The day after Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger crashed his motorcycle, while he was still recovering from surgery to repair his fractured face, The Cincinnati Post scolded the Ohio native for not wearing a helmet. "Riders should wear helmets," the paper proclaimed, "and if they're not going to, perhaps the government should step in and make them."
The Post pined for the days when "all states required helmets," bemoaning the fact that 30 states now let adult motorcyclists decide for themselves what, if anything, to wear on their heads. The laws were changed, the editorial explained, because of "pressure from those who advocate 'freedom.'"
Notice the scare quotes. According to The Cincinnati Post, the freedom to take a risk is not really freedom at all; you are truly free only when you make the right choices -- those that minimize the chance of injury. It's a depressingly common attitude nowadays, when health promotion is routinely accepted as a justification for meddling in what used to be considered our private lives.
By the standards of "public health," which seeks above all else to minimize morbidity and mortality, Roethlisberger should not have been riding a motorcycle at all. Given the nature of his injuries, it's doubtful a helmet would have prevented them, unless it was a full-face model. But it's certain Roethlisberger would not have been in a motorcycle crash if he had never ridden a motorcycle.
If injury prevention were Roethlisberger's overriding goal, of course, he probably would not have chosen a career in professional football. "I wish all our players liked board games or low-risk hobbies," Cleveland Browns General Manager Phil Savage said after Roethlisberger's accident.
"Unfortunately, one of the things that makes these professional athletes is they have an edge that makes them want to seek more."
The same could be said of motorcyclists generally, especially the ones who have fiercely resisted laws forcing helmets on their heads. "If you've never ridden a motorcycle," says Jeff Hennie of the Motorcycle Riders Foundation, "there's no way to describe the feeling of freedom. It's got to be the next best thing to being able to fly. When you start putting restrictions on that freedom, people take it personally."