aptly sums up our assessment of some Louisiana politicians' continuing crusade to allow motorcycle riders to ride without safety helmets — a choice that, in and of itself, ought to qualify one for a Darwin Award. In the end, though, we're not sure who shows the more egregious misapplication of judgment — politicians who support a no-helmet law (including, of all people, our Rhodes Scholar governor, Bobby Jindal) or the riders who want to feel the wind in their hair shortly before they feel the concrete on their faces. It's a toss-up.

For years, Louisiana showed the uncharacteristic good sense to follow the lead of states that require all motorcycle riders to wear helmets. In the two-wheeled world, this is known as a "universal coverage" law. Then, in 1999, Gov. Mike Foster, a motorcycle enthusiast himself, muscled lawmakers into repealing the helmet law. This was done over the loud objections of Foster's appointed head of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission, Col. James Champagne, who showed not only uncommonly sound judgment but also uncommon valor by standing up to his boss on an issue that Foster clearly took personally. The repeal also came in the face of irrefutable data proving that wearing motorcycle safety helmets saves lives — and not wearing them costs lives.

Fortunately, Gov. Kathleen Blanco pushed for reinstatement of Louisiana's universal coverage law after her election, and lawmakers obliged in 2004. Now, in a move that can only be described as "one for the Gipper," Jindal has taken up his old mentor Foster's cudgel in support of a bill by state Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, that would allow motorcyclists 21 and older to forgo protecting their lives and brains. Pardon the pun, but this one is a no-brainer.

On one level, we question not only the judgment but also the sanity of anyone who would want to ride a motorcycle on Louisiana's highways sans helmet. On reflection, we think they deserve protection from themselves. Consider these statistics from the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA):

An unhelmeted motorcyclist is 40 percent more likely to suffer a fatal head injury and 15 percent more likely to suffer a nonfatal injury than a helmeted motorcyclist when involved in a crash.

Helmets reduce the likelihood of a motorcycle crash-related fatality by 37 percent.

Unhelmeted bikers who survive crashes are three times more likely to suffer brain injuries than those wearing helmets.

Motorcycle helmets are 67 percent effective in preventing brain injuries.

From 1984 through 2002, NHTSA estimates that helmets saved the lives of 13,774 motorcyclists. If all motorcyclists and their passengers had worn helmets during the same period, NHTSA estimates that 9,508 additional lives would have been saved.

NHTSA conducted a study in 2003 evaluating the 1999 repeal of the helmet law in Louisiana. Researchers found that crash-related injuries increased by 48 percent after the repeal, from an average of 741 injuries in 1997 and 1998 to 1,101 in 2000. Additionally, the number of fatalities attributable to motorcycle accidents more than doubled, from an average of 26 per year to 55 per year, and the fatality rate likewise shot up from 4.5 deaths per 10,000 registered motorcycles in Louisiana to 7.9 in 2000.

For those who prefer to look at the issue through a fiscal prism, the evidence supporting a universal helmet law is staggering. According to NHTSA, helmet use nationwide saved $19.5 billion in health-care costs from 1984 through 2002, even though some states didn't require helmets; if all states had required helmets of all riders, an additional $14.8 billion would have been saved during the same period.

Gov. Jindal should be keenly aware of these statistics and their significance; under Gov. Foster, Jindal led the state's Department of Health and Hospitals. Despite his fiscal conservatism, and seemingly in defiance of his Ivy League and Oxford education, the new governor made a campaign promise to repeal Louisiana's helmet law. To that end, Jindal showed even more hubris than Foster — he recently fired Champagne, who remains a staunch advocate of a universal helmet law.

We are equally disappointed in LaFleur, who generally ranks among Louisiana's more levelheaded legislators. On this issue, however, both Jindal and LaFleur (and all who vote to repeal the safety helmet requirement) are just plain wrongheaded. Motorcycle helmets save lives and money. We urge lawmakers to keep Louisiana's motorcycle helmet requirement intact — and let some other state win the Darwin Award this year.


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