Helmetless Rider Dies Protesting Motorcycle Helmet Law

A rider in a protest against motorcycle helmet laws crashed his motorcycle and died from head injuries he would have survived had he been wearing a helmet.

A rider in a protest against motorcycle helmet laws crashed his motorcycle and died from head injuries he would have survived had he been wearing a helmet.

ABC: New York Rider Dies Protesting Motorcycle Helmet Law

A New York man died Sunday while participating in a ride with 550 other motorcyclists to protest the state’s mandatory helmet law.

Police said Philip A. Contos, 55, hit his brakes and his motorcycle fishtailed. Contos was sent over the handlebars of his 1983 Harley Davidson and hit his head on the pavement.

He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

“The medical expert we discussed the case with who pronounced him deceased stated that he would’ve no doubt survived the accident had he been wearing a helmet,” state Trooper Jack Keller told ABC News 9 in Syracuse.

I’m skeptical about both helmet and seatbelt laws, given that the negative externalities are incredibly limited. But I wear my seatbelt when I drive and always have. If I rode a motorcycle–which isn’t an option with two small kids and the insane road conditions in the DC Metro area–I’d sure as hell wear a helmet.

Contos presumably rode thousands of miles without a helmet and made a calculated risk here, preferring the exhilaration of the wind to the added safety. But it’s a hell of a risk.

Many years ago, the late radio comedian Gary Corry, performing under his Red Neckerson persona, concluded a compelling argument for why it’s okay for real men to wear seat belts by observing, “If it’s good enough for Richard Petty, it’s good enough for me.”  Regarding helmets while riding exposed in traffic with much heavier vehicles, you can substitute “Evel Knievel.”

FILED UNDER: Health, Quick Takes
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Boyd says:

    When I first read about this incident, my immediate reaction was to laugh. My next reaction was to feel guilty for laughing, and finally, I decided I had nothing to feel guilty about.

    I think helmet and seat belt laws are wrong, and if I were on the Supreme Court (yes, a sigh of relief from all quarters knowing that I’m not), I would rule that they’re not constitutional if that question came before the court.

    That being said, I think you’ve got to be an idiot to ride a bike (either human- or motor-propelled) without wearing a helmet or drive a car without wearing your seat belt.

  2. Jay Tea says:

    New Hampshire has no helmet or seatbelt laws for adults. Our policy is if you wanna be an idiot, we’re not going to protect you from yourself.

    Like James, I’m a seat belt militant. I’m not an idiot. (Well, I’m not that kind of an idiot.) I’ve buckled up to back out of a garage. If you ride with me, you buckle up. No debate. Click it or GTFO of my car.

    But I don’t need the government to protect me from myself and my bad decisions.

    J.

  3. Jeremy Kolassa says:

    Pretty much agree with the people above. Its good to hear such sentiments in this day and age.

  4. Gustopher says:

    I hope someone has the foresight to try to get these guys to sign their organ donor cards.

    As far as the laws go, I find myself not caring a bit. States have the right to place limits on driving/cycling, there are modest externalities that make it the state’s business, I suspect most of those who don’t wear helmets and seat belts are young folk who think they’re invincible and make poor decisions with risk… But sometimes the herd needs culling.

  5. Bernieyeball says:

    The argument I hear is “I don’t want the government telling me to (or not to) yada yada yada.”
    Well the government tells you to drive on the right side of the road, stop at stop signs, and have yer lights on at night.
    I suppose y’all drive on the left side of the road, run every stop sign and drive in the dark.
    What a bunch of righteous rebels you are!
    Oh yeah and don’t forget to stick yer head over that fireworks rocket to look in and see why it didn’t go off. !!!BOOM!!!
    Happy Fourth of July!!!

