Steve Chapman

If you have a strong disregard for your own health and safety, you are free to express it in all sorts of ways. You can smoke cigarettes. You can gorge on fast food five times a day. You can go live among bears in Alaska.

You can stagger through the worst part of town at 2 a.m. You can become a trapeze artist. You can join the Marine Corps. But if federal regulators get their way, you will not be able to ride a motorcycle without a helmet.

That's already the law for all riders in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Other states require head protection only for minors or passengers. And in three states -- Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire -- all riders are free to feel the sun on their scalps and the wind in their hair.

This small zone of personal autonomy causes great annoyance at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), a federal agency. Last week, it urged that "everyone aboard a motorcycle be required to wear a helmet." Polls indicate most Americans agree.

The reasons are obvious enough. From 1997 to 2008, the number of motorcycle fatalities more than doubled, while total traffic deaths were falling. Two out of every three bikers killed were not wearing a helmet. Said NTSB Vice Chairman Christopher Hart, "It's a public health issue."

Oh, no, it's not. A public health issue arises when masses of people are exposed to illness or injury by dangers beyond their control -- contaminated water, sooty air, natural disaster, marauding bands of hyenas -- or when I get a serious disease that I may pass on to you against your will.

In these cases, government action is necessary. It's perfectly legitimate for governments to regulate pollution, build levees and require people to get vaccinations.

But riding a motorcycle without a cranial cushion poses no danger to anyone except the rider. Skull fractures are not contagious. The public is not at risk if I decide to mount a Harley with nothing but a pinwheel hat on my head.

The mandatory helmet crowd, however, insists there is a threat to the public: the threat of being forced to cover the medical costs of bikers who are injured or disabled. Notes the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, "Only slightly more than half of motorcycle crash victims have private health insurance coverage. For patients without private insurance, a majority of medical costs are paid by the government."

Under the new health care law, of course, everyone will have to obtain coverage. But even then, the premiums of healthy people will have to cover the costs of motorcyclists' injuries.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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