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Rider alert: New evidence that helmets prevent brain injuries

Motorcyclists love the feeling of the wind in their hair. Being out in the fresh air, exposed to the wind and elements is the whole point of motorcycling for many, and it seems to them absurd to wear a helmet. For that and other reasons, many motorcyclists have resisted laws requiring all motorcyclists, including passengers, to wear helmets.

We won't go over all of the arguments for and against mandatory helmet use. If you were paying attention to the debate over House Bill 337 earlier this year, you know them. Under current Louisiana law, all motorcyclists and their passengers must wear helmets, regardless of age. House Bill 337 would have allowed those 21 and over to forego helmets.

"Basically, all they are asking for is freedom of choice," said the bill's sponsor.

This debate has been taking place across the country, with several states having adopted mandatory, universal motorcycle helmet laws only to revise or repeal them later. For example, in 2012 Michigan partially repealed its universal helmet law, which had been adopted 2004. Unfortunately, the result of that change was a huge rise in head injuries, according to researchers at the University of Michigan Injury Center.

Much like House Bill 337 would have done, Michigan's 2012 change in the law allowed bikers 21 and older to forego helmets if they hold a motorcycle endorsement on their licenses or take a motorcycle safety course. They must also have at least $20,000 in insurance for first-party medical needs.

The change in the law sent excited motorcyclists out onto the road in droves, according to the researchers. The study is somewhat limited because no prior studies specifically looked at the effect, statewide, of the previous helmet laws on head injuries. Despite that, the researchers feel confident in connecting the lower number of bikers wearing helmets directly to a 14-percent increase in head injuries.

Meanwhile, emergency rooms reported seeing an increase in the number of head and brain injuries from motorcycle crashes -- but also in the severity of the injuries. The proportion of motorcycle accident victims with mild concussions fell by 17 percent, while the proportion experiencing skull fractures increased by 38 percent.

Wearing a motorcycle helmet remains mandatory in Louisiana, but of course there's no guarantee everybody is following that law. If you are exercising your freedom of choice by going helmetless, please make sure you understand the stakes.

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