  6. Nice, but seems you missed an opportunity to really slam libertarians as blithering idiots.

  7. cinesimon says:

    It’s all very well to say that seat-belt and helmet laws are wrong, unconstitutional etc – but if thought through, I find it hard to believe that anyone would see the logic in being against such things. Like most current American-style libertarian ideals, it’s a rather shallow opinion.
    Would you, mister happy libertarian, also be happy with the consequences of such an ideal REALLY be followed through?
    If you haven’t paid your private insurance company for such an incident, you’d be left there to die, or if you’re already dead, your friends or folks, if you had any, would have to come scrape you off the pavement.
    Right now, the reality is that the government does all that. Which is why it’s fully proper that they mandate helmets and seat-belts – not only to save the lives of idiots, but to protect the taxpayers from idiots.
    And if you suffered serious injury(or any injury for that matter) without a helmet or seatbelt, you’d be told by the insurance company to get stuffed.
    Meaning, of course, you’d have to pay your healthcare bills out of your own pocket. Meaning most people would go bankrupt in order to get healed.
    Such is libertarian wonderland.

  8. cinesimon says:

    @Gustopher:
    Not just young folk at all, but those pretending they’re righteous libertarians.
    In fact, most people I’ve seen acting like brainless and childish idiots in the name of libertarian ideals, have been in their forties.
    Who of course would be demanding(or at least needing) the services of an ambulance and hospital if they got injured If they came off their bike, regardless of whether they had bought insurance or not.
    Such is the no-logic of the modern day self-described ‘libertarian’.

  9. anjin-san says:

    I think helmet and seat belt laws are wrong

    I’m sorry, but this just seems remarkably stupid. How about all the freebirds who don’t want to buckle up or put a helmet on having to opt-out of taking any emergency services or health care that is funded by taxpayer dollars?

  10. matt says:

    Well the argument I keep hearing from bikers about why they don’t like helmets basically can be condensed into either pure vanity, the feel, or disliking the decrease in visibility/awareness when wearing a helmet. I can sort of see the point about the decrease in awareness but lets face it without a helmet you can’t hear anything above 25mph anyway and frankly at highway speeds my ears hurt. I know several bikers that wear helmets AND ear plugs for that reason..

    “But I don’t need the government to protect me from myself and my bad decisions.”

    That was my view up until a woman told me some years ago something to the effect of “so who pays for your medical bills when you’re permanently disabled in an accident cause you weren’t wearing a seatbelt.. I’ve been torn on the issue since.

    As for me I put my head into the windshield many many moons ago cause I forgot to put my seatbelt on for a simple 1 mile trip. I never EVER forget now and it’s pure instinctual to belt up when I get in a car.

  11. Jay Tea says:

    @cinesimon: You miss the point. It’s not that “helmets and seat belts are bad,” or “there shouldn’t be laws about them.” I have no problems with the government mandating that cars have belts. What I don’t see is the compelling government interest in making people use them.

    Their use is common sense. It’s the smart and sensible thing to do. Only idiots wouldn’t use them.

    The difference is, I don’t care for the government protecting idiots from the all-too-predictable consequences of their idiocy. And I don’t like the “your health is everyone’s business,” because that same argument, as George Will pointed out, like ObamaCare — why can’t the government order overweight people to sign up for Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers? Their own bad health decisions will, in all likelihood, “cost us all” in the long run, and since we’ve decided that the government has the authority to order people to engage in commerce with a private entity, the precedents are there.

    I respect my fellow citizens. I respect them enough to allow them to make stupid decisions — I won’t get the government to enforce what I think is “smart” on others. I don’t particularly feel the need to exert that kind of control over others.

    And I wonder about those who do feel that compulsion.

    This motorcycle rider made his choice, and paid for it. That was his right. He died stupidly, but that was his choice.

    David Gerrold put it best: “Freedom is the right to be responsible for one’s actions.” For good or ill.

    J.

  12. anjin-san says:

    As for me I put my head into the windshield

    Been there too. Driving is a privilege, not a right. If you don’t want to take reasonable safety precautions while driving, put your walking shoes on.

  13. anjin-san says:

    David Gerrold put it best: “Freedom is the right to be responsible for one’s actions.”

    Good. Go take a second and third job so you can pay for the care of the idiots who suffer unnecessary injuries this way. Might cut into the umpteenth reread of “When HARLIE was one”, but you will be living up to your convictions, not forwarding the bill for them to me.

  14. Jay Tea says:

    @matt: As for me I put my head into the windshield many many moons ago cause I forgot to put my seatbelt on for a simple 1 mile trip. I never EVER forget now and it’s pure instinctual to belt up when I get in a car.

    Someone far wiser than I once said that “experience is what keeps us from making mistakes. Making mistakes is how we gain experience.”

    Protecting people from their own bad decisions deprives them of the chance to learn how to make good ones. It teaches them that they don’t have to take care of themselves, they can count on others to protect them.

    matt, you learned a harsh lesson, and are wiser for it. Further, you’re probably a more effective advocate for seat belts than most others — you can speak from experience. I respect you for that.

    Another quote, this from Michael Jordan:

    “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over in my life. And that’s why I succeed!”

    J.

  15. Jay Tea says:

    @anjin-san: A Matter For Men, actually. Which is essentially an updated “Starship Troopers” in that it describes a political and moral philosophy while still spinning a hell of a tale. I suspect you could stand to read it. The section on “inhumane weapons” alone is worth the cover price.

    J.

  16. Tlaloc says:

    @Jay Tea:

    And I don’t like the “your health is everyone’s business,…”

    It should be noted that “I don’t like it” doesn’t actually invalidate a line of argument. Whether you like it or not your decisions with regards to the operation f motor vehicles do affect others.

  17. sam says:

    @Jay Tea:

    Protecting people from their own bad decisions deprives them of the chance to learn how to make good ones.

    Except that in the instant case, this guy ain’t gonna get a chance to learn how to make the good decision of wearing a helmet, right? Hey, another candidate for the Darwin Award, though.

  18. Hey Norm says:

    Mr. Ironical 2011.
    Hope he was insured so I dont have to pay a share of his expenses.
    Hope he signed his organ donor card.

  19. cinesimon says:

    @Jay Tea:
    Whether we like it or not, whether we’re in a private or government-run health insurance system, we are all in it together. You increase the risk of injury through carelessness(or ‘freedom’ – tee hee hee), my rates go up. If I’m very careful and my employees are trained properly and have the right safety gear, your rates are lower, as well as mine. The larger the pool, the better the rates – but then you begin to label it socialism, and apparently labels are what it’s all about – not practical solutions to get the best healthcare for the most people for the least amount of money. But that’s another, if related, issue.
    The only way to get out of that scenario, is you always pay for your healthcare – from your own funds. That means, don’t get insurance, and never ever seek help from a health service.
    Which means if you ever get seriously ill, you’ll probably loose everything you own, unless you’re a multi-millionaire.

  20. Jay Tea says:

    @cinesimon: Well, then, I’d like a full accounting of your health, with focus on issues that could prove expensive. I’ll then consult with some specialists (OK, Google and Wikipedia) and prescribe you appropriate ways you can minimize my financial risk.

    After that, I think I could use a bit of relaxation. I’ll go find some aid-receiving single mother and inform her that since I’m already paying for her sexual practices, I’d like to gain some personal benefit from my investments — payable immediately.

    I hadn’t really thought about it before, but this socialism has its advantages…

    J.

  21. matt says:

    Someone far wiser than I once said that “experience is what keeps us from making mistakes. Making mistakes is how we gain experience.”

    Indeed that simple phrase has kept me sane through some of my biggest screw ups in life.

    Before I had the accident I was told by friends and sister that I “looked uncool” cause I wore a seatbelt almost all the time (highschool lol). Some of my friends even called me a seat belt nazi in jest. So I’m still pissed at myself for forgetting to buckle up just because I was running late to work. As for the accident it wasn’t my fault. I was traveling at about 45 and a van doing about 15 swerved right in front of me. The driver wasn’t paying attention to me he was too busy looking for a parking space in the parking lot. I was driving a 90s honda accord at the time so while my car was totalled he was able to drive his giant ass van away after some huffing and puffing on the fenders. The semi funny part is my accident occurred a block away from the hospital and an ambulance just happened to be driving past at the time. After a couple hours of digging glass out and bandaging I was on my way to work again. When I got to work in my neckbrace and such they told me to just go home 🙁

  22. matt says:

    I actually walked in a circle for a while after the accident trying to find a phone to let my job know I was going to be late (ended up getting a nurse to do it for me at the hospital but my manager already knew because people were stopping by to tell him they saw me).. At the time I worked as a pizza delivery boy so I have NO idea how I was going to deliver once I got to work anyway. Concussions cause some weird stuff sometimes.. Till this very day I vividly remember seeing everything including the front of my car crunching as I went into the windshield.

  23. cinesimon says:

    @Jay Tea:
    Grow up Jay Tea.
    What a complete and utter child you show yourself to be with such a pathetic comment.
    You continue to ignore reality, kiddo – I’m sure you’ll go far.
    It’s clear that you have no ability nor want to actually have an honest, good faith discussion.
    Mirroring your representatives in government, as soon as it becomes obvious your argument is based on denying reality and fantasy-land wishful thinking, you pull a Rand Paul, and behave like a ten year old.

  24. anjin-san says:

    I’ll go find some aid-receiving single mother and inform her that since I’m already paying for her sexual practices, I’d like to gain some personal benefit from my investments — payable immediately.

    Jeeze, you really are an idiot. I suspect a lifetime of no luck at all with women and the resultant hostility lurks somewhere behind that comment.

  25. Boyd says:

    @cinesimon: So rather than actually present an argument, you hurl insult and invective. Do you not have any faith in your arguments to support your position, or is there some other reason why you take the coward’s approach to argument?

  26. Boyd says:

    @anjin-san: Respond to his point rather than insult him.

  27. anjin-san says:

    @anjin-san: Respond to his point rather than insult him

    What point is that? Jay does not debate, he jerks off in print and pats himself on the back for being a clever boy. If he were 20, it would be understandable, if sad. Frankly, considering he is a full grown, alleged man, he deserves contempt.

  28. Boyd says:

    @anjin-san: Yes, actually responding to JT’s points would be beneath you. Better to take the high road and just hurl insults.

    I was obviously absent the day when that was covered in Debate class.

  29. anjin-san says:

    Yes, actually responding to JT’s points would be beneath you.

    Yup. He’s an idiot, and, as far as I can tell, someone utterly lacking in character. If you want to take up his cause, have at it.

  30. cinesimon says:

    @Boyd: Guess what!
    All you need to do is look just a WEE bit higher, and you’ll see that I did, in fact make plenty of substantial, reality based arguments.
    JT responded like a little kid, and I called him on it.
    Rather lazy to not bother reading the actual thread before trying to call me out, don’t you think?

    I obviously missed the day in debate class where they said not bothering to read the opponent’s argument was perfectly legitimate.

  31. Jay Tea says:

    @cinesimon: OK, let’s take a look at your points:

    –You have a legal right to regulate my behavior — positively and negatively — to minimize potential fiscal liability to you, a right you are exercising through the government. (“Positively and negatively” meaning, “force me to do certain things and prevent me from doing others.”)

    –I have a legal obligation to regulate my behavior — positively and negatively — in order to minimize potential fiscal liability I might incur upon you.

    Because of the possibility that my actions and choices might fiscally affect you at some point in the future, you are choosing to exercise control over me.

    I reject that. I reject that categorically as an infringement on my individual rights and freedoms.

    And I chose to reject that through mockery, by applying the same principle in ways that you, I hope, would find offensive — in hopes that it would bypass your intellect and engage you emotionally, causing you to call into question the nature of your argument. The reductio ad absurdum approach has been diluted through overuse and misuse and abuse, but still can be effective — so I occasionally try it.

    In this case, I took your argument and personalized it. I also simplified it — you are saying that the government has the right to regulate our behavior, positively and negatively, in ways that you see fit. I removed the government from the equation, as it’s merely acting as your agent in imposing your beliefs, and made it simply you and me. By your principles, under the “potential cost to me” rule, I can exercise that control over you.

    As far as the single mother example, on reconsideration, that one might have been a bit too far. How about demanding that welfare recipients use birth control, as a condition of receiving assistance? They are already demonstrating that they can not financially support themselves; they have an obligation to not increase the burden they are already imposing on the rest of us.

    So there, cine — a rather long-winded elaboration on my above points, rephrased to avoid offending your sensibilities and removing the “I don’t like the way he said it, so I’m going to ignore the substance” and “I didn’t understand what he meant, I thought he was just being mean” objections. That help you any?

    J.

  32. James Joyner says:

    @Bernieyeball: I don’t understand what setting reasonable rules for coordination–which side of the road to drive on, right-of-ways, traffic signals, and other means that enable us to smoothly drive together has to do with restrictions on individual behavior that doesn’t impact others. Someone riding on the wrong side of the road can get others killed–and probably will; someone not wearing a helmet can get himself killed–but probably won’t.

  33. flamingRedDingo says:

    @Jay Tea: Quoting George Will doesn’t bother you at all? The most consistently wrong pundit gasbag in our media (outside of maybe Bill Kristol?

    That didn’t even give you a little pause? Wow. And yet you wear a seat belt. Go figure.

  34. Jay Tea says:

    @flamingRedDingo: I’ll cheerfully quote anyone who says something that I agree with in a particularly pithy way. I’ve got a Stalin quote I use quite often. I literally can’t count how many people of all across the political spectrum cite Goebbel’s “Big Lie” principle.

    Will states that, using the legal rationale for ObamaCare, requiring obese people to sign up for Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig or some other weight loss program is indisputable. Can the government, in the name of “interstate commerce,” compel people to engage in commerce with a private commercial entity? Yes. Can it be rationalized as for the person’s own good, diminishing the potential cost to society as a whole over the person’s health care costs? Yes.

    On the other hand, George Will opposes men wearing shorts, I believe, and I’m wearing shorts right now. So he’s wrong on that item.

    …I’m sorry, what was your point again? Oh, that’s right, you didn’t have one.

    J.

  35. Gene says:

    Why stop at seatbelt & helmet laws…Make everyone walk or ride a bicycle ( with helmet ).
    Long distance can be bus, train or airplane ( while wearing seatbelts & helmets )…
    We are losing our freedoms so fast it hard to keep up with the new laws..

  36. Anderson says:

    so who pays for your medical bills when you’re permanently disabled in an accident cause you weren’t wearing a seatbelt

    This. Thank heavens this guy was killed, and won’t be a vegetable on a ventilator for 20 or 30 years on the public dime.

    And as Sam points out, this guy hasn’t learned anything, except possibly in the afterlife.

  37. Jay Tea says:

    @Anderson: My mother used to say that everyone has a purpose in life, if only to serve as a bad example.

    Yeah, he didn’t learn. But he taught.

    On the other hand, matt, above, learned. And teaches others.

    J.

  38. mantis says:

    We are losing our freedoms so fast it hard to keep up with the new laws..

    Really? Which freedoms have you lost lately?

  39. DMan says:

    Because of the possibility that my actions and choices might fiscally affect you at some point in the future, you are choosing to exercise control over me.

    Sounds okay to me. I don’t see any reason to reflexively oppose a law for this reason. Case by case, some laws that regulate behavior may have unintended side effects, and in those cases such laws should be reconsidered. In principle, I don’t see the problem with a helmet law that imposes a fine upon it’s violation. Human behavior has shown that the risk of a fine is often taken more serious than the risk of death (most people’s risk calculations are overly dependent on likelihood of an event as opposed to the seriousness of its outcome).

    So we have helmet laws as a possible source of revenue in society (which could help offset costs associated with helmet-less accidents). If the risk of a fine is still worth it to some, perhaps their violations can help contribute to the societal costs they are a part of. This is essentially the same concept of having higher taxes on cigarettes. Instead of taxation of a risky behavior to encourage better behavior, society is imposing fines on a behavior that cannot be taxed to achieve the same outcomes (better behavior and increased revenue).

    Unless there are significant unintended side effects of these laws that outweigh their benefits, I see no reason to reflexively oppose these laws. The only argument I’ve seen that has been vaguely alluded to is how this is a step towards government takeover of our lives and the death of individualism. To me, that’s just a slippery slope fallacy with no basis in reality.

  40. anjin-san says:

    We are losing our freedoms so fast it hard to keep up with the new laws..

    Don’t worry, you have the right to remain stupid/

  41. anjin-san says:

    the death of individualism.

    We are in more danger of that from strip malls than from seat belt laws…

  42. abhisaha says:

    To everyone complaining about externalities and freebirds and costs to the taxpayer:

    http://musefree.wordpress.com/2011/07/10/helmets-freedom-and-externalities/