Last year, shortly after Missouri law began allowing licensed motorcyclists 26 or older to ride without helmets if they have proof of health insurance, St. Louis resident Justin Adams noticed another man on a Harley riding through the city without any head protection.
“Wow, that’s bold,” Adams, who also rides a Harley, remembers thinking at that moment. But now, he sees it all the time — and it worries him.
Adams admits to enjoying the feeling of the wind through his hair on an occasional helmetless ride on quiet stretches of Illinois, where helmets have long been optional for all riders. But seeing bare heads on motorcyclists in busy parts of St. Louis, as Missouri law now permits, feels extremely risky.
Across Missouri, new statistics support such caution: Year-to-date, motorcyclist fatalities statewide have increased by 40% in 2021, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation. And compared to this time last year, helmetless deaths are up a whopping 800%.
Adams senses that much like pandemic-era masks, motorcycle helmets have become politicized — along with policy debates surrounding them.
“I think a lot of people look at it as a right or freedom,” he said on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air of the ability to ride without a helmet. He added, “To me that’s not objective, not necessarily the best way to go about it.”
Just as many Missourians saw masks as infringement on their freedom, Adam noted, some motorcyclists are likely unwilling to listen to “experts” whom they see as taking away their autonomy.
“If you’re not a motorcycle rider, you’re not going to have a whole lot of say or pull. And we have a situation where a lot of people like to chime in on things that they have no knowledge of whatsoever,” he said.
Instead, he suggested “more objective research.”
“You know, maybe you go to the DMV and they give you some sobering stats when you get that motorcycle license,” he said. “We need to be educating people, letting people make an objective decision, and not make it political — both sides of the spectrum.”
The Missouri Department of Transportation fought the helmet law repeal, as Nicole Hood, state highway and safety traffic engineer, explained on last week’s St. Louis on the Air.
“We estimated that Missourians could expect to see both motorcycle fatalities and serious injuries rise,” she said. “We were estimating an additional 40-45 people could lose their lives as a result of this legislation, and it looks like we might be on pace for that, which I hate to say.”
Still, Adams believes stricter laws were no panacea. Before Missouri changed its helmet law, he said, “many guys would wear a helmet that wasn’t DOT certified — it was essentially like a plastic helmet.”
“That was their way of kind of thumbing their nose at the law. … Again, it’s, ‘You’re telling me what I have to wear on my body, and you’re telling me I have to be safe for myself?’ And I think there’s a legitimate argument that government should stay out of what you wear on your head if you’re not affecting anyone else.
“I think a lot of people feel that way. [But] those same people should probably take into consideration the stats, which I think favor wearing a helmet, especially in certain atmospheres and circumstances.”
Several callers joined the conversation, including an Illinois resident, Dave, who is a former motorsport competitor.
“I wouldn’t be caught dead on the road — I wouldn’t even go out of my driveway — without a helmet,” Dave said. “But from a safety standpoint, I think there’s something far more important. I like to ask young riders, or even experienced riders: What superpower do you have when you’re on a motorcycle?
“And the correct answer’s not ‘I can fly’ or ‘freedom’; the correct answer is [that] you’re invisible. And if you don’t believe that, you’re going to be a statistic helmet or no helmet.”
Listeners weighed in on Twitter as well.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